Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Non-surprise of the week: Canada to refurbish CF-18s... Again.

"A few more rolls of duct tape and she'll be good as new!"
It looks like Canada will not be getting new fighter aircraft anytime soon.

RCAF CF-18s are getting another life-extension, this time to keep the aircraft flying until 2025.  This comes with news that Canada has invested another $25-30 million into the Joint Strike Fighter in order to "buy the plane at a slight discount if it chooses" and, more importantly, remain eligible to bid on JSF related contracts.

The message here is very clear, the Canadian government still sort of wants to buy the F-35...  Just not right now.

This places it in a difficult position, however.  Aging CF-18s are already stationed in the Baltic region and now there is talk they may participate in airstrikes against ISIS/ISIL.  Meanwhile, an election is scheduled for fall of next year.  The "strong on defense" Conservative party will have a lot of pressure on them for sending Canadian military personnel into combat zones with aircraft at the end of their useful service lives.

It is important to note that senior RCAF officials were concerned about the additional wear-and-tear CF-18s would endure over Libya in 2011.  Back then, the average CF-18 had about 5,000 hours on an airframe expected to last 7,000.  The aircraft can make it to 8,000 hours, but that is considered to be the "upper limit".

The CF-18 upgraded cockpit.
The costs for the new life extension is expected to be around the $100 million, possibly more.  This is not the first such program for the CF-18.  A $1.8 billion Incremental Modernization Program took place roughly 15 years ago, providing the Hornets with much needed structural enhancements and modernized gear.

While $100 million for the newest life extension may seem expensive, there really is not much that can be done once it is spread around the RCAF's current fleet of 77 CF-18s.  Do not expect any IRSTs, AESA radars, or upgraded engines.  Most, if not all the money, will go toward simply keeping the CF-18s airworthy past their expected retirement date.  The "classic" F/A-18 has long been out of production, so expect a lot of cannibalizing parts from older aircraft, possibly from AMARC.

Three of these fighters will likely be out of production by 2025.

The most chilling thing about this news is what it means for any possible fighter competition.  Unless they can find new orders, the Super Hornet, Typhoon, and Rafale will all be out of production by 2025.

The forecast for these new orders is currently quite dim.  Boeing is expected to end Super Hornet production in 2017.  Its only chance of continuing production would be a significant order from the USN for "Block 3" Super Hornets.  Given America's current fiscal climate, this would only happen if the F-35C was a dismal failure.  F-15 production will end in 2019, with no takers so far for the F-15SE "Silent Eagle".  Typhoon production will end in 2017 at the current rate, slightly later if Eurofighter executives can secure orders from the Middle-east.  The Rafale will continue to be produced for France until 2019, with India still on the fence.

Come 2025, the jet fighter sales landscape will likely look very different.  The only two aircraft likely to still be in production will be the F-35 Lightning II and the Saab JAS 39E/F Gripen.  By then, the Gripen will not be an attractive option, as it will be a 30-year-old design.

There may be a few other choices by this time however...

F/A-XX artist's rendering
Work on the US Navy's intended replacement for the Super Hornet, the F/A-XX, will begin next year.  It may not see life until 2030 to 2035 however, so it may not be a realistic option (unless the CF-18 goes through another life-extension or two).

Boeing T-X concept
By 2025, Boeing and Saab will likely have their collaborative T-X trainer up and ready.  While a trainer would be of little use for a CF-18 replacement, similar aircraft like the T-38 and KAI T-50 all have fighter variants.  The Saab/Boeing T-X could be the basis for a new lightweight fighter.

Japan's ShinShin
There may also be several other foreign-made options by then, such as the Japanese F-3 ShinShin.  Many of these fighters intend to place more emphasis on air-superiority than the F-35, yet still have 5th generation features like stealth.

In the end, maybe procrastinating a few more years will not be such a bad thing.  It could be a case of short term pain for long term gain.  Let us just hope that the CF-18 will be enough for the next 10 years or so.

  

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