Boeing Co. officials were in Ottawa this week to promote the Super Hornet fighter jet as the best choice to replace Canada’s CF-18s, using the U.S. budget crisis to raise doubts about the long-term viability of the rival Lockheed Martin F-35 program.
The federal government is reviewing financial and technical data from four aircraft manufacturers, and is expected to decide next year whether to stick with the F-35 or to launch a tendering process. In addition to working with the U.S.-based firms Boeing and Lockheed, Ottawa has received information from European-based Eurofighter (maker of Typhoon) and Dassault (maker of Rafale).
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, the head of Boeing’s defence division said Ottawa will have to decide whether it can live with the uncertainty of Lockheed Martin’s massive F-35 program, which has suffered from technological challenges.
Dennis Muilenburg said the decision will have to be made within the context of the recent U.S. government shutdown and uncertainty over the country’s defence budget.
“When you look at the Super Hornet, we have a line that has delivered more than 600 [aircraft], every one on schedule and cost,” he said. “Compare that to an alternate program that is still ramping up, still has uncertainty, still has significant testing ahead of it. If you combine that with the environmental and budget uncertainty, to me that represents risk.”
The battle between the two American giants has been fierce, with Lockheed Martin asserting that its new stealth fighter jet simply cannot be compared to any of its existing rivals. The firm is arguing the F-35 is a “fifth-generation” fighter that is a full technological cycle ahead of all Western rivals.
“Quite frankly, fourth-generation airplanes don’t have the computing power or the data links to keep up,” Lockheed Martin vice-president Stephen O’Bryan said. “To say that [the F-35 is] orders of magnitude better than fourth-generation airplanes is a huge understatement.”
Lockheed Martin has been boasting that its F-35 program is meeting its targets and that the aircraft have already accumulated more than 10,000 flight hours. The firm did not respond to Boeing’s allegations.
Boeing, on the other hand, rejected Lockheed Martin’s use of the “fifth generation” moniker as “convenient marketing term.”
“I’ve been in the airplane business for 27 years. We don’t develop airplanes based on technology generations. What we do is inject technology continuously,” Mr. Muilenberg said.
Mr. Muilenburg argued his aircraft will be much cheaper to maintain than the F-35, and said his firm is ready to invest billions of dollars in the Canadian economy in industrial regional benefits.
Boeing hopes the federal government will launch a competition to select its next fleet of fighter jets, after the Auditor-General last year criticized the sole-sourced procurement process that led to the F-35’s selection.
“We’re eager to compete,” Mr. Muilenburg said.
Lockheed Martin, however, is hoping that after looking at data from the four manufacturers, Ottawa will simply resume its plan to purchase the F-35. A Lockheed Martin test pilot, who is a former member of the Canadian Forces, said that the federal government should purchase the same aircraft as its main military allies, including the United States.
“The next time we go to war … you will not be allowed to play unless you have the same capability as everyone else,” said Billie Flynn of Lockheed Martin. “You have to be interoperable, you have to have the same equipment, at the same level of sophistication, you have to have all the sensors, you have to communicate, you have to have the equivalent of broadband networking from one airplane to next, to pass on these sophisticated information.”
Mr. Flynn said that having a fleet of F-35s will be essential if the Canadian Forces want to participate in future coalition missions abroad, where its stealth capabilities are most useful.
“A commander will not allow a fourth generation airplane to enter into bad-guy land if they know they are going to lose those airplanes, no one will sacrifice them up,” he said.