Ken Pole's picture
Fighter Procurement Office
Posted on Dec 02, 2015

The new Liberal administration is moving quickly on its campaign promise to have an open competition between companies hoping to supply the Royal Canadian Air Force’s next generation of fighter aircraft to replace its aging fleet of Boeing CF-188 Hornets, which began entering service in 1982.

Canada joined the United States and other allies in 1997 in underwriting development of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, and the program had received lots of good press coverage. However, in 2010, the Conservative government surprised observers with the announcement it would sole-source a buy of 65 Joint Strike Fighters, igniting a firestorm of controversy that the Liberals are intent on ending.

Uncertainty about F-35 costs, coupled with developmental problems in various U.S. programs, prompted the Conservatives to sideline debate by establishing a National Fighter Procurement Secretariat (NFPS) within Public Works and Government Services Canada in 2012.

Many former fighter pilots and other insiders say the true requirement would be for many more than 65 aircraft to fully sustain future operational levels, and that buying a cheaper platform would allow for a higher number of platforms, but then again, following the logic established by the Parliamentary Budget Officer for the F35, would each contender have to figure in added costs of more pilots, more maintainers, more spares, and so on?

The NFPS was shut down and has now been replaced by a new Fighter Procurement Office (FPO) operating within the rebranded Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC).

Asked to explain the FPO’s mission, the RCAF deferred to PSPC, which says that the new FPO will continue to “work closely with National Defence” on the “future fighter capability project.”

However, the FPO was so new at the end of November that PSPC was still in the process of staffing it, beginning with three PSPC personnel who had been “identified . . . to provide dedicated support.”

PSPC told FrontLine by email that it was too early to provide details about potential timelines, pointing only to the 2015 Defence Acquisition Guide,  which implies that the FPO will have to go on afterburner if it’s to meet the deadlines set out in the Guide.

Those call for contract definition approval by the end of 2017, a Request for Proposal in the 2017-2019 time frame and then delivery beginning in 2026.

A competition does not preclude the F-35 as a possible Hornet replacement, but it does open the single-engine stealth platform to direct comparison with other aircraft. Those include the Boeing F/18 Super Hornet as well as two other twin-engine aircraft, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Rafale, and potentially the single-engine Saab JAS39 Gripen.

The Boeing product has been a key US Navy asset for years but there was no provision in the initial 2015 Department of Defense budget to fund more Super Hornets, notably the EA-18G Growler electronic warfare variant. Rather, the USN would continue to focus on the F-35C for carrier operations.

However, at the recent Aerospace Industries Association of Canada annual summit in Ottawa, a comment by Jeff Johnson, Vice President, Global Sales and Marketing at Boeing Military Aircraft, that the RCAF had become a “global authority” on Hornets prompted a question from the floor about how Boeing could supply Super Hornets if production was being wound down.

Johnson pointed out that Congress had authorized an expanded USN fighter capability through until at least 2018 to address what he called a capability shortfall. Accordingly, he was confident that production would be extended “well past 2020”, implying that at least Boeing was ready to compete for the RCAF’s new fighters.

– Ken Pole