Building Out Base Infrastructure for Canada’s New Fighter

By Ken Pole

The Royal Canadian Air Force is still several years away from taking delivery of the first of 88 new fighters to replace its ageing Boeing CF-188 Hornets. However, just four weeks after it received bids from three prospective manufacturers, the RCAF is moving ahead with two contracts for fighter-related infrastructure.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced 27 August that EllisDon Construction Services of Edmonton had been awarded a $9.2-million contract to design a new 19,300 mfighter facility at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta, home to 401 and 410 Tactical Fighter Squadrons (TFS) and 419 Tactical Fighter Training Squadron as well as technical and support services.

A second infrastructure contract for the other main operating base, 3 Wing Bagotville, Quebec, home to 425 and 433 TFS, is expected to be awarded in September and, combined with the Cold Lake contract, is expected to generate more than 900 design and construction jobs.

“Modern infrastructure . . . is critical to ensuring the safety and security of Canadians, as well as meeting Canada’s international obligations to NORAD and NATO,” Sajjan said in a statement.

Meanwhile, after years of political controversy and a couple of recent delays due to the COVID-19 situation, the government is assessing the aircraft manufacturers bids for a contract worth an estimated $19 billion which should see the RCAF’s legacy Hornets replaced by mid-decade.

As expected, project teams led by two U.S. conglomerates, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and by Sweden’s Saab AB, met the July 31 deadline on the government’s Request for Proposals to supply and sustain 88 aircraft, issued in July 2019. Boeing is offering its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the only twin-engine option, while Lockheed Martin puts up its F-35A Lightning II developed with multinational funding as the joint Strike Fighter (JSF), and Saab has proposed its JAS 39 Gripen E.

Each proposal for what has evolved into the Future Fighter Capability Project will be evaluated on three core elements: 60% on each aircraft’s fundamental capabilities, 20% on baseline cost, and 20% on the economic benefits to Canada. While various federal departments have been assessing options for several years and are familiar with technical details, a decision is not expected until 2022 with the first delivery in mid-decade.

The evaluation includes a phased bid-compliance process designed to ensure that each bidder can address any non-compliant elements of its response. That leaves the government the option of “down-selecting” two bidders next spring while maintaining all three as options until a winner is announced.

“Our government committed to purchasing a full fleet of 88 aircraft to be able to meet our NORAD and NATO obligations simultaneously . . . at home and abroad,” Sajjan said when the bids closed. Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand reiterated the government’s determination to acquire “the right fighter jet, at the right price, with the right social and economic benefits” while Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains pointed out that it “represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to support the competitiveness and growth of Canada’s aerospace and defence industries.”

As for the bidders’ perspectives, Boeing used a pre-deadline media teleconference to push its economic argument for the Super Hornet, targeting the government’s insistence that while each bid will be evaluated technically, baseline costs remain key.

Jim Barnes, director of the Canadian fighter programs effort within the Boeing’s Defense, Space and Security arm, said Super Hornet US$18,000 hourly operating costs are than half of its competitors. That alone, coupled with an “unrivalled” 10,000-hour airframe, would save “billions” over the aircraft’s proposed service life well into the latter half of the century.

Barnes said that if Boeing wins the competition, each RCAF wing would have a Super Hornet squadron as early as 2024, wjich would be a year earlier than the government’s latest target. Leveraging the RCAF’s current 1980s legacy Hornets and the bigger and more capable Super Hornets acquired last year from Australia also would reduce training costs to “predictable and affordable” levels.

Also on the economic side of Boeing’s case, Rick Clayton, a partner and analyst at Ottawa-based Doyletech consultants, told the briefing that a review of the company’s overall operations in Canada last year showed direct investment totalling $2.3 billion. Most of that was through its Winnipeg-based manufacturing centre, which focuses mainly on commercial aircraft components.

Direct employment totalled 11,000 but he said “indirect and induced” investment and employment pushed Boeing’s overall 2-19 economic impact in Canada to some $5.3 billion and 20,000 jobs. He also said that the 95 per cent export ratio was “was one of the best results” on record.

Moreover, Clayton added, virtually every region of the country had benefitted from subcontract work and that companies had paid $730 million in federal taxes in 2019 atop $700 million and $483 million in provincial and municipal taxes, respectively.

Jennifer Seidman, who succeeded the recently-retired Roger Shalom as Boeing’s lead for international strategic partnerships in Canada, emphasized the company’s approach to Industrial and Technological Benefits (ITB). Having made good on $11 billion in ITB commitments through its ongoing involvement in the legacy Hornet acquisition and upgrades as well as CH-147F Chinook helicopters, CC-177 Globemaster III transports, among other things, “Boeing will firmly commit” to ITB’s equivalent to 100 per cent of its fighter contract, Seidman told the briefing.

The Block III Super Hornet being proposed for the RCAF would be like those recently delivered to the U.S. Navy for testing aboard its aircraft carriers. They would have conformal fuel tanks above the wings, replacing a conventional centreline belly tank, which evidently not only increases range and improves trans-sonic capability but also reduces the aircraft’s radar signature.

Barnes said other enhancements ensure a longer service life on the 10,000-hour aircraft and that a long-range sensor proven on Block II Super Hornets means they will be effective against stealth aircraft. “You can run but you can’t hide your heat signature,” he said.

Lockheed Martin issued a July 31 statement highlighting Canada’s “valued” partnership in the JSF project since the Department of National Defence (DND) in Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government, committed an initial US$10 million in 1997 so that it could become an “informed partner. The program was a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) attempt to come up with a common platform for its air force, navy and Marine Corps.

When Lockheed Martin was confirmed as the primary contractor for the DoD project, Canada opted to increase its involvement along with Australia, Denmark, Norway and Turkey, committing an additional US$150 million through DND and Industry Canada (a precursor to Innovation, Science and Economic Development).

Lockheed Martin stressed in its statement that Canadian industry’s “integral role in the global F-35 supply chain” had gained it “significant technical expertise.”

While it had been politically contentious from the outset, that ratcheted up in 2010 when the Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that it planned a $16-billion acquisition of 65 aircraft which would see the RCAF flying the JSF by 2016.

Two years later, however, the Office of the Auditor General was intensely critical of how the proposal was being managed. Coupled with the government’s refusal to provide detailed costing of the procurement, it led to the government’s defeat on a vote of no-confidence in early 2011, setting the stage for an election campaign in which the F-35 project was a major bone of contention. The issue was so politically poisonous that when Liberal PM Paul Martin’s new government tabled its first budget in 2012, the F-35 was not mentioned. Nor did Harper’s 2015 campaign platform which got him elected.

Political shenanigans aside, Greg Ulmer, Lockheed Martin’s executive vice-president in charge of the F-35, said in the July 31 statement that the company remains “extremely proud of our longstanding partnership with Canada.” He promised that the F-35 would “transform” the RCAF with its “unique mix of stealth and sensor technology.”

Lockheed Martin also said the program would continue “to bring manufacturing and production opportunities to Canada, with an estimated 150,000 jobs supported over the life of the program” by connecting Canadian suppliers with a global supply chain “supporting a growing fleet that will deliver more than 3,200 aircraft and delivers sustainment well past 2060.”

Saab, promising a comprehensive support and training package as well as “high-quality” ITBs, highlights its aircraft’s proven capability to operate in austere environments. “The system meets all of Canada’s specific defence requirements, offering exceptional performance and advanced technical capabilities,” said Jonas Hjelm, Senior Vice President and head of Saab Aeronautics, said in a July 31 statement. “A unique element of the avionics design is that Gripen E’s system can be updated quickly, maintaining technological superiority against any adversary.”

Hielm also said that the RCAF would have “full control of its fighter system” and that Saab’s guarantee to “share key technology, in-country production, support and through-life enhancements will ensure that Canada’s sovereignty is enhanced for decades.”

Saab is committing to deliver an industrial programme that has been designed to generate long-lasting, high-tech employment opportunities, and business opportunities across all regions of Canada.

The Swedish company, which has built an international reputation for a line of unique jet designs dating back to 1945, been building, has underscored its emphasis on ITBs by pointing out that it has built its first aerostructures plant outside Sweden – in São Bernardo do Campo, Brazil.

The Saab Aeronáutica Montagens (SAM) factory builds sections for the 36 Gripen E/F fighters ordered in a $4.7 billion contract signed in 2014. Brazil chose the Gripen the previous year over the Super Hornet and the French Dassault Rafale, an early prospective candidate for Canada’s next-generation fighter program.

Sections are shipped for final assembly at the nearby Embraer plant in São Paulo as well as to Saab’s domestic factory in Linköping, Sweden, for incorporation into other export customers’ Gripens. (They include the Czech Republic, Hungary, South Africa and Thailand. The Empire Test Pilot School in Wiltshire, England, also flies Gripens.)

The tail cone and front fuselage of Brazil’s single-seat Gripen Es were the initial SAM output, which began in early July, but the aerobrakes, rear fuselage and wing box also will be produced for the two-seat Fs.

“This is another outcome of the transfer of technology of the Gripen program,” Hjelm said. “Based on theoretical and practical on-the-job training of Brazilian engineers and assemblers at . . . Linköping, we were able to establish a highly qualified production line at SAM, following the same standards that we have in our factory in Sweden.”

In the meantime, the RCAF has been spending hundreds of millions to keep its ageing F-18s operational while it waits for the new jets that had been expected years ago.

This article was published by our partner FrontLine Defence on August 27, 2020.

Featured Photo: DND photo of CF-18 Hornet.