As Defense News reported last month, the Canadian government is planning another upgrade and life-extension program for its CF-18 Hornets, this time to keep the fighters flying through 2025. The federal cabinet in Ottawa has been intending to replace the RCAF’s 78 Hornets with 65 F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters. But that purchase has been on hold for a few years, whether for Lockheed’s delayed delivery or the government’s introspection. The new program means that any purchase of new fighter jets is effectively pushed right from 2018 until about 2023, assuming a roughly two-year transition for accepting the new JSFs and retraining the crews. Despite some speculation of an impending purchase of four JSFs earlier this month, the plan seems to be holding. But given the hitherto steadfast enthusiasm for the F-35, why the change?
Simply put, the Department of National Defense needs the money to pay for its incredibly over-priced and not-so-joint Joint Support Ships—along with everything else that isn’t quite fitting into its budget. That’s also why the DND cancelled its long-awaited Close Combat Vehicle procurement for the Army last December. As David Pugliese wrote for the Ottawa Citizen, there are plenty of good and well-priced options for replenishment ships from shipyards in allied countries, but undoing the National Shipbuilding Strategy could constitute an embarrassment for the Harper Government. The Harper Government does not like embarrassments, so something had to give.
What the Harper Government does like, like the Martin and Chrétien Governments before it, is for Canada to pull its own weight internationally. Perhaps most Canadian defense procurements have been “long-awaited” over the past two decades, and Canadian defense has been pretty arguably underfunded. But at least both Liberals and Tories have been marching with Canada’s allies when the marching hasn’t been egregiously questionable (as in 2003). In applying military force, those governments have tended to follow what Christian Leuprecht of the Royal Military College of Canada calls the “six-pack strategy”. When NATO throws a party, Canada must bring something as its contribution to global security, so it most often sends six modern fighter-bombers for attacking enemy ground forces. That’s a solid contribution, in line with Canada’s global standing.
Assuming that all the bugs get worked out, buying a few squadrons of F-35s would continue to more than provide for that strategy. With all its wrap-around electronic content, the F-35 is not just by name, but by substance as well, a search-and-destroy strike fighter. In Cicero magazine last month, Jonathan Miller from Aberystwyth University tried to make the case that "The F-35 Was Built to Fight ISIS”. That’s a stretch—without their still-awaited S-300 missiles, even the Syrians would have trouble downing Canadian fighters, and ISIS lacks anything that can reach the high altitudes from which the CF-18s are bombing.
Indeed, the only plausible opponents with air defense systems that could threaten CF-18s in the near term are China and Russia. Perhaps no government in Ottawa wants any part of a fight over the South China Sea, but the aerial policing of the Baltic is an occasional Canadian responsibility. With their AIM-120 AMRAAMs, the RCAF’s CF-18s are probably well-equipped to deal with Russian Air Force's fighters. For dealing with its S-300s and -400s around Kaliningrad and Saint Petersburg, the RCAF could do well with some standoff air-to-surface weapons, which it currently lacks. The F-35 could presumably approach those defenses much more closely, but for a while at least, more capable payloads may be less expensive than more capable platforms.
This is not to say whether the Joint Strike Fighter is the right fighter, in the long term, for the RCAF. If the timing of this refitting of CF-18s is intended for a domestic political audience—to kick the decision on F-35s past the next general election—little will be lost. If the timing is meant to assess the early performance of the F-35s in the hands of other air forces, then the delay is prudent. Either way, the CF-18s will be fine for a few years more.