Super Hornet fighter jet costs under scrutiny: PBO

Parliamentary budget officer says his office will investigate ‘interim’ Super Hornet purchase plan

THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kim Hong-Ji/Pool Photo via AP

THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kim Hong-Ji/Pool Photo via AP

OTTAWA – Six years after ripping into the Conservative government’s cost estimates for F-35 stealth fighters, Parliament’s budgetary watchdog says it is digging into the Liberal plan to purchase “interim” Super Hornet jets.

The Liberal government announced last month it planned to buy 18 Super Hornets as a stop-gap until a competition to find a replacement for the air force’s aging fleet of CF-18 fighter jets could be held in five years.

Ministers have admitted that they have an idea how much the Super Hornets will cost and that it will be more expensive in the long run for taxpayers, but they have refused to say by how much.

The government says the extra costs are necessary as Canada has to provide a certain number of aircraft for the defence of North America as well as NATO, which it currently cannot do at the same time.

Experts and internal Defence Department reports, including one recently pulled from the its website, have raised questions about those requirements and warned that operating two different fighter jets will be prohibitively expensive.

Now parliamentary budget officer Jean-Denis Frechette is trying to get to the bottom of the cost question, at least.

On Dec. 8, Frechette sent a letter to National Defence’s top bureaucrat, John Forster, asking for all cost estimates, data and analysis associated with buying and operating the Super Hornets.

The letter, which has been posted to the PBO’s website, also asks for information on how much more the Super Hornets will cost to maintain and operate than the Royal Canadian Air Force’s existing CF-18s.

Defence officials have been asked to respond by Jan. 6.

Frechette’s letter recalls the spectre of a similar request made by his predecessor as parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, which helped blow the Conservative government’s F-35 plan out of the sky in 2011.

The Tories announced in July 2010 their plan to buy 65 stealth fighters for $16 billion, but the Commons’ finance committee asked Page later that year to look into the matter amid doubts about those numbers.

Page’s final report, produced despite National Defence’s refusal to co-operate, pegged the cost of the jets at $30 billion over 30 years and was held up by critics as proof the Conservatives lied to Canadians.

Questions about the true costs continued to plague the Conservatives and F-35 project until the following year, when auditor general Michael Ferguson’s scathing report largely supported Page’s findings.

The Conservatives pushed pause on the F-35s in December 2012 after National Defence admitted the costs would actually be more than $45 billion through 2052.

Former assistant PBO Sahir Khan, who worked with Page on the F-35 report, said he hopes the Liberal government co-operates with Frechette’s study this time around to ensure an informed debate and discussion about the Super Hornets and fighter jets.

“When this discussion is done without the facts, it gets reduced to soundbites,” he said. “So right now the government has a really good opportunity to have a different type of dialogue than the previous government had. But right now, it’s an opportunity.”


Super Hornet fighter jet costs under scrutiny: PBO

  1. The previous auditor general’s report looked at the cost of the F-35’s as if they weren’t replacing the existing F-18’s and concluded the cost to run the F-35’s to end of life was $45B… (i.e. they didn’t subtract the costs that we are already paying for the 80 CF-18’s and look at the incremental costs). They’d better do the same thing with the Super Hornets or we’ll really know they have been grandstanding for the Liberals all along. I’m going to bet right now that the cost to operate these 18 Super Hornets will be north of $20B (for less than 1/3 of the original fleet of 65 F-35’s). This isn’t going to end well.

    • “I am going to just make up a number, and then use that as proof of my conclusion”
      Sorry Maps but your reasoning is logical fallacy start to finish.
      I don’t know what the 18 hornets will cost, but some of the best numbers i have been able to find is $80 million fly away cost for the Super Hornet vs $120 million for the F-35. With the Super Hornet with have hard numbers to work with, since there are no truly combat ready F-35s we really don’t know.
      That however is only a small part of the story, maintenance costs are probably a bigger factor than acquisition costs.
      F-35:$41,000 per flight hour
      F-18SH:$17,000 per flight hour
      Add to that for the F-35 we would need to replace our refueling tanker fleet, and add 2000′ more runway as well as climate controlled hangers to our FOL. That is a massive additional cost not present in the more or less plug and play F-18SH.
      What do F-35s do for us anyway. Canada typically uses tactical fighters for two main missions, NORAD intercepts in ADIZ and as part of a NATO coalition.
      Intercepting ancient Russian Tu-95 with the F-35 is problematic, since the Russians use these flights to gather intelligence. Letting the Russians gather intelligence on F-35 radar performance from a number of different angles, and radar frequencies, is exactly what we don’t wont’ them to be able to do.
      So we actually don’t want the F-35 for NORAD intercepts.
      Ok, what about NATO missions? NATO missions will be performed with NATO partners 99% of the time in uncontested airspace. For the 1% of the time air defences will need to be dealt with, the F-18 Growler could be acquired. Or another NATO partner will perform that mission, and the other 99% of the time, the much larger useful payload of the F-18SH will be more productive to the mission.
      The US Navy, the second most powerful air force in the world, uses a mix of F-18 & F-18SH. The will continue to use the Super Hornet until at least 2040.

  2. For Christmas I’d like an evidence based approach to evaluating Canada’s fighter jet requirements.