So, I saw this in the Newcastle Herald: “There was a tinge of sadness this week as the chapter closed on one of the Australian Defence Force’s most enduring combat aircraft, the Williamtown-based classic F/A-18 Hornet … [and] … A mainstay of Williamtown RAAF Base’s exemplary No. 77 Squadron, the Hornets are being grounded as of Friday, making way for the joint strike fighter, also known as the F-35A Lightning II.” (Just for reference, RAAF Base Williamtown is located a little bit North of Newcastle, a smallish (population 330,000) seaport city about 150 km North of Sydney.)
Now, those F/A-18 Hornets that the Royal Australian Air Force is retiring are not the ones sold to Canada, but they are sister-ships, built at the same time, in the same plant. They have been flying with the RAAF for 33 years. The first two CF-188 Hornets entered service in Canada in 1982, 38 years ago, delivery was completed in 1988, 32 years ago, so our two countries’ aircraft are about the same age.
So, why did we buy 30 years old aircraft from Australia when so many, many allies had already selected the F-35A Lightning II as their new jet fighter? The story, as I heard it from a source that I trust, was that back in late 2016, after having run on an explicit promise to NOT buy the F-35 because, Justin Trudeau said, it “was far from working,” Liberal political tacticians made a tentative backroom deal with some Boeing military aircraft division executive to buy a few (18) F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in order to fill a totally false “capability gap.” The plan, rumour had it, was to rush the Super Hornets into service and then, after a couple of years of delaying a decision to even start a competition to replace Canada’s A and B models Hornets, announce that the Super Hornet had proven to be exactly what Canada needed and to proceed with a sole-source contract for 80 to 100 new (they’re 20 years old now) Super Hornets. There is still some support for this plan. But it all fell apart in early 2017 when Boeing filed a complaint with the US International Trade Commission alleging that Québec based Bombardier was “dumping” its C-series aircraft in the US market at below cost price. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that Canada would not deal with any company that threatened jobs in Québec. But there was, still, that phoney “capability gap” and so the Liberal brain trust decided to buy some 30 years old used jets from Australia.
So, where is Canada in the jet fighter follies?
Well, the rumour mill, which I must say is a pretty poor imitation of its former (always less that reliable) self in the COVID-19 environment, suggest that:
- The F-35 Lightening II is ahead in most of the performance and technical (including technology transfer) parts of the government’s fighter jet replacement programme;
- Officials are running a fair competition; but
- The government, specifically the PMO, is unhappy because ~
- The officials are doing a good job, and
- Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II appears to be favoured.
I think it’s fair to say that Justin Trudeau campaigned in 2015 against the F-35 Lightning II because the media (and the Parliamentary Budget Officer) had made a lot of ill-informed, frequently uninformed allegations about the cost of the aircraft because almost no one outside of a few engineers in the Department of National Defence knows anything at all about life cycle costs. That very much included Peter MacKay who hitched his falling star to the F-35.
Now, its’ almost possible to feel sorry for Prime Minister Trudeau, isn’t it? He might be caught in a trap of his own making. The Trudeau Liberals have never wanted any new fighter jet; they hate the notion of spending billions and billions on defence. It goes against everything for which they claim to stand. They had hoped to do a sneaky, backroom deal with Boeing but that corporate giant’s left (commercial) hand didn’t know what its right (military) hands was doing and so the deal fell through. The aircraft that Justin Trudeau said didn’t work has been flying combat missions for two years and might be the first choice of the engineers and other experts who are managing his fighter jet replacement competition. My guess is that for many of us, me certainly, schadenfreude, not sorrow, will be the feeling I have at his dilemma. My sorrow is reserved for Canada, which Justin Trudeau has, once again, moved to the back of the line.