Super Hornet deal still up in the air despite green light in Washington

The U.S. State Department has given the green light for Canada to buy 18 Boeing Super Hornet fighter jets for an estimated price tag of $6.3 billion.

Price tag of $6.3B would buy 18 fighter jets, equipment, electronics and training

Super Hornet fighter jets are shown landing on the flight deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier. (Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters)

The U.S. State Department has given the green light for Canada to buy 18 Boeing Super Hornet fighter jets for an estimated price tag of $6.3 billion Cdn.

The agency that oversees foreign military sales has recommended to the U.S. Congress that the sale proceed because it would benefit a NATO ally and help Canada improve its military capability.

It is uncertain whether the Liberal government will actually proceed with the sole-source purchase in light of its ongoing trade dispute with Boeing, which has been getting wider and more rancorous in the last few weeks.

The jets were initially pitched as an urgent requirement by the Liberal government, which said the air force is unable to meet its NORAD and NATO air commitments simultaneously.

The sale, however, has taken a back seat since May and a review was ordered and successive ministers publicly ripped the U.S. aerospace giant for filing a trade complaint against Quebec-based Bombardier.

Boeing argues the Montreal company is unfairly subsidized by the Canadian government and sells its C-Series jets south of the border at below market costs.

A preliminary decision from U.S. trade regulators is expected on Sept. 25.

The dispute took an unexpected turn this week with revelations that the British government has lobbied Washington to dial back Boeing's challenge because Northern Ireland is home to 5,000 Bombardier manufacturing jobs.

Boeing would not comment on Tuesday's decision, other than to say it is encouraged by U.S. government support for the proposed sale.

Other options

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has publicly mused about considering options other than the Super Hornet to cover the gap in fighter capability.

Precisely what those alternatives might be isn't entirely clear, although government officials did leak that air force planners had looked at buying used Australian F-18s, which are on the market after that country upgraded its air force.

The Liberals have taken an extraordinary amount of political heat after floating the interim fighter purchase last fall.

CBC News reported in January that internal government estimates pegged the overall cost for the stop-gap purchase would range between $5 billion and $7 billion.

Details released late Tuesday as part of the U.S. Defence Security Co-operation Agency's recommendation could only add fuel to that fire.

"$6.3 billion is awfully expensive for temporary aircraft," said defence analyst Dave Perry, of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. "I think for a whole number of reasons, this interim fighter acquisition as it's been outlined doesn't make much sense."

The official filing, released Tuesday, shows Canada wants to buy two variants of the Super Hornet — the E and F models — along with engines, spare parts, weapons and training.

U.S. congressional documents for the 2016-17 budget year show the price tag — known as the flyaway cost — of an individual Super Hornet is roughly $93 million per aircraft.

That means the purchase price for the 18 planes, excluding equipment, weapons, training and support, would be $1.5 billion.

Perry said the government has two options, if it decides not to buy the Super Hornets.

It could proceed with the suggestion of buying used F-18s, which he described as the "least dumb idea" for an interim fleet.

But Perry said the Liberal government would be better to scrap the idea of a stopgap purchase and devote all of its energy towards replacing the entire aging fleet of CF-18 fighters, many of which — although upgraded and well-maintained — were purchased in the 1980s.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


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