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Which fighter jets should Canada buy? Boeing on why Super Hornets trump F-35s

A F/A 18E Super Hornet on the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan taxis on deck before take off during the RIMPAC naval exercises 80 kilometres south of the island of Oahu, Hawaii, July 6, 2010.

HUGH GENTRY/REUTERS

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Dennis Muilenburg is president and chief executive officer of Boeing Defense, Space & Security. He was in Ottawa this week to promote a number of his firm's aircrafts, including the Super Hornet as a replacement for Canada's fleet of CF-18s.

The federal government had planned to purchase F-35s from rival Lockheed-Martin, but a hard-hitting report by the Auditor-General forced the government to hit the reset button on the procurement last year. Mr. Muilenburg sat down with The Globe and Mail, offering to compete in a new tendering process, while raising questions about the state of the F-35 developmental program in the wake of the U.S. budget crisis.

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The government is currently undertaking an options' analysis of the different available fighter jets. You are participating along with three other companies, what is your sense of the status of the process?

Based on comments here, the goal of the Minister of Public Works is to move briskly, while applying the rigours of the process. There is some sense of urgency and pace to get to a decision. So we're eager to compete.

In terms of your package, the government is open to various time frames, including extending the use of the existing fleet. Can you explain how you would plan your rollout?

We have provided a full range of options, so this is really the customer's decision. We are continuing to upgrade and modify the CF-18 fleet, which has shown the ability to be upgraded and technology-injected over time. If the customer wishes to continue to pursue that in parallel [to acquiring a new fleet], that is something we would support. We have already delivered more than 600 Super Hornets and Growlers, every single one of them has been delivered on cost and on or ahead of schedule. So schedule and cost certainty are part of what we bring to the table.

But your rivals are saying that the Super Hornet is nearing the end of its production cycle.

That is far from the truth. The fact is that the Super Hornet line is very strong, we are currently building out a multi-year contract for the U.S. Navy. When you get out to 2035, two-thirds of the airplanes on the U.S. Navy's carrier deck are still Super Hornets and Growlers. Just last week we had the first flight of our advanced Super Hornet with the next technology injection. This is an airplane that will be around for a long time.

The people at Lockheed Martin are touting their airplane as being of the "Fifth Generation", and they say that compared to its rivals, it's like broadband vs. dial-up in terms of communications capabilities.

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"Fifth Generation," frankly, is a 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. We don't wait around for big steps in technology as that "generation" term would communicate.

The underlying theme, when you talk about your track record [in terms of production schedules and cost], is the state of the F-35 program.

It is fair to say that we are in a very uncertain budget environment. You look at the situation in the U.S. with the recent government shutdown, the sequestration that we are still facing, the uncertainty in the defence budget, that portends uncertainty for a lot of U.S. defence programs. When you look at the Super Hornet, we have a line that has delivered more than 600, every one on schedule and cost. 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.

If you want a low-risk, highly capable, low-cost solution, that is the Super Hornet.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Daniel Leblanc is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.

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