Canada Mimics Marine Corps Makeover For F/A-18C/D Fleet
With operators in Europe, the Middle East and Asia looking on, an upgrade package approved by the State Department on June 16 for up to 36 Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) F/A-18C/Ds cements a new configuration aimed at keeping the Boeing-made jets in service decades beyond their planned retirement dates.
A group of Raytheon-made sensors and weapons—APG-79(v)4 active, electronically scanned array radars, AIM-9X Block II air-to-air missiles and AGM-154C Joint Standoff Weapons—will be included in the RCAF’s newly defined Phase 2 upgrade to help keep a subset of the 94-member CF-18 fleet operating into the 2030s. The State Department previously cleared Canada to acquire 32 AIM-120D advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles for the CF-18.
- New radars, weapons for CF-18s
- Future Fighter contract bids due July 31
The package, defined in a Defense Security Cooperation Agency notification to Congress on June 16, offers few surprises. The Phase 2 Hornet Extension Program will be closely aligned with a U.S. Marine Corps initiative to keep at least two squadrons of F/A-18C/Ds in service beyond 2029, as both the Marines and the RCAF have waited longer than expected for a replacement jet to arrive.
The U.S. Navy tipped the radar selection for the RCAF in a June 11 presolicitation notice that specified the APG-79(v)4, showing an intent to prevent Northrop Grumman from offering the APG-83 for the Canadian program. The Marines evaluated the APG-83 and the APG-79 two years ago, but selected the latter as the successor to the Raytheon APG-73 for the “classic” Hornet fleet.
“Partnering with the [Marines], who are completing the same radar upgrade, will enable the introduction of this new capability faster, more efficiently and at reduced cost for both services,” the Canadian Department of National Defense (DND) tells Aviation Week in a statement.
The upgrades by the Canadians and the U.S. Marines are driven by the same issue. A delayed delivery schedule for the Lockheed Martin F-35B has forced the Marines to keep a fleet of Legacy F/A-18s in service for a decade longer than planned.
The Canadian government’s 11-year-old pursuit of a CF-18 replacement (highlighted by failed attempts to acquire 65 Lockheed Martin F-35As in 2010 and an interim fleet of 18 Boeing F/A-18E/F aircraft in 2016) is still in competition mode, with a contract award for 88 fighters due in 2022. Three bidding teams—F/A-18E/F, F-35A and the Saab JAS 39 Gripen—must submit final bids by July 31, which includes a one-month delay to account for the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the industry.
“These [CF-18] upgrades will provide a capability bridge until transition to a permanent replacement fighter,” the DND says.
Canada’s fighter delays have not been easy for the RCAF to manage. The current fleet, acquired in the early 1980s, was originally expected to be retired in the early 2000s. A retirement date in 2020 fell through as the government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper stalled on signing the contract for the controversial F-35A selection. The new administration of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pushed the selection process to 2022. The CF-18 is now set for retirement in 2032.
The situation is different in Finland. Although the Finnish Air Force operates the youngest fleet of F/A-18C/Ds, the head of the HX fighter competition has roundly rejected calls to extend their service life into the 2030s, saying even a few extra years of operations would cost at least €1.2 billion ($1.35 billion).
The State Department cleared the RCAF to buy 50 infrared-guided AIM-9X Block II missiles, 38 APG-79(v)4 radars and 20 AGM-154C glide bombs as part of an overall package worth $862 million. The bundle includes electronic equipment, tactical data and support.
The CAD$1.3 billion ($960 million) CF-18 Hornet Enhancement Program is divided in two phases. Phase 1 updates all 94 aircraft, including 18 former Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18C/Ds acquired two years ago, with interoperability and regulatory upgrades, including a new GPS/international navigation system, Identification Friend or Foe transponder, Link 16 tactical radios, satellite communications, targeting pod modifications and improved helmets.