The DND must ensure that the RCAF’s replacement for the CF-18s can defend North America against emerging threats.
The Liberal Government of Canada has announced that it intends to swiftly sole-source 18 F/A-18E Super Hornets to fill a perceived capability gap. The need flows from Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan’s views of existing treaty obligations under NORAD and NATO. The Royal Canadian Air Force, however, has stated that its seventy-seven existing CF-18s will last at least to 2025, even if the loss rate for the type has increased of late. Whoever is correct, and however the government proceeds in replacing the fighter fleet, missile threats to North America are rising. The incoming Trump administration in Washington will bring heightened expectations for what NORAD and NATO really mean. Thus, the Department of National Defence must find new planes that are at least upgradeable for directly addressing these emerging threats.
It is difficult to predict how the Trump Administration will remake the US military, beyond obvious first steps like restoring funding cuts from sequestration. However, self-evident existential threats like North Korea’s nuclear ballistic missiles will be a priority. The specifics of new requirements will not be clear before the new administration settles in and possibly renegotiates the NORAD Agreement and other treaties. It is otherwise likely to closely follow existing policy, set by recent commanders Admiral Bill Gortney and General Lori Robinson. All the same, the president-elect has committed to a comprehensive overhaul of foreign and defense policy, and with it, expanded and different expectations for contributions from allies like Canada. All Five-Eyes allies except Canada have revamped and increased defense and security spending recently. Canada may need to do more once the new administration takes office.
Meeting NORAD’s requirements by 2020 is not about having an adequate fighter to patrol the Arctic. Rather, it is about having a software-upgradeable network appliance that can seamlessly and smoothly evolve and adapt to emerging needs, including presently unforeseen or vaguely defined ones. Sea based anti-ballistic missile capabilities, cooperative engagement capability, tight integration of air and sea based systems, and upgrades as required will all be essential. Even six months ago, surface combatants and jet fighters defending North American cities like Toronto and Montreal against North Korean missile attacks seemed far-fetched. But soon, platforms that cannot support this capability and that are not upgradeable will be severely handicapped. They will likely become prematurely obsolete by 2020 when the first F/A-18 Super Hornets are delivered.
Despite these concerns, integration into anti-ballistic missile defense systems is presently not architected into the requirements for the Canadian interim fighter and Canadian Surface Combatant programs. Both programs thus have considerable obsolescence risks because their statements of requirements (SORs), years in the making, are now outdated. Writing a great SOR is a core competency for a major military establishment. The document must delineate the must-haves, wants, and aspirations for contractors. The SOR serves as the basis of negotiation that will lock both parties into a long-term business relationship. Updating the SORs to reflect these new requirements is a necessary first step to the reissuance of requests for proposal for Canadian Forces procurement programs.
Many times, major militaries miss critical elements that end up costing a fortune to remedy—if that is possible at all. The UK’s Ministry of Defense ordered eight Chinook Mk3 helicopters in 1995, but forgot to demand access to the source code essential to certify them. When Boeing was asked to supply the codes afterwards, the company refused. The helicopters ended up un-airworthy and unusable for thirteen years afterwards. Ultimately, the problem was partly solved by downgrading the aircraft to the Mk2 standard, and then retrofitting them with add-ons for a capability that should have come off-the-shelf. This was a decidedly inferior and costly Band-Aid fix by one of the best militaries in the world.
Foreseeing future needs is critical to writing good SORs. Canada originally specified the CF-18s ordered in 1980 for air defense. The government did not specify a ground-attack capability, and McDonnell-Douglas was more than happy to oblige by leaving it out. When 24 CF-18s were deployed during Desert Storm (Canada’s Operation Scimitar), they were only able to perform top-cover missions, which became unnecessary when the Iraqi Air Force flew its surviving combat aircraft to Iran. Without much ground attack capability, a Canadian CF-18 attempted to attack an Iraqi patrol boat with a $50,000 Sparrow air-to-air missile, and missed. Bombing capability was later retrofitted to the CF-18s, but at considerable expense.
Unfortunately, contractors don’t always tell their customers frankly what they need. They also sometimes fall short of full responsibility for preventing serious errors in procurement. Firms may even be unreasonable in working with the customer to fix the issue. Nor will vendors always be concerned with the “fit” of their equipment with other systems. Contractors are there to sell equipment, substantially delivering on the letter of their contracts, though even that is not always the case. Canadians should know this after their textbook CH-148 Cyclone procurement. Apparently no federal official convinced key decision makers of, or perhaps even recognized, the risks and development costs for unique features spread over just twenty-eight units for the sole military customer of the platform.
The first moral of these stories is to never fully trust the contractor. The second is that the days when fighters, frigates, and other gear can be purchased à-la-carte based on existing specs alone are over. Platforms have to be evaluated not just on their existing capabilities, but the potential for moderately priced, widely and readily available upgrades that meet future, as-yet-not-obvious requirements, such as an expeditionary capability to the Korean peninsula. The bidder that meets requirements at the lowest procurement cost is not necessary the supplier with the lowest lifecycle cost, as the largest element of cost in a rapidly changing world will be premature obsolescence.
Whatever you do, just don’t expect vendors to give the Canadian government data on the true costs and utility of their products, especially if catering to political whims means a signed contract at eye-watering prices. Buying from a brand-name company is no substitute for due diligence by the Canadian Armed Forces and Public Works Canada.
Dr. Danny Lam is a researcher in Calgary.