How far can Canada stretch those aging CF-18s?

Back in 2014, it was clear that Canada’s fleet of fighter jets needed replacements soon—lest expensive maintenance become prohibitively costly

The passive voice is a defining feature of any government report worth its bureaucratic bafflegab. Nothing lulls even the most voracious reader to sleep quite like an unrelenting passive voice. Just imagine getting to the end of a sentence that starts, “Another possibility that was investigated was the option of…” and wanting to read more. Probably, a lot of governments don’t mind if you find something else to do with your time. All the more reason to keep reading.

Yesterday, the feds posted two long-awaited reports on the future of Canada’s fleet of fighter jets. Actually, that’s not quite true. The posting dates at the bottom of “A Comparative Analysis of Minimum Resource Requirements for Single and Mixed Fleets for The National Fighter Procurement Evaluation of Options” and “CF-18 Hornet Estimated Life Expectancy” are both from June, so these aren’t exactly hot off the presses. But they’re now public, and they’re full of information.

Canada’s CF-18 Hornets are aging, that much is well-known. They entered service in 1982, and one of the reports recalls that the jets’ initial lifespan extended only to 2003. Expensive upgrades now and again have made the aging process more graceful, but it all gets more expensive as time marches on. Yesterday’s report on life expectancy said the Hornets can make it to 2020, no sweat—but they’d require various structural and technical upgrades, some of which the government hasn’t yet funded.

How long can the jets survive? The report concluded that an extended ELE (estimated life expectancy) to 2025, Public Works Minister Diane Finley’s chosen route, is a “low risk option.”

A CF-18 ELE extension to 2025 is assessed as a low risk option in terms of cost, schedule and technical factors. This ELE target would generate some robust requirements in order to manage continuing airworthiness and obsolescence issues.

But anyone responsible for procurement had better get their act in gear soon thereafter, because an extension to 2030 is a “very technically challenging, lengthy and costly endeavour.”

A CF-18 ELE extension to 2030 would be a very technically challenging, lengthy and costly endeavour. A majority of the fleet (50 aircraft) would need to be flown beyond the currently certified safe life of 1.0 FLEI based on current projections, and also requires all CF-18s to undergo CP3. This would necessitate development of a new structural life extension program, with some significant NRE costs to develop and certify the requisite modifications, repairs and inspections. A large and costly procurement of new wings and flight controls would also be required to support this effort, as the structural lives of these components would expire for many of the fleet’s aircraft.

That’s a lot of jargon, but it means “big, expensive overhaul” that comes after a long time in the air. The report gives a sense of the Hornet’s place among its allies.

The CF-18 was a leading edge state-of-the-art fighter when it was introduced in the 1980s and it gradually fell behind over time until during the Kosovo conflict it had reached the ‘back edge’ of coalition capability. The capability upgrades over the last 10 years have resulted in the CF-18 again being near the ‘front edge’ during the 2011 Libya operations. This capability will now once again erode over the remainder of the Hornet’s service life as technology continues to evolve.

The comparative analysis tells the government that a single-aircraft fleet is more cost-effective than a mixed fleet. That’s useful information for the Tories, who haven’t yet picked a replacement for the remaining Hornets. If they don’t find one soon, the makeup of the new fleet will be moot—and the Air Force will be left shovelling money into its airborne old-timers.

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