HINDSIGHT 2020: The CF-18 Hornet


Welcome to Hindsight 2020!  For this series we will be taking a look at Canada's past fighter purchases and asking a simple question:  "Did we make the right decision?"

We will look at the aircraft itself, compare it to the alternatives available at the time, and determine whether or not Canada picked the right aircraft.  

The CF-18 Hornet (officially the CF-188) needs no introduction.  It has been Canada's primary combat aircraft for almost 40 years now.  It has seen action in several combat arenas, including Kosovo, Libya, and the Gulf War of '91.  The Hornet also has the distinction of serving during the final years of The Cold War.  It is with no exaggeration that one could describe the CF-18 as one of Canada's most important aircraft.  

With its long and varied service history, no one could call the CF-18 a "Hanger Queen".  

It is hard to believe now, but the CF-18 was not without controversy when it was officially announced as Canada's new fighter back in 1980.  Meant to replace the CF-101 Voodoo, CF-104 Starfighter, and (somewhat) the CF-116 Freedom Fighter.  Big shoes to fill and certainly a challenge to fulfill multiple roles filled by three VERY different aircraft.  

At the time, the CF-18 seemed to be an odd choice in some respects.  The F/A-18 Hornet was, after all, designed for aircraft carrier operations.  That meant a lot of extra weight and cost devoted to a capability Canada had zero need for.  A lighter, more affordable ground-based version; the F-18L, was briefly considered but dismissed due to lack of interest.  

Possibly the most interesting aspect of the F/A-18 of the time was how uninteresting it was.  When comparing fighter jets, it is easy to get caught up in which one is the fastest or most maneuverable.  While the F/A-18 is certainly no slouch in either department, it certainly does not hold many records.  When compared to the other fighters contending for the New Fighter Aircraft Project (NFAP), the Hornet was neither the fastest, nor the most maneuverable, nor the cheapest.

So why was the F/A-18 selected?  

Like anything else, there is no single, solid reason.  It ultimately came down to several factors, both political and practical.

The Competition:

F-15 Eagle

There is an urban legend that says that upper brass at the RCAF really wanted the McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F-15 Eagle.  Worried that the penny-pinching Canadian government would select the cheaper F-16 Fighting Falcon instead, they insisted on a twin-engine design for safety reasons.  This requirement then backfired when the Canadian government ordered the (worse performing) twin-engine F/A-instead.  Whether there is even a modicum of truth to this story is lost to the ages, but closer inspection makes it dubious.  

It is certainly not hard to believe that he F-15 Eagle would have been the RCAF's favorite.  Incredibly fast, powerful, well-armed, and long-legged to boot; the F-15 is exactly what you want when Soviet bombers are testing the borders of your nation's airspace.  

Decades later, as the legacy Hornets see the end of their flying days, the evergreen F-15 are still going strong with older models being upgraded and newer variants being produced.  With a life expectancy far greater than the F/A-18, there is no wonder.  One could even argue that, if Canada had ordered F-15's, we would not even need to replace them for years to come.  

So why did Canada decide against the F-15?

The F-15 Eagle did lack the Hornet's versatility.  Famously, the mantra "not a pound for air-to-ground" was repeated during its development.  Despite this, the F-15 did, in fact, have limited strike capabilities.  This made development of the later F-15E Strike Eagle a rather simple affair.  If Canada had required it, the development of a "CF-15" that blurred the lines between the F-15C and F-15E could have been a real possibility.  

'The main reason would be cost.  The F-15 Eagle is a very expensive jet; both to purchase and operate.  Even at the height of the Cold War, when defence budgets were near-limitless, the F-15 was considered too expensive to purchase and operate.  The RCAF would have been forced to drastically reduce its numbers (although this happened anyway) and cut flying hours.  

Looking back, one could easily argue that the F-15 would have been a superior choice.  Yes, there certainly would have been some "sticker shock".  However, that would be mitigated by knowing the RCAF was operating one of the best fighters of its generation, arguably all time.  While the CF-18 is considered just about obsolete now, the F-15 is still in its prime.  

F-14 Tomcat

For a brief moment in time, Canada was on the verge of purchasing the F-14 Tomcat.  

Like the F-15, it was initially dismissed as too expensive.  This would change in the days following the Iranian Islamic Revolution.  Iran had recently acquired a fleet of F-14s, but faced the difficult challenge of maintaining these complex fighters with zero support and crippling sanctions.  Ever the pragmatist, Canada offered to purchase these lightly used Tomcats at a considerable savings versus new.  Unfortunately, the deal fell through thanks to the Canada's involvement in the 1979 Hostage Crises.  Canada's involvement would then be downplayed in the movie Argo.  Still...  Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms.

Like the F-15, the F-14 is considerably faster, more powerful, and longer ranged than the CF-18.  Some could argue (successfully) that the Tomcat is a better fighter/interceptor than even the esteemed F-15 Eagle.  With its combination of AN/AWG-9 (later upgraded to the AN/APG-71), AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missiles, AN/ALR-23 IRST, and swing-wing design; the F-14 Tomcat had capabilities not seen in any other fighter.  Now that we live in a time where pretty much all fighters are multi-role, the F-14 could be considered "peak dedicated interceptor".  

Ultimately, the "CF-14" was never meant to be.  

Despite its impressive capabilities, the Tomcat is hobbled by its notoriously difficult maintainability.  The Pratt & Whitney TF30 engines used in early models were both underperforming and unreliable, exacerbated by the widely-spaced engine nacelles.  The Tomcat's "killer app", the AIM-54 Phoenix long-range A2A missile, never really lived up to its full potential.

As the Cold War came to a close, the Tomcat was no longer considered economically viable.  This, despite an upgrade path that would lead to serious multi-role capability and the F-14's notoriety as the "poster child" for naval aviation thanks to a certain movie.  You know its bad when even the deep-pocketed Pentagon cannot justify the cost of something.  

Had history turned out different and Canada ended up with F-14 Tomcats, the RCAF would likely be even more desperate for a replacement by now.  While it certainly is possible to keep an "orphan" fighter platform going...  Doing so is best done only out of desperation.  

F-16 Fighting Falcon

While it is easy (and a little lazy) to dismiss the F-14 and F-15 as too expensive for the RCAF, one cannot say that about the F-16 Fighting Falcon (aka: Viper). 

The F/A-18 has been competing for sales against the F-16 since before it even was the F/A-18.  More often then not, the F-16 comes out ahead.  Looking at the technical specs for both aircraft, it is not hard to figure out why.  The Viper is faster, more agile at high speeds and has a longer range.  It is also cheaper.  

Over the years, the F-16 has gotten even more impressive.  Since it is easily the most prolific fighter in the Western world, there is plenty of incentive to upgrade and modernize the platform.  It has evolved far beyond its original design into multi-role marvel.  Best of all, with literally thousands of Vipers in operation to spread out the costs, it provides an astounding "bang for your buck".  

How did Canada miss out?

Some would argue that the F-16's single engine automatically disqualified it.  This is untrue.  While twin engines may have been more desirable (especially after the CF-104), there is a lot more to it than that.  Like so many things, it is not a single factor, but many separate elements that lead to the final decision.  

It is important to remember that, while the F-16 is now an incredibly capable multi-role fighter, this was not always the case.  As a product of the "Fighter Mafia", early F-16s were dedicated day fighters.  It was not until the later F-16C/D variants that the Viper received BVR capability.  Continual upgrades have also given the F-16 substantial ground attack capacity missing from earlier models.  In contrast, the F/A-18 Hornet was versatile, well-rounded fighter from the get-go.  Its designation of "F/A" for "fighter/attack" is there for a reason.  

As per usual, politics played a factor as well.  The F-16 had already been selected by four European countries known as the European Participating Governments.  These nations (Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, and Norway) had already been promised substantial industrial offsets.  This meant that Canadian subcontractors would see a much smaller piece of the F-16 pie.  This enabled McDonnell Douglas to lean on its offset package, which included work on the Hornet, KC-10, and several commercial airliners.  

One could argue that a smaller slice of the MASSIVE F-16 pie would have been the better choice considering the Hornet's tepid sales when compared to the Viper.  Unfortunately, there was no way to predict the Reagan administration's relaxation of export restrictions that ultimately led to the F-16s unprecedented sales success.  

Did Canada make the right decision?

Yes.  Mostly.  

The F-15 Eagle remains the most painful "what could have been".  It would have been a quantum leap beyond the CF-101 and CF-104 and would still be viable to this day.  Unfortunately, it is let down by its lack of surface strike capability and high operating cost.  The RCAF would have great difficulty managing a theoretical CF-15 Eagle fleet with the penny-pinching military budgets following the end of the Cold War.

As impressive as the F-14 Tomcat is, Canada dodged a fiscal bullet by not buying it.  There is no way the RCAF could have supported such an aircraft on its limited budget.  

Ultimately, the F-16 Fighting Falcon would have likely been a better choice...  But only when viewed in retrospect.  While it offers unmatched performance and capability for the price now, it did not do so at the time.  

In retrospect, the CF-18's operational history is the biggest argument in favor of its selection.  It has proven to be a great fit for the RCAF.  A solid, versatile workhorse, the CF-18 has pretty much seem and done it all. It has performed in peacetime and wartime.  It has operated in cold arctic and hot desert climates.  It has performed air-to-air intercepts and air-to-ground attack missions.  For going on 40 years, it has served Canada without any major issues or controversy.  It may lack some of the "swagger" seen in contemporaries like the F-14 and F-22, but being the best at one thing was never the CF-18's mission.  

As the CF-18's final chapter is written, one can only classify it as a resounding success.  It may not have been the best bang for the buck, nor the the best performer; but nothing offered the sheer versatility at the time.  As a single fighter solution, one could ask for no better fighter than the CF-18.  


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