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Despite a Liberal campaign promised to exclude the F-35 when selecting the country's next warplane, the federal government is still reviewing how it should proceed on replacing the aging CF-18s. Daniel Leblanc outlines the options facing the government and breaks down the lobbying duel between the two main contenders

Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet (left) and Lockheed-Martin’s F-35 Lightning are considered the two main contenders to replace Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18 fighters.

Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet (left) and Lockheed-Martin’s F-35 Lightning are considered the two main contenders to replace Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18 fighters.

U.S. Navy/U.S. Department of Defense

It's getting harder and harder to figure out who is the underdog and who is the favourite in the dogfight between the Lockheed-Martin F-35 and the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet.

From 2006 to 2012, the new-kid-on-the-block F-35 was the federal government's one and only choice to replace Canada's fleet of CF-18s. The Conservatives were in power at that point, but the process to select the fighter of the future had started in 2001, under the previous Liberal regime.

Everything fell apart in 2012 when the Auditor-General slammed the acquisition process for the F-35 as risky and uncompetitive, forcing the Tories to put the procurement process on hold.

By the time the 2015 election came, the Liberals made a clear promise: They would not buy the F-35. Instead, Justin Trudeau proclaimed, a Liberal government would launch an "open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18 fighter aircraft."

Left unsaid was what would happen if the F-35 were to win that competition. To square that circle, there are now those in the Liberal Party who argue that a competition would be a waste of time and that the best solution is simply to buy another aircraft: the Super Hornet.

Has the long-time underdog – the older, less technologically advanced fighter jet – now become the favourite in the race to replace the CF-18? Or is this simply a bump in the road for Lockheed-Martin, which first won a competition 15 years ago to produce the next-generation Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) for allies such as the United States, Britain and Canada?

The Liberals are promising a speedy decision on the replacement for the CF-18. Here is a look at the two aircraft now involved in a lobbying duel that is set to ramp up a notch before the winner flies off into the sunset.

The F-35

Asked whether they would be willing to compete for the $9-billion contract for 65 fighter jets, officials at Lockheed-Martin have one message: Bring it on.

Source: Graphics Live; U.S. Department od Defense Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program; Lockheed-Martin TRISH McALASTER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

They repeatedly point to a recent competition in Denmark that directly pitted the F-35 against the Super Hornet. In the four ranking areas, the F-35 finished first. It was not only the best aircraft in terms of military and strategic performances, but also the best on cost per plane and industrial spinoffs, according to the Danes. Given that Denmark was looking for an aircraft to protect Greenland, Lockheed-Martin argues, this sets a great precedent for the Canadian Forces, which are looking for a fighter to patrol in the Arctic.

Steve Over, an engineer and senior member of the F-35 team, said there is a "quantum leap in capability" between the F-35 and all other Western fighters. Radars, sensors and communications devices between aircraft provide pilots with an "omniscient perspective of their battle space" that is unrivalled in the world, Mr. Over added.

Lockheed-Martin and the various partners in the JSF program will continue to upgrade the F-35 in coming decades, helping to keep up with rival countries that threaten Canada's sovereignty, he said.

"In 10 to 15 years, fourth-generation fighters [like the Super Hornet] will be absolutely inferior to the fleets of fighters that the Russians and Chinese are fielding," he said. "If you don't fear conflict with these nations, what you should fear is that they are going to proliferate that equipment to any nation with the money to buy it."

The F-35 underwent a number of teething pains in recent years, including production delays and cost overruns, as well as problems with pilot helmets, engines and ejection seats.

"It's a development airplane, but we're almost through the development program," Mr. Over said.

While Mr. Trudeau has dismissed the F-35 as an aircraft that "doesn't work," Lockheed-Martin said it is ready to "go to war" with the U.S. Marine Corps and will receive the same certification from the U.S. Air Force later this year.

There should be more than 200 F-35s in the air by the end of the year, and more than 600 by 2020, at which point Canada could start to build its new fleet.

"All the milestones are ticking off," Mr. Over said. "This airplane, make no mistake about it, is a mature airplane."

The Super Hornet

Her remarks weren't intended for a domestic audience, but Boeing executive vice-president Leanne Caret threw cold water on her Canadian team when she recently signalled that her company's defence division was moving away from fighter jets.

Source: Graphics Live; Boeing TRISH McALASTER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

"If I told you that I am and want to be a market leader in the fighter business, you all would tell me that I'm an idiot," she said in an interview published in Aviation Week. "Let's be real clear: We lost JSF."

The hat tip to Lockheed-Martin gave a sense that the Boeing Super Hornet, which made its first flight in 1995, is in the final stages of its life cycle. Competitors jumped in, questioning whether the Super Hornet will still be a top-notch fighter in two or three decades if Boeing doesn't stand behind its aircraft.

Boeing test pilot Ricardo Traven (who flew CF-18s in his time in the Canadian Forces) said the reality is that the Super Hornet is at the top of its game and ready to help Canada right away.

"We're in our prime," he said in an interview. "In terms of customers buying or flying the plane, we're not getting out of the business. We're still supporting the CF-18, and we're going to support the navy for decades to come."

Designed initially to serve with the U.S. Navy, the F/A-18 Super Hornet is perfectly suited to serve in the Canadian Arctic, with two engines (instead of one on the F-35) and robust landing gear for icy strips, Mr. Traven said.

He added that the CF-18 and the Super Hornet share many similar characteristics, and that the transition to a new fleet would be easy and less costly in terms of training and maintenance.

"It's everything that the CF-18 is, on steroids. That's why I know the pilots are absolutely going to love that air frame," Mr. Traven said.

Boeing has delivered 709 Super Hornets and Growlers (a variant of the Super Hornet) to the U.S. Navy and Australia, "all on cost and on schedule," the company said. If the Canadian Forces decide to call on the aircraft to complement or replace their CF-18s, Mr. Traven said, "we're 100 per cent capable, right now."

Capability gap

National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is increasingly invoking a “capability gap” to explain the urgent need for new fighters. The concept is not universally acknowledged in academic and defence circles, but Mr. Sajjan said it is a simple fact, given the age of Canada’s fleet of CF-18s.

The federal government originally purchased nearly 140 CF-18 fighters, which started starting to enter into service in 1982. Today, there are 77 left in operation, including four that have flown for more than 7,000 hours and 46 that have between 6,000 and 7,000 flying hours.

To last into 2025, the fighter jets will need to be upgraded.

For now, the Department of National Defence said it is increasingly scrambling to meet its international commitments.

“The total number of aircraft the government of Canada has committed to NORAD [the North American Aerospace Defence Command] and to NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] is greater than the number of mission-ready aircraft we can put into the sky on an average day,” said Jordan Owens, a spokeswoman for Mr. Sajjan.

“This government finds that unacceptable. With any aircraft fleet, especially one as old as ours, there are a number of planes in maintenance at any given time. The Royal Canadian Air Force does a good job risk managing this capability gap. But our confidence in their ability to risk manage does not mean we should delay addressing the problem. Risk managing the situation allows us to be good allies. However, as the fleet continues to age, the situation will only get worse.”

"The full spectrum is being looked at," Patrick Finn, the assistant deputy minister in charge of procurement at the Department of National Defence, said last week.

While all of Ottawa is in speculation mode, federal officials insist that they are exploring all possibilities to buy new fighter jets.

Mr. Finn, speaking to a House of Commons committee, made it clear that his boss, National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, is using his police interrogation skills to ensure that he knows everything he needs about the file. "Our minister has asked us many questions about approaches, products, how it could be done, what could be done, to make sure he has all of the information that he needs to bring to his colleagues," he said.

Sources said the matter is in front of a seven-member cabinet committee, which will eventually take the matter to the full cabinet. Here are the options facing the government, according to procurement experts:

Launch an open and transparent competition based on existing DND requirements. However, there is a possibility this could lead to an automatic victory for the more-modern F-35, as a number of defence experts have said the existing requirements can be met only by the stealth aircraft. "It is not only the aircraft that best meets Canadian Forces' requirements, with the longest life expectancy, but also is the most affordable," National Defence said of the F-35 in 2006.

Launch a competition based on new requirements. Redrafting the requirements could be a lengthy process, but that could be the only way to have a competition that does not lead to an F-35 victory. The government could justify the change by stating that it has different priorities than the previous government – for example, putting more emphasis on "the defence of North America, not stealth first-strike capability," as stated in last year's Liberal platform.

Sole-source the contract to one manufacturer for a new fleet. According to Treasury Board rules, the government would have to invoke a "pressing emergency in which delay would be injurious to the public interest" to avoid going to tenders. However, it would also have to explain why it feels that one manufacturer, such as Boeing, can offer the best new aircraft instead of, for example, Lockheed-Martin.

Sole-source a contract for an interim fleet. Such a move would be a half-step, and would push other decisions and costs down the road. For starters, buying an interim fleet would force the government to launch an eventual competition or award a second sole-source contract for the rest of the fleet. It would also open up the possibility of a "mixed fleet" featuring two types of fighter jets in the Canadian Forces – which experts say is more costly to maintain than a single fleet.