Every country has an F-35 story it seems. Both Australian and Canadian force structure planning has been blighted by the aircraft’s problems and long delays. In 2007 Australia opted for a bridging capability – against Air Force advice – and acquired the F-18F Super Hornet. Canada now appears to be similarly considering a bridging capability, perhaps also against Air Force advice, and possibly acquiring Super Hornets.

Sounds much the same, at first glance. But Australian and Canadian requirements have some fundamental differences, and just as importantly time has moved on. 2016 is not 2007.

For Australia, the F-18F acquisition has been a good experience; the aircraft arrived on time and under budget. Neither are surprising in that the aircraft was an off-the-shelf buy rather than an F-35 developmental program. The in-service F-18A Hornet aircrew found converting to the Super Hornet easy and quick, with the US Navy (USN) training system providing a good head start.

The maintenance and support, however, was a much more complex matter. The current variant Super Hornet technology is considerably more advanced than the 1980s vintage Hornet. In many respects the Super Hornet’s technology is closer to the F-35 than the F-18A; it is really more of an F-35 Lite than a ‘super’ Hornet.

In being more advanced, the Super Hornet’s operating costs are much greater than those of the older Hornet. Apples to oranges comparisons are hard given different fleet sizes and other factors, but are probably more than twice as much per aircraft (see p. 120 of a recent Australian Strategic Policy Institute report). In this, a major project lesson learned by the Australian acquisition organisation is that, while off-the-shelf jets can be quickly acquired, “the establishment of a sustainment solution is a challenge and requires early management oversight.” Half the Super Hornet fleet had been delivered within three years but reaching the final operational capability state, when everything is bedded down, took 5 ½ years from government approval.

To read the full “A Mixed Fighter Fleet for Canada? Super Hornets, F-35s, and the challenge of comparisons” article by Griffith Asia Institute Visiting Fellow Peter Layton, please visit Conference of Defence Associations.