WASHINGTON — Canada will explore an interim buy of 18 Super Hornet fighter jets from Boeing, a blow to Lockheed Martin that kicks a final decision on whether to procure the F-35 further down the road.
"Canada will immediately explore the acquisition of 18 new Super Hornet aircraft to supplement the CF-18s until the permanent replacement arrives," the Canadian government announced in a release. "Canada's current fleet is now more than 30 years old and is down from 138 aircraft to 77. As a result, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) faces a capability gap."
Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Canada will launch a larger fighter competition next year after it wraps up its defense policy review. But the competition will likely take about five years, which kicks the decision into the next administration. Liberal Party Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had vowed not to buy the F-35 joint strike fighter.
"We have a capability gap. We have selected the minimum number of aircraft to meet this capability gap here. At the same time, we are launching a full competition and making sure that we take the appropriate time, without cutting corners to get the right airplane," Sajjan said.
Judy Foote, the country's minister of public services and procurement, said it would start talking with Boeing "immediately" so that the country could amass an interim fleet as quickly as possible. She said Canada's Ministry of Defence had "some idea" of how much the planes would cost but that the details would be finalized in negotiations.
Despite questions about whether Canadian investments in Super Hornet infrastructure and training could skew a future competition in Boeing's favor, Foote refuted the notion that the government was "stacking the deck in favor of Boeing." The government sees it as important to meet its urgent needs, and Canada, an international partner in the joint strike fighter program, will continue its participation in the program, she said.
Boeing was elated by the news, a major win for the company that could help extend the life of one of its fourth-generation fighter jets.
"Boeing is honored to provide the Royal Canadian Air Force with the only multi-role fighter aircraft that can fulfill its immediate needs for sovereign and North American defense," the company stated in a news release. "The Super Hornet's advanced operational capabilities, low acquisition and sustainment costs, and Boeing's continued investment in the Canadian aerospace industry — US$6 billion over the past five years alone — make the Super Hornet the perfect complement to Canada's current and future fighter fleet."
Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin was less pleased with the decision, restating its hope that the Canadian government would ultimately purchase the fighter.
"Lockheed Martin recognizes the recent announcement by the Government of Canada of its intent to procure the 4th generation F/A-18 Super Hornet as an interim fighter capability," the company said in a statement. "Although disappointed with this decision, we remain confident the F-35 is the best solution to meet Canada's operational requirements at the most affordable price, and the F-35 has proven in all competitions to be lower in cost than 4th generation competitors. The F-35 is combat ready and available today to meet Canada's needs for the next 40 years."
Further down the road, Lockheed could strip Canadian industrial participation — which totals 110 Canadian firms with $750 million in contracts, according to Lockheed — should the country ultimately opt not to buy the F-35. The company has not signaled whether it would be willing to do so.
Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.