RCAF facing challenge of operating old and new fighter fleets at same time
Questions about how well new jets can share data with those of Canada's allies
A team of U.S. warplane experts has been invited to brief Canadian officials on what the Royal Canadian Air Force can expect when it takes delivery of a fleet of Super Hornet jets.
The briefing, expected to take place this week at the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C., is crucial for the Liberal government as it grapples with introducing a new fighter jet into service and its impact on Canada's air defences.
The Trudeau government has begun talks with the Pentagon for a foreign military sale of 18 Super Hornets, at a cost of $5-$7 billion.
The Super Hornet is a larger, more advanced version of the CF-18, which the Liberal government hopes to replace entirely starting in the early 2020s.
"It's the same kind of jet with much different stuff connected to it," said Capt. Steve Boyle, wing commodore of the U.S Navy Strike Fighter Wing, Atlantic.
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CBC News had the opportunity to speak with U.S. Navy pilots and commanders last week about what the RCAF can expect operating different generations of what is arguably the same fighter.
It will take a CF-18 pilot about three months to learn to fly the new fighter, while training an entire squadron of pilots will take about six months — relatively short time frames, which is considered one of the advantages of the Super Hornets over the rival F-35.
"From the pilot's perspective, it's easy to fly a legacy Hornet [like a CF-18] in the morning and a Super Hornet in the afternoon," said Boeing executive Steve Brennan, who commanded the same fighter wing as Boyle over a decade ago.
The two aircraft have different maintenance needs but Brennan and other Boeing executives said the Super Hornet costs less to operate than any other tactical aircraft in the U.S. military.
Even so, there will be extra costs for the RCAF — an important point because the Trudeau government promised to properly fund the air force, something that did not happen under the previous Conservative government.
One of the pressing questions on the minds of Canadian defence officials is so-called interoperability with allies, mostly the Americans.
The U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Marine Corps and eventually the U.S,. Navy will all fly the advanced F-35 stealth fighter. So will many of Canada's other allies.
Many of the concerns relate to the ability of the F-35 to share electronic data and surveillance with older designs, such as the Super Hornet, said former Canadian chief of defence staff, retired general Tom Lawson.
"New aircraft like the F-35 come furnished with some residual ability to be interoperable with legacy aircraft such as the F-18 and other older fighters — a responsibility the designers of new systems share with those who maintain and upgrade older systems," said Lawson, a longtime supporter of the stealth fighter purchase who used to work for F-35 maker Lockheed Martin.
Equipment and software upgrades will be crucial for the jets to maintain "as much relevancy as possible," he said.
The issue of data sharing is crucial for the modern battlefield, said Ricardo Traven, a former Canadian fighter pilot, now working for Boeing.
The Super Hornet does have the ability to receive certain data and target imaging from the F-35 and the F-22 Raptor, but there is need for improvement.
Traven placed the onus on Lockheed Martin to ensure better protocols are developed, not only for other aircraft but for communication with ships and ground troops.
"It's always like trying to start a monopoly by saying: 'OK, the only way to communicate with us is if you are one of us,'" said Traven.
"The reality is, the whole world isn't going to be one of them." Traven says they're going to have to use common protocols with the rest of the world "or they're not going to be communicating with anyone."
Boyle said the U.S. Navy is also seized with the issue and has been pushing the Pentagon to ensure there is a solution because the Super Hornet is slated to keep operating with the navy, alongside the F-35, until at least 2040.
Tainted fighter debate
The previous Conservative government, under Stephen Harper, said the F-35 was the "best" choice to defend the country's sovereignty and fight in overseas missions.
The Liberals disagreed, and during the last federal election campaign promised to buy a "cheaper" aircraft and plow the savings back into rebuilding the navy — a plan Harper described as "living in a dream world."
The recent decision to wait until the early 2020s to fully replace the current fleet of CF-18s and to sole-source the purchase of up to 18 Super Hornets in the interim almost certainly means there will be no savings.
Proponents of the F-35 have argued the fighter is a generational leap forward in terms of technology and the ability to operate seamlessly with Canada's allies, and provides added protection because its stealth technology makes it less visible on enemy radar than so-called legacy fighters, such as the Super Hornet.