The Canadian government will launch an open competition to replace its aging fleet of CF-18 fighter jets and plans to purchase 18 Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets as an interim fix for its current capability gap.

But defense officials also attempted to placate F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin and the US defense industry, with the assurance that Canada will remain a member of the Joint Strike Fighter programme.

The 22 November press conference with Minister of National Defence Harjit Singh Sajjan and top Canadian defense officials was marked by politically charged comments blaming the previous conservative government of Stephen Harper for the failure to procure a replacement fleet for the CF-18 fighters. As a result of the drawn-out fighter procurement, Canada cannot meet its combined NORAD and NATO commitment, according to Sajjan.

In 2015, the liberal party campaigned on the promise to kill the procurement of 65 Lockheed Martin F-35s and launch an open competition. More recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau criticized the F-35, saying the jet was “far from working.”

“Because they were not replaced, we now have a capability gap,” Sajjan says. “It is necessary to deal effectively with the situation this government has inherited.”

The full and open competition to replace the CF-18 fleet will begin once Canada’s defense policy review is completed early next year. The competition will take five years and the new fleet will be fully operational in the late 2020s, requiring a further life extension of the current CF-18 fleet along with the interim Super Hornet buy, Minister of Public Services and Procurement Judy Foote says.

"We want to make sure the open and competitive process is a sound one," she says. "Military procurement is complex, we’re not about to cut corners and simplify a process that’s very complex. That’s what the interim will do, but in the meantime with the open competition, we’re going to get it right

Although liberals railed against Lockheed during the campaign, Foote says any contractor who meets the criteria for the replacement fleet will have a shot in the open competition.

Lockheed's own statement following the announcement took on a more dour tone.

"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," Lockheed says. "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."

Canada will enter into negotiations over the interim fleet with Boeing immediately, which will include discussions over price and the aircraft’s interoperability with NATO aircraft. Foote adds the government has a sense of the cost, but did not elaborate on a specific price for the 18 Super Hornets. Boeing deferred a request on cost to the Canadian government.

When asked whether Canada’s move to sole source 18 Super Hornets from Boeing was also a highly political decision, defense officials responded Canada required a fully developed and interoperable aircraft. Based on analysis, the government is confident the Super Hornet meets both those requirements, Sajjan says. Foote also noted because the current fighter procurement involves American aircraft, the government is looking at a US jet for the interim requirement.

“I think it’s important we respond to the needs right now,” Foote says. “We’re not stacking the deck in favor of Boeing any more than we’re in favor of Lockheed by staying in the fighter programme.”

Whether Canada will eventually operate a mixed fleet of Super Hornets and next-generation fighters is to be determined. Sajjan did not directly address where the 18 Super Hornets would go once a new fleet is procured.

“Hard to predict,” he says. “But there’s a need to fill this gap and an interim fleet is required. All of this will be taken into account down the road and the decision will be made at that time.”