Boeing touts fighter jet to rival F-35 — at half the price

In a dogfight of defence contractors, the hunter can quickly become the hunted. It's happening now to the F-35, as Boeing targets the stealth fighter with its own jet, the Super Hornet. Terry Milewski reports.

Super Hornet less stealthy, but has lower sticker price and operational costs

The Super Hornet

10 years ago
Duration 8:03
Terry Milewski gets exclusive access to the Super Hornet, a fighter jet that's said to be just as good as the F-35, but half the price.

In a dogfight of defence contractors, the hunter can quickly become the hunted. It's happening now to the F-35.

The world's largest defence contractor, Lockheed Martin, is trying to convince wavering U.S. allies — including Canada — to stick with its high-tech, high-priced and unproven F-35 stealth fighter. But the F-35 is way behind schedule, way over budget and, now, it's grounded by a mysterious crack in a turbine fan.

After years of technical problems, it's a tempting target for Lockheed Martin's rivals.

It's no surprise, then, that the No. 2 defence contractor, Boeing, smells blood.

With Ottawa now reviewing its previous commitment to buy the F-35, Boeing is making an aggressive pitch to Canadian taxpayers, offering to save them billions of dollars if they buy Boeing's Super Hornets instead.

Boeing isn't pulling its punches. The Super Hornet, it says, is a proven fighter while the F-35 is just a concept — and an expensive one at that.

Ricardo Traven is a former Canadian air force pilot and now chief test pilot for the Super Hornet, Boeing's rival fighter jet to Lockheed Martin's F-35. (Terry Milewski/CBC News)

"We call it competing with a paper airplane," says Ricardo Traven, Boeing's chief test pilot for the Super Hornet. A Canadian who flew fighters for 15 years in the Canadian air force, Traven dismisses the F-35 as a "shiny brochure of promises," and contrasts it with "the real thing," which looms behind him in a top-secret hangar at Boeing's vast production line in St. Louis, Missouri.

All photographs and video are closely monitored by Boeing staff to ensure nothing classified leaks out. Many of the Super Hornet's best selling points, they say, are classified. The same goes for the F-35. The difference, says Traven, is that the Super Hornet is long since proven.

It has two engines to the F-35's one — and, unlike the F-35, it's ready now. Some 500 Super Hornets are already in service with the U.S. Navy. Dozens have already been sold to the Royal Australian Air Force, which, like Canada, was once committed to the F-35 but gave up waiting for it to prove itself.

Boeing and Lockheed Martin both say their plane is superior in various ways. Lockheed Martin's headline feature is stealth. Boeing's is price. But with defence budgets shrinking everywhere, price is increasingly what governments want to hear about.

On that, Boeing thinks it has a compelling case — and not just because its plane is cheaper.

The Super Hornet currently sells for about $55 million US apiece; the Pentagon expects the F-35 to cost twice as much — about $110 million. But only 20 per cent of the cost of owning a fighter fleet is the actual sticker price of the planes. Eighty per cent is the operating cost — what it takes to keep them flying. That means everything from pilots and fuel to maintenance and spares. 

Psst! Wanna save $23B?

And that's where the difference between the F-35 and the Super Hornet rockets into the stratosphere.

"The current actual costs to operate a Super Hornet are less than half the cost that the F-35 is projected to be once it's in operation, just to operate," says Mike Gibbons, vice-president in charge of the Super Hornet program.

Less than half? But how can he know that, since the F-35s are not yet in service?

'Twin engines, dual redundant hydraulics … those are the things I don't want to give up in flying to remote places or even in combat, because those are the things that'll bring you home.'—Super Hornet chief test pilot Ricardo Traven

Gibbons is ready for the question. "No one knows actually how costly that jet will actually be, once it's in operation. We do know how affordable the Super Hornet is currently because we have actual costs." The Super Hornet costs about $16,000 an hour to fly, he says — and the F-35 will be double that.

Really? That sounded too good to be true — so CBC News dug into Boeing's figures to see how credible they are.

According to the GAO, the Super Hornet actually costs the U.S. Navy $15,346 an hour to fly. It sounds like a lot — until you see that the U.S. Air Force's official "target" for operating the F-35 is $31,900 an hour. The GAO says it's a little more — closer to $32,500.

CBC also asked Lockheed Martin to say if it had any quarrel with these numbers — and it did not.

In a written response, a Lockheed spokesman declined to offer any different figures, but insisted the F-35's operating costs would be "comparable to or lower than" the "legacy platforms" — meaning, older jets — that it will replace. Those do not include the Super Hornets, which Boeing says are 25 per cent cheaper to run than Canada's "legacy" CF-18s.

Lockheed also claimed the F-35 would "achieve cost advantages … by leveraging economies of scale" gained by selling one fighter, with one supply chain, to different countries. However, it remains to be seen whether those economies of scale are ever realized.

As it stands, the official estimate for a fleet of 65 F-35s is that they will cost $9 billion to buy and almost $37 billion to operate over the next 42 years. So, a total of just under $46 billion. If Boeing's figures hold up, the Super Hornets would cost about half that.

The math is easy, but the result is eye-popping nonetheless. It's a saving of up to $23 billion. 

Numbers like that have a way of getting attention.

Sure, but what about stealth?

The next question is, though — is it a second-rate plane? Instead of the "Fifth Generation" stealth fighter that Lockheed Martin advertises, does Canada want to settle for a not-so-stealthy Generation 4.5?

Boeing is ready for that question, too. Mike Gibbons, the VP, phrases his answer carefully.

"We know that the Super Hornet has effective stealth, and that's really the key. In fact, we believe we have a more affordable stealth than many other platforms that are being designed specifically and touted as stealthy platforms."

Of course, he means the F-35 — and he's not claiming to have better stealth, just more affordable stealth. But his test pilot, Ricardo Traven, says that doesn't mean the Super Hornet is less likely to survive in combat.

As a pilot with experience in the North, says Traven, he'd rather fly with a little less stealth and little more agility. Lockheed Martin gave up agility, he argues, to gain the former.

On the Super Hornet, "sacrifices were not made for the purpose of stealth,"  he explains. After numerous winter landings on frozen Canadian runways, he says, "You want an airplane with large control surfaces, large flaps … these things give the airplane a lot of manoeuverability."

Proponents of stealth, though, want everything smaller so as to reduce the plane's visibility on radar.

"The stealth engineers don't want large flaps, they don't want large ailerons, they don`t want large wings, so everything is shrunk down on an airplane like that to be stealthy. And so the cost of stealth is not just the money. The cost is in capability and in performance …. Those capabilities and performance I do not believe are worth the sacrifice for stealth," says Traven.

'The goose that didn't get the memo'

These factors, Traven insists, make the Super Hornet more "survivable," even if it's less stealthy. Similarly, he touts the virtues of having twin engines. Sure, the F-35's single engine may be very reliable, he says — but what if a bird gets sucked in?

"It's the goose that didn't get the memo," he says, which could destroy a single-engined aircraft. With two engines, the pilot can still fly. Equally, Traven says, the Super Hornet's landing gear is more rugged and more suited to snowy or slushy northern runways. 

"Twin engines, dual redundant hydraulics … I mean, I can go on and on," Traven enthuses. "Those are the things I don't want to give up in flying to remote places or even in combat, because those are the things that'll bring you home."

Don't say Boeing doesn't know how to do a sales job. And Lockheed Martin's no slouch, either. In fact, Lockheed has a Canadian chief test pilot for the F-35 program, too — Billie Flynn, who's doubly Canadian, if it comes to that, because he's married to Canadian astronaut Julie Payette. Top that, Boeing!

Actually, Traven has some high-orbit Canadian connections, too. He's an old air force buddy of another well-known pilot: Gen. Tom Lawson, no less — who's now Canada's chief of defence staff.

Lawson has long been a fan of the F-35, but has recently begun to downplay the importance of stealth. He told CBC News that government decision-makers might do well to listen to his former comrade.

"Every aircraft brings a level of stealth," said Lawson — not just the F-35. The new secretariat that is looking at alternatives, he said, will have to see just how much stealth each plane offers.

Does the Super Hornet have what it takes? "I don't know," Lawson replied.

"We're going to leave that to the team to look at. We don't have Super Hornets. We have not, until recently, even considered purchasing them. So I think that Ricardo Traven, my good friend that you mentioned, might have something to say about that, that would interest the teams, the whole-of-government teams, that are together to consider it."

Start your engines

So, the contest is on — and, if it was once wired to make sure the F-35 won, it isn't now. The government insists it really is "hitting the reset button" and is serious about looking for alternatives.

CBC News contacted the European manufacturers of the Typhoon — also known as the Eurofighter — as well as Dassault, the French maker of the Rafale, and Sweden's Saab, which makes the Gripen. All said they've been contacted by the Canadian government and were ready to make their pitches.

But it's Boeing's entry that will grab most attention. It's the only American competitor for the F-35, and being "interoperable" with the U.S. is a big deal for Canada. Boeing is also offering to meet or beat the amount of contracts — known as "industrial benefits" — that Lockheed Martin would steer to Canadian companies.

With billions at stake, this battle of the giants will be worth watching.