Super Hornet: A better fit for Canada’s operating environment?
A report released earlier this week by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives once again raises concerns about the reliability of a single engine in Canada’s replacement for the CF-18 fighter aircraft.
In “One Dead Pilot: Single-Engine F-35 a Bad Choice for Canada’s Arctic,” Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, revisits the original decision to acquire the twin-engine F-18 Hornet and the recent safety record of single- and twin-engine jets, as well as factors such as limited search and rescue capacity in the Arctic that he suggests should raise flags about selecting the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
All three of the F-35’s possible competitors – the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Dassault Aviation Rafale and the Boeing Super Hornet – are twin-engine jets.
Almost as important as two engines might be two seats, says Howard Berry, Boeing’s vice president of F/A 18 E/F International Sales.
In an interview at CANSEC, Berry said that despite the remarkable advancements in data fusion, in the thick of a fight two pilots in the cockpit can be a significant advantage.
“As I look around the globe at my customer base for both F-18s and even F-15s, everybody says they want a two-seater because they recognize that in the heat of battle, no matter how great these systems area – and they are incredibly impressive – [allowing] one guy to focus on flying while the guy in the back assists with the prosecution of the target, the detection of the threat, [is a huge advantage],” especially now that both share the situational awareness and target information of helmet-mounted displays.
“If you look at what I would call frontline air forces…, look at what they are flying. There is a preponderance of two-seat aircraft. Not that they always fly with two pilots, but they know when the heat is on they are most effective with two aircrew.”
Berry believes Boeing’s Super Hornet has several other discriminators that make it better suited than the F-35A for Canada’s operating environment.
For starters, he says the Super Hornet’s rugged airframe and heavy landing gear, designed for the difficult conditions of an aircraft carrier, would be “better suited for operations in Canada’s unique operating environments, (especially) in the North on austere airfields, icy conditions….Don’t think that wasn’t a factor for countries like Switzerland, Finland, or even Canada when you initially bought the F-18. You have an aircraft that can take a lot of punishment.”
As the government prepares to reveal some of the findings of an expert review panel on F-18 replacement options, Berry said the Super Hornet should measure up well in the capability and affordability aspects of what he called the source selection calculus. “If you’ve seen the selected acquisition report data for operations support costs, our JSF competitor is 2.5 times what we are. When you look across 30, 40, 50 years of operating this airplane, it is going to be about affordability…I think we are untouchable.”
On the question of long-term growth, he was equally optimistic about the Super Hornet’s chances. “We’re built for that growth: mechanically, physically – you talk about volume, payload, power, cooling, computer memory, computer throughput, all those are huge factors you want to be able to grow.”
Berry pointed to the U.S. Navy’s intention to operate the Super Hornet through the 2040s timeframe, despite its intent to acquire 480 F-35C variants. “I’d argue that is a very conservative estimate (of the timeframe),” he said, noting that platforms like the venerable B-52 and F-15 and F-16 continue to serve vital roles and the USN has a considerable investment in over 700 Super Hornets and Growlers.
Boeing has also invested heavily in what it calls the Advanced Super Hornet. The primary upgrades include conformal fuel tanks on the upper fuselage and belly-mounted external weapons pods, but the advanced concept also calls for improved engines, avionics and weapons systems, upgraded radar and improved infrared search-and-track abilities.
“I have little doubt all those capabilities will be fielded many years in advanced (of a possible Canadian delivery),” Berry said. “These are all at a high technical readiness level. And there are more advancements to come.”