It appears that the Liberals are taking to heart the lessons they learned from watching the Tories stumble on fighter procurement. As I wrote in an article for RCMI, one of the reasons that procurement was smoother for fighters back in the 1960s was the clear messaging that surrounded the purchase. Granted, it is much, much easier to have a clear message when there is a clear enemy, but the previous Conservative government didn’t even try to sell the F-35 to the public (which I believe, despite its problems, is the only fighter Canada can buy if it wants a credible 21st century air force).
In the last few days, it has come to light that Cabinet is discussing, and will likely go ahead with, buying Boeing Super Hornets as a stop-gap measure until a full, open, and transparent competition for the RCAF’s current fleet can be held. Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan has called the situation dire, and is likely right, considering the action our CF-18s have seen in the last five years, including a major ramping-up of Russian bomber intercepts over the Arctic and deployments in the Baltics, Libya and Iraq. This is exactly the type of messaging that will allow the Liberals to quickly sole-source a fighter in an almost identical manner to what the Conservatives tried and failed to accomplish half a decade prior. And while there are complaints that using the Super Hornet as a stop-gap is ill-advised and perhaps costlier than just sole-sourcing F-35s, it is, in my opinion, a good thing.
A dual-fleet air force has a few specific advantages for Canadian strategic choice. First, it allows for less strain on what could be called the primary fleet – hopefully a fifth-generation fighter, likely an F-35. The Super Hornets are still incredibly formidable aircraft and superb dogfighters, so sending them to welcome Russian bombers over the Arctic still demonstrates that Canada is defending her sovereignty but at less of a cost to our expeditionary capability. While there is more to stealth than just first-day-of-war importance (it is just as important during a dogfight as in penetrating enemy air defences), it is expensive to maintain because of the coating. Therefore, using the Super Hornets in the continental defence/interceptor role takes a great deal of strain off of the primary, major-war aircraft.
Secondly, the Super Hornets make excellent bomb trucks, in that they can carry piles of ordnance, much more than an F-35 or even many of its fourth-generation competitors. While undertaking missions such as that in Libya, the ability to loiter with a high amount of weaponry and not needing advanced stealth or EW capabilities, as enemy air defences are already long gone, is an incredible asset that is more cost effective as well. When dropping a lot of ordnance is all that needs to be done, there would be no reason to deploy an F-35 and, again, put added strain on your premier, major-war fighter.
Finally, having a dual-fleet allows for stronger deterrence messaging. When you have a dual-fleet where one is incredibly more capable than the other, and that same aircraft is ideally suited for offensive missions, its deployment automatically sends a stronger message. For example, Russian aggressiveness in the Balkans is seen as strong-armed, but not necessarily a presage for any actual action. The Super Hornet can be sent to assure NATO allies, but also signal to the Russians that there is no offensive intent in the action. In contrast, when a flight of F-35s is sent in response to aggressive actions being taken as seriously as an actual possibility, there is a greater deterrent factor at play. This can be seen in the US Air Force’s expeditionary QRF of F-22s, which has shown that the quick deployment of only four advanced fighters is regarded as a credible deterrent.
Currently, the Liberal Government sees an RCAF equipped with two types of fighters as a stop-gap necessity to save the organization from facing a serious shortage in its premier capability. But, by moving forward, they could possibly give themselves and future governments far more strategic choice than is currently afforded.
Mathew Preston is a strategic consultant for the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He recently finished his Masters at the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. He tweets @prestonm2