Super size me: Is the bigger Super Hornet the solution to CF-18 replacement?
When the federal government hit the reset button on its quest for a replacement for Canada’s CF-188 Hornet, it stressed that all options were on the table. That message was emphasized again in June when the National Fighter Procurement Secretariat (NFPS) provided an update on the progress of its seven point plan.
To date, interested companies have been asked to provide information on three questionnaires around capabilities, price and, most recently, potential economic benefits to Canada. The risks and benefits of each aircraft will now be assessed against the government’s six missions outlined in the Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS) and a mission risk assessment will be delivered to the government later this year.
Based on that assessment, the government will then decide whether to hold an open competition.
While most would contend the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter remains the leading contender, the re-evaluation of options has opened the door. Boeing, for one, believes the best replacement for an F-18 should be another F-18, albeit super-sized. But while Lockheed Martin has conducted a highly visible campaign to promote the benefits of the F-35, Boeing has deliberately maintained a low profile on the Super Hornet while it waits for the outcome of NFPS process.
Mike Gibbons, Boeing’s vice-president of F/A-18 and EA-18 programs, said the low key approach is intended not to stir up public debate “any more than Canada would care for us to do. I think [the] process is being done so well that if we do a good job [with the secretariat], it will lead to a competition.”
Like many, Boeing had its concerns when a secretariat with its independent review panel and outside monitors was first announced. But Gibbons says the approach has been professional. “Based on the questionnaires and the questions that were asked in response to our answers, and the engagement we have had, it is clear they are sincere about getting good information so that they can do a very thorough evaluation. We believe that will clearly show that there are good options for Canada to consider.”
While the secretariat has not tipped its hand about specific air force requirements, it has ask “smart questions” about capabilities, systems, production schedules, long-term sustainment and growth potential. “The questions on the capability side are such that they ensure the jet will be relevant for the long-term beyond 2030, and those are good questions,” Gibbons said, that could play to the Super Hornet’s strength.
Although the government has invested millions in the development of the F-35 – Canadian companies have secured US$488 million in contracts to date – Gibbons doesn’t believe that has permanently tilted the playing field. “The investment is real. So now the value we have to show has to be from this point forward.”
In fact, Boeing’s industrial and regional benefits approach might give it a decided edge. “We have a broad portfolio of military [and] commercial products,” Gibbons said. “We’ve got a lot of support that needs to be performed. One of our value propositions is that variety of product lines that Canadian industry can engage in.” As with the current F-18 fleet, that would include indigenous in-service support. Of note, three Canadian companies, Messier-Dowty, General Electric and DRS Technologies, are already providing components for the Super Hornet.
Given the successful history of the legacy CF-188s, Gibbons says the Super Hornet fits the Canadian requirements as laid out in the CFDS, able to perform Day One missions in support of coalition operations – “you can be guaranteed of that” – while also meeting national defence needs at home, especially in the Arctic. Built for a navy environment that requires rugged landing gear, short field take off and landing, and robust protection against corrosive environments, the new Hornet features expanded range, organic tanking, and the customary two engines, ideal for survivability in remote regions. In addition, the two seat option serves as “a force multiplier in whatever mission is being performed,” he said “It’s not designed to do a niche mission. It’s a very flexible aircraft that fits Canada well.”
Gibbons also disputes the notion that the F/A-18 E/F lacks the stealth qualities touted by the F-35. “We’re very proud of the fact that we have designed in stealth on the Super Hornet to be effective against those next generation threats. And we never sit still; we keep improving upon that. We’re flying an aircraft at the end of this summer what we call the Advanced Super Hornet that has conformal fuel tanks and closed weapons pods and other improvements.”
On the F-35’s revolutionary ability to fuse and present sensor data, Gibbons contends that the F-18’s multi-source integration of sensor and pre-mission briefing data is equally robust. But Boeing is also working on a multi-ship, multi-spectral data fusion exercise for next year in which the Super Hornet, “acting in concert with other flying assets, will create that common operating picture (COP). This will be done in parallel with our development on the advanced crew station, where we have a large touch screen display, the largest piece of glass in any jet fighter, on which we would be able to display this information and create the COP across a fleet of aircraft.”
Gibbons points out that in addition to being interoperable with Canada’s current fleet of Airbus tankers, the Super Hornet also offers “the lowest cost per flight hour of any tactical jet in the U.S. fixed-wing inventory,” meaning it would not only be less to acquire but also less to operate.
Looking further out, he says that while Boeing is currently delivering its Block 2 aircraft, which incorporates, among other features, AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar and joint helmet mounted cueing system, it is also investing in its Advanced Super Hornet concept with Northrop Grumman, General Electric and Raytheon to develop “retrofitable” capabilities such as extended range, enhanced stealth, improved engine and enclosed weapons pods, all of which can be retrofitted to the Block 2 at a later date.
As for the long-term growth potential that the NFPS has requested, Gibbons says that the U.S. Navy will likely be flying the Super Hornet “to the 2050 timeframe, that’s pretty clear,” and will be investing in system upgrades. He notes, though, that the Super Hornet is still a relatively new plane and, as with the legacy fleet, Boeing’s plan is to “have a consortium of countries … that band together with the U.S. and we can pool resources, investments, and ideas on how to keep jets not only flying but upgraded and fully capable. That model is working incredibly well on the legacy Hornet.”
With over 500 new F/A-18E/F variants delivered, including to the first international partner, Australia, which acquired 25 Super Hornets and intends to buy 12 Growlers, Boeing is eyeing both legacy customers such as Canada and Malaysia and future competitions, notably Brazil.
“Our global support and services division in Boeing is looking at how we ensure we are able to provide best value support for this consortium of countries similar to what we have now with the legacy Hornets and regional centres of excellence,” Gibbons said. Canadian industry, he added, is in a great position to provide that support not only to a future RCAF fleet but also to other countries as well.