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Ordering less than a full fleet of fighter jets is a bad idea

There's one sure way to make a mistake in buying new fighter jets: going for a stopgap.

The debate over replacing the Royal Canadian Air Force's fleet of CF-18s with stealth-equipped F-35s has dragged on for years, and now there is talk Ottawa might delay the final decision and instead place an interim order for a partial fleet of Boeing Super Hornets.

There is a lot of disagreement over which plane is best, but it is pretty clear that ordering less than a full fleet is a bad option.

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Buying two half-fleets is more expensive and less efficient than buying a full fleet. An "interim," stopgap order for a few planes tends to lock in the final decision. Once you have, say, 20 Super Hornets, it's far cheaper to complete the fleet by buying 45 more of the same plane than it is to pick another plane.

The independent panel that reviewed the previous government's decision to buy F-35s came to clear conclusions that for Canada, with a small air force and varied missions, a mixed fleet would be a waste.

Buying a smallish number of Super Hornets also means operating a mixed fleet for a time with the current CF-18s, though both planes are different generations of the same design. The CF-18s were the first generation F-18A Hornet, developed in the 1970s. The Super Hornets, the F-18E or F, from the late '90s, are bigger, different in structure, with very different avionics and systems, according to CDA Institute analyst Richard Shimooka. It would be like operating a completely different plane, he said.

Government officials say they haven't made a decision yet. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Tuesday the government is analyzing the options. He has raised concern there will be a "capability gap" as the lifespan of the existing CF-18s wind down. They're supposed to be able to fly until 2025. But the number of serviceable planes will probably dwindle a little before then from the current 77, so the air force may be sorely stretched a few years earlier.

It's no wonder Mr. Sajjan would feel an urge to consider an interim order. The former Conservative government was mired in years of controversy over a plan to buy F-35s. The Liberals promised a new bidding competition. Going from tenders to in-service fighters takes years. But eight or nine years is enough time. Unless they can point to a palpable emergency, a stopgap is a bad idea.

Fighter jets are not easy to mix and match in a fleet. They're big, expensive, complicated military technology. And running the fleet is more expense than buying the planes.

As the independent panel reviewing the F-35 purchase reported in 2014, for an air force like Canada's, running a mixed fleet requires more planes. When Canada deploys six overseas, they want them all to be the same, to save duplication of parts, crews, and so on. It takes dozens of planes to keep six ready for those NATO missions, and dozens to do NORAD air defence at home. With one kind of plane, they can backstop each other, and 65 could do it, the panel found; with two types of aircraft, it would take 74 to do less.

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With a mixed fleet, there's a lot of duplication of costs, for things like training, maintenance, managing inventories of spare parts, support crews, equipment and infrastructure.

It's not impossible to run mixed fleets. The big U.S. military does. The Australians bought 24 Super Hornets in 2007 to replace their aging F-111s, even though they were already planning to replace their F-18s with 100 F-35s. But Australia is willing to pay more: it is a country with a population two-thirds the size of Canada's, but it spends 50 per cent more on defence. Australia's fighter fleet will be more than twice the size of the 65-plane fleet of F-35s the former Conservative government planned.

In Canada, governments aren't willing to spend more. They need a bargain. And a stopgap is no bargain.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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