Canada to consult allies, competitors to replace CF-18s

The agency overseeing the replacement of the country's CF-18s intends to talk to the U.S., Australia and Britain as it conducts an analysis into the future of Canada's fast fighter fleet, say defence sources.
A Canadian soldier looks at a CF-18 as it sits loaded for flight at Camp Fortin on the Trapani-Birgi Air Force Base in Trapani, Italy, on Thursday, September 1, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The agency overseeing the replacement of the country's CF-18s intends to talk to the U.S., Australia and Britain as it conducts a wide-ranging analysis into the future of Canada's fast fighter fleet, defence sources tell The Canadian Press.

That review, which will also include consultation with competitors to the oft-maligned F-35 stealth fighter, will get underway soon and could last several months.

In the House of Commons this week, Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose said that the air force's statement of requirements — the document that set out what the military says it needs for selected pieces of equipment — will be set aside until an options analysis is completed.

"The options' analysis is a full evaluation of choices, not simply a refresh of the work that was done before," Ambrose told the House of Commons. "That review of options will not be constrained by the previous statement of requirements."

The process usually happens in reverse. The military defines what it needs and then, in conjunction with public works, conducts an analysis of what is out there and how the capability can be filled.

National Defence and to a lesser extent Public Works were accused last spring by the auditor general of not doing their homework when it chose to proceed with the multi-billion dollar proposal to buy the F-35 from Lockheed Martin.

Defence officials were also chastised for lobbying for the stealth fighter even before they wrote the formal statement of requirements, which contained 28 necessary capabilities including weapons and sensors.

None of the F-35's rivals were contacted, including Boeing and Eurofighter.

Sophisticated drones coming onto market

Col. Dave Burt, the officer in charge of the program, has been quoted as saying they "didn't feel the need" because they had "all the necessary information" and the technology gap between aircraft was too wide.

A Public Works secretariat, set up in the aftermath of the auditor general's scathing criticism, intends to go beyond what would be a traditional market analysis of which planes can do what and consider how the allies are coping with delays and cost-overruns in the F-35 program.

Of particular interest, according to sources, will be the Australians who recently chose to buy Super Hornets, the updated version of the F-18, in order to close the gap between their aging fighters and the introduction of F-35s after 2020.

Another rapidly evolving sector that may —may not — factor into the review is the whole question of unmanned technology.

Some critics have suggested that some of the surveillance missions the air force would like to see its new fighter carry out can be performed by highly sophisticated drones.

In an interview with The Canadian Press last year, former air force chief, retired Lt.-Gen. Andres Deschamps, said drones are still evolving and still unable to perform intercepts and dogfight with enemy aircraft.

"I think there's a lot of confusion around what fighters can do," he said in the interview. "The foremost job of any fighter aircraft ... is air control, which is fundamental to any sovereign action; maintaining control of your own air space. Right now, the only tool that's fully effective right across the spectrum of air control is a fighter — a manned fighter."

Defence sources said National Defence will have input into the new, expanded options analysis, but "it will not be driving the bus."