OTTAWA - The competition to replace Canada’s fleet of aging CF-18 fighter jets played out at an Ottawa trade show Wednesday, with boasts, bravado and a little sky-high trash talk.
While Ottawa has yet to signal whether that there will be an open competition, that didn’t stop officials with Lockheed Martin, Boeing and the Eurofighter consortium from making the case that their fighters would be the best pick for the Royal Canadian Air Force.
There were boasts about the jet that can fly furthest, can land on the shortest runway, can best defend itself against aerial threats — and which program would best allow Canadian companies to share in the lucrative contract.
At the CANSEC 2014 conference, everything from armoured vehicles and weapons to high-tech mapping gear were on offer. But the world’s largest aerospace firms were on hand vying for the big prize — the contract to supply Canada’s next fighter jet, worth tens of billions of dollars over the coming decades.
Canada had originally settled on the F-35 jet, but after questions about cost and a non-competitive process, the Conservative government pushed reset on the procurement. It now has to decide whether to proceed with its sole-source purchase or open up the competition.
That competition was on display Wednesday; the trash talk was delivered in polite corporate-speak, but there was no mistaking the put-downs.
Lockheed Martin boasts that its F-35 is the jet of the future, although there have been concerns about cost increases and development woes with the high-tech fighter. Boeing and Eurofighter say their designs are proven, tested in combat and come with a predictable price tag.
In a trailer away from the hustle of the convention hall, officials with Eurofighter delivered their pitch, highlighting the fact that six nations are already flying its Typhoon and that the aircraft went to war in the Libyan air campaign.
“It tells us the airplane can perform and is highly reliable,” said Joe Parker, Eurofighter export director.
“We meet all the needs. The airplane has been designed to do a complete range of operational missions and, where Canada stands, we believe we have ticked every box,” Parker said.
Boeing officials made a similar case for their Super Hornet, a complete overhaul of the original Hornet, saying it is already flying with the Australian air force and U.S. navy, in sharp contrast with the F-35.
“The planes coming down the line today from our competitors that are in development carry a significant amount of risk. The technologies are still maturing; the program’s not even done,” said Howard Berry, Boeing’s F-18 international development leader.
Test pilots who fly the Super Hornet and Eurofighter — both twin-engine jets — let it be known, not so subtly, that they would be nervous flying a single-engine jet over Canada’s vast northern expanses.
“Take the two engines — you don’t have to worry about falling into the water if your engine fails,” said Joey Borkenstein, a test pilot with Eurofighter.
Steve O’Bryan, vice-president of business development for Lockheed Martin, says the F-35 is “fifth-generation” technology, representing the best design ideas of the fighters before it, and further honed with a $60-billion development budget.
“That should give you an idea of its capabilities,” O’Bryan said.
“This is the airplane that all the great allies are going to fly,” he said, noting that 10 countries have already signed up.
There are orders for 3,100 F-35s booked. But unless more orders come in, the last of the Super Hornet jets will roll off the production line in 2016.
“For Canada it’s a choice. . . . Do you want to buy the last fighter off the line,” O’Bryan said in an interview.
Billie Flynn, a Canadian who is an experimental test pilot with Lockheed Martin, waves away concerns about the F-35’s single engine because of advancements in technology that have enhanced its reliability.
“We have the single most powerful fighter engine ever developed. We will go faster; we stay up longer because we are more efficient than any other power plant combination that exists in the world,” Flynn said.