Replacement for the CF-18 Fighter Jet: Alternatives to the Joint Strike Fighter Program

When Canada bought the CF-18 in 1980 the projected life of the jets indicated that they would be in service until the early 2000′s (Pugliese, 2011). To extend the life of the aircraft a modernization program was created to retrofit all of the current planes and upgrade them with the latest avionics, communication devices, and weaponry, allowing them to fly beyond 2017. At this point the Canadian Government realized that a replacement was needed for when the CF-18 would finally need to be taken out of service. This replacement plan came in the form of the Canadian Department of National Defence becoming a partner in the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program in 1997 (Office of the Auditor General, 2012).

This Report will focus on the attributes and weaknesses of the JSF as well as a thorough comparison of potential alternative options. All attempts will be made to maintain a bi-partisan outlook and focus to on the technical as well as financial aspects of the JSF and its competitors rather than any politically motivated issues or opinions.

The JSF is the name used when referring to the developmental aircraft created by Lockheed Martin for the Joint Strike Fighter Program. This plane is now leaving the developmental stages of its design and has been designated the name F-35 Lightning II. The F-35 Lightning II is one of a multitude of potential replacement options for the CF-18, and to fully understand the implications of choosing the JSF one must consider the differences between the procurement programs for the F-35 Lightning II compared to those of the CF-18.

In 1977 when the Government of Canada created the New Fighter Aircraft (NFA) Project it set certain requirements that a replacement for the CF-101 Voodoo and CF-116 Freedom Fighter would have to meet. The chosen replacement aircraft is the fighter still in use by the Canadian Forces, the CF-18 Hornet, and the aircraft currently trying to be replaced. Differences between the NFA Project and the JSF Program as well as alternatives to the F-35 Lightning II which will still fulfil the needs of Canadians will also be highlighted.

The Dasault Rafale is a french-made, twin engine, fourth generation, multi-role combat aircraft developed by Dassault Aerospace in the 1990′s. There are currently over 100 airframes in service in between the French Air-force and Navy, and the Indian Air-force. The Eurofighter Typhoon is multi-role, 4th generation fighter developed in the 1990′s by a European consortium of aircraft manufacturers Alenia Aermacchi, BAE Systems, and EADS. The Eurofighter, with over 300 airframes in service, is currently operated by the Austrian, Italian, German, British, Spanish, and Saudi Air Forces. The Eurofighter is also the primary fighter for the NATO Multi-role Combat Aircraft Program (Spick, 2000). The Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet is an American, twin engine, fourth generation, multi-role fighter based on the earlier Boeing F/A-18 C/D Hornet. A predecessor to the Super Hornet, the F/A-18 A/B is currently employed in Canada, as the CF-18. Production began in the early 2000s and there are currently 500 airframes in use by the United States Navy as well as the Australian Air Force. All three of these aircraft are viable, safe, and strategic alternative to the F-35 Lightning II. All are produced in NATO countries, and all are currently deployed around the world. Unit costs of the planes range from $70m to $143m and are all available for purchase to Canada right now. The JSF will cost $170m and is not slated to be ready for delivery until at least 2017.

The F-35 Lightning II is the winner of a US government contract proposal for a multi-role aircraft capable of replacing a multitude of current aircraft utilized in the US military. This aircraft was designed from the ground up to be the next generation fighter for the US and its allies. There are currently nine countries with varying levels of involvement in the program, each allowing different levels of participation in the design, different delivery time-frames, and the possibility additional contracts for defence businesses in each country (Defence Industry Daily, 2012).


F-35 Lightning II


The F-35 Lightning II was designed from to be one of the most advanced fighter jets of this age, and is only the second “fifth generation” fighter to be put into production. It has been designed with the latest avionics, radar reflecting paint, a radar reflecting shape to disguise its large size, and inboard weapons bays to streamline aerodynamics and disguise the planes payload. Unfortunately this extremely complex design has resulted in major delays to the completion of the aircraft. (Pugliese, 2011)

One of the main selling points of the aircraft has been the possibility of bringing some of the development back to Canada in the form of defence contracts. From 2002 to 2012, $490m in contracts were awarded to Canadian companies and that number has the potential to grow (Office of the Auditor General of Canada, (2012).

When it comes to the integrating the fighter to work alongside our current infrastructure and practices there are a few issues that arise. The range of an F-35 Lightning II has been identified as a detrimental drawback for aircraft. The maximum range is only 2220km, compared to 2000km for the CF-18, which which can carry only half as much fuel. Range has always been a consideration for Canadian military aircraft purchases, and was a deciding factor in the CF-18 winning its contract. Thus, refuelling the aircraft will be a necessity when transporting the planes long distances, performing patrolling missions, and supporting Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. The Royal Canadian Air Force has two specially outfitted CC-150 Polaris transport aircraft which are responsible for refuelling the fleet of CF-18 Hornets. These aircraft are fitted with a probe/drogue refuelling system (see Fig 1) compatible with the majority of NATO aircraft, including the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Dassault Rafale, and the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet. This system in not compatible with the variant of the F-35 Lightning II Canada is ordering as the US Air Force uses a boom refuelling method (see Fig 2) instead. The current CF-18s, having been derived from a US Navy aircraft, use the probe/drogue refuelling method. Making the necessary changes to the aircraft will add $325 million, and 7000 man hours tot he overall cost (Bolkom, 2005).

Due to the vast and mostly uninhabited nature of Canada and our mandate to assert our sovereignty in the Arctic standard methods of radio communication used by fighters becomes inoperable over the high Arctic. To avoid this problem Canadian Forces aircraft are fitted with satellite communication systems capable of using relaying communication back to base when an aircraft is out of radio range. This system will not be available on the F-35 Lightning II until after 2020 due to the closed nature of the software utilized in the F-35 Lightning II. Without this vital piece of equipment there is no guarantee that our fighters will be able to stay in contact when on patrol, putting them at great risk.

When it comes to a country’s military, the ability to be self-sustaining is a key priority. The CF-18s Canada uses are sporting Canadian designed communications, navigation, and weapons guidance systems (DefenceTalk, 2005). The F-35 Lightning II will not be as flexible when modifications are needed due to the increased reliance on software and computers that are required on such an advanced aircraft. The security risks surrounding the instability of software means that no country that buys the aircraft will have access to the source code for the fighters software. This causes a two-fold issue – not only are we unable to modify the planes ourselves, but we are also unable to diagnose and fix issues with the planes.

The security restrictions on the aircraft do not end at the lack of availability of the software. The entire plane and all the development related to it is covered by a set of US regulations know as ITAR, or International Traffic in Arm Regulations, which controls the export and import of defence and military related information and material. These regulations have been cited as a serious hurdle for the Joint Strike Fighter Program as they strictly regulate and restrict access to detailed information about the technology going into the aircraft. ITAR has caused almost all governments looking to buy the F-35 to also consider alternatives due to the lack of access to the technology they are buying (BBC, 2006).

The F-35 Lightning II has few similarities to its predecessor the CF-18. It only has one engine where the CF-28 has two, the communications, navigation, and weapons guidance are all closed and not available to our military, and the ability to service and upgrade our aircraft is severely restricted. The F-35 Lightning II shares little resemblance to the CF-18 Hornet it is meant to replace, and in many ways comes up short compared to it. Thus, it can be concluded that the purchase of the F-35 Lightning II was not due to its superior nature, but political pressure to buy into the program along with Canada’s blind, unwavering support for US military choices.


Dassault Rafale


The Dassault Rafale is a delta-wing multi-role combat aircraft developed in France by Dassault Aviation for the French Air Force and Navy. Introduced in 2000, the Rafale is current employed in both France and India with a combined 100 airframes currently in service. Dating back to the 1970′s, many European nations started looking at a collaborative next generation of fighter aircraft. In 1979, France, represented by Dassault, joined the European Collaborative Fighter project along with Messerschmitt from Germany and British Aerospace. Disagreements over the specifications and intended use of the fighter being designed resulted in a falling out between France and the other member nations. The creating of the Rafale was prompted by France’s choice to leave the European consortium in 1983 and pursue their own design. This design, lead by Dassault, was called the Rafale.

There are two main production variants of the Rafale, the two person Rafale B, and the single-seat Rafale C. Built as an air-superiority fighter the Rafale is capable of all the necessary manoeuvring that comes with this role. The Rafale has advanced avionics, including a holographic “heads up” display, multifunction, full-colour touch screen displays, and integrated night vision. The Rafale includes a complete fly-by-wire system, autopilot, and self-recovery capabilities. It is fitted with two Snecma M88 engines capable 50kN of thrust (75kN with afterburners on) allowing a max cruising speed of Mach 1.4. The Rafale also boasts the longest range of any of the possible contenders at 3700km.

With over 100 currently in use around the world and more countries looking at the Rafale as a replacement for their ageing jets it is one of the most advanced and adaptable fighters on the market today.

The Rafale would make for a viable replacement for the current CF-18s due to the reduced level of restrictions placed on purchasing countries, such as the ability to utilize its own avionics, navigation and computer systems with relative ease.


Eurofighter Typhoon


The Eurofighter Typhoon was a result of the Experimental Aircraft Program, formed in 1983 as a consortium of European governments tasked with creating Europe’s next generation fighter. Introduced in 2003 the Eurofighter, is a modern fourth generation fighter developed by a consortium of British Aerospace (UK), Finmeccanica (Italy), European Aeronautic and Space (EADS) company, CASA (Spain), and EADS DASA (Germany). There are currently more than 340 airframes in service with the six air forces of Great Britain, Austria, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. There are variants of this aircraft, designated Tranche 1 and 2, with 3 and 4 block respectively, of different sub-variants. The aircraft in Tranche 2 are upgraded and modernized second-run versions of the aircraft in Tranche 1. These more modern aircraft are equipped with upgraded avionics, navigation, communication and weapons equipment as well as more specific tailoring to individual air forces requirements.

The Eurofighter Typhoon is a twin engine fighter utilizing two Eurojet EJ200 after-burning turbofan engines, which provide up to 178kN of thrust. The Eurofighter is capable of a maximum speed of Mach 2, maintaining supersonic speeds without afterburners (super-cruise), and capable of carrying 4500kg of fuel with a maximum internal range of 2900km.

As a replacement of the CF-18 the Eurofighter typhoon would be an excellent choice due to its unrestricted design and wide use across allied counties. With the Eurofighter being the key aircraft of NATO nations in Europe Canada would be provided with a prime opportunity to tap into the resources of many of its European allies, as well as to benefit from the simplicity of the compatibility and interoperability of the air forces that use the same aircraft. Unlike the F/A-35 E/F Lightning II, there would be no need for the fighters to be retrofitted for compatibility with Canada’s current in-air refuelling infrastructure as the technology in use now is that of the German Air Force, which was designed with the Eurofighter in mind. The dual engine capability of the Eurofighter contributes an added level of redundancy when considering the challenging nature of operation in Canada.


F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet


The F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet is a twin-engine multi-role fighter developed by McDonnell Douglas, and subsequently Boeing. The Super Hornet is based on the F/A-18 C/D Hornet and was initially conceived as the Hornet 2000 concept, a replacement for the A-6 Intruder. The F/A-18 E/F was officially proposed when the Navy Advanced Tactical Fighter, the proposed naval variant of the forthcoming F-22 Raptor, was cancelled. The first flight of the Super Hornet was in 1995, and production of the first Super Hornets began in 1997. There are currently a combined 500 Super Hornets in service with the US Navy, and the Australian Air Force.

There are three operational variants of the Super Hornet, the F/A-18E single seat, the F/A-18F two-seat, and the EA-18G Growler electronic warfare variants. When looking at the Super Hornet compared to the original Hornet, there are are improvements across the board. The Super Hornet is 20% larger, and weighing from 3200kg (empty) to 6800kg (maximum takeoff weight) heavier than the Hornet. It can carry 30% more fuel, and through the improved efficiency of the engines, increase the range by 41 to 50%.

The F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet would provide a near ideal replacement to the current CF-18 fleet due to its numerous similar characteristics. The F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet is directly based on the F/A-18 C/D Hornet, the American variant of the CF-18 operated in Canada, As such. the two aircraft share many structural and usage characteristics, such as the avionics, navigation, flight computers, armament, ejector seats, maintenance and operational practices. This alone puts the Super Hornet at a significant advantage, as maintenance and operational costs can be an even bigger problem than the initial purchasing price. The Super Hornet was also designed to have a reduced radar cross-section, and to be able to carry “buddy store” tanks for paired in-flight refuelling, allowing for an extra 1800L of fuel to be carried. To accommodate the increase in avionics, fuel, and future upgrades, the fuselage was stretched and the number of parts was reduced by 42%, the wing span was increased by 25%, and the thrust output was increased by 35%. The software and avionics of the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet are 90% compatible with that of the F/A-18 C/D Hornet, making most of the additions added to the CF-18′s interoperable with the Super Hornets.


Comparison of Fighters

When it comes to making an accurate comparison of the replacement options outlined in this report, a multifaceted approach is required. An analysis of specifications and numbers is needed to lay down a baseline for how each of the aircraft compares to the others, but this does not give a fully accurate comparison. To make the comparison thorough, it is important to consider two main aspects: the long and short term interoperability of the aircraft and how it will fit into the current fleet, and the cost not outlined in the purchasing material such as fuel, maintenance, training, and potential upgrades. Without considering all of these factors the (including the numerical and specification data found in the attached Chart1) report could not be considered accurate.


When looking at the aircraft as a comparison of their numerical data, there are some categories which cannot be ranked, such as country of origin, wing span and wing area, and the differences between the guns. For those categories which have a better and worse possible value, we see that the Dassault Rafale excels at seven, the Eurofighter Typhoon in five, both the Cf-18 Hornet and the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet with three, and the F-35 Lightning II with only two.

The Dassault Rafale has the greatest range (using only internally stored fuel) even though it has only an average fuel capacity. It also has the greatest combat Radius (distance to which the aircraft can fly on internal fuel and a combination of weapons and drop tanks), and though the ferry range is unknown based on the hardpoint (see Fig 3) payload it would be superior in that respect as well. The Rafale, while having the largest diameter internal gun, also carries the least rounds for that gun. The Rafale has fourteen hardpoint on the wings and fuselage for mounting weapons, jamming equipment, fuel, and drop tanks. This being the largest number of hardpoints, along with the fact that it has the greatest hardpoint payload capacity, the Rafale is able to carry a great deal of ordinance over the already established superior range. The Rafale, having been designed for use on the French aircraft carrier, is fully carrier capable.

Through the calculable ferry range for the Rafale is the greatest the Eurofighter has the greatest of those publicly available. The Eurofighter also has the greatest thrust to weight ratio at 1.15, the fastest top speed, at Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound), and the fastest rate of climb, at 315m/s.

The F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, having been based on the F/A-18 Hornet possesses only incremental improvements across a broad range of specifications. Though not having the best aircraft from a specification and numerical stand point, the Super Hornet provides a save incremental upgrade to the current CF-18 fleet.

The F-35 Lightning II only features two superior capabilities: it possesses the largest internal fuel payload, which, though initially impressive, is shown to be necessary when one considers it has the second shortest combat radius and range, and a maximum service ceiling of 18,288 meters.

Of the comparisons mentioned on the chart, the notable exception so far has been the number of engines each of the aircraft have. All of the aircraft discussed in this report feature two engines, with the notable exception of the F-35 Lightning II. The choice of two engined aircraft for use in this report was twofold. Firstly going back to the New Fighter Aircraft Program and their choice of the F/A-18 (in use in Canada as the CF-18) Hornet over that of the F-16 Fighting Falcon, due to its superior range and inclusion of two engines. When dealing with a country as vast as Canada, with sparsity of settlements and limited military resources the fighter used for patrols must have both a good range and be reliable over that whole range. The inclusion of a second engine provides that reliability in the form of redundancy.

Having compared the aircraft from a numerical standpoint a slightly more abstract comparison of the aircraft will now be considered.

The first of these to consider is the integration and sustainability of the fleet in the context of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The main consideration for a replacement fleet is that the aircraft are ready by the time the outgoing fleet is retired, so as to minimize the operational impact of the transition. This relates directly to the production dates for the different aircraft. The Super Hornet has been in full scale production since 1997, the Rafale since 2000, and the Eurofighter since 2003, and the F-35 Lightning II is not currently in full scale production. The F-35 Lightning II is still on development and will only be ready for delivery after the slated 2017 retirement of the CF-18. This poses a significant risk to Canada’s national security, and the possibility of achieving a smooth transition to a new fighter jet. Conversely, all of the three alternative jets have been in production for a number of years and would be ready for delivery in a much short time frame.

When considering the purchase of a new aircraft there are costs upfront and costs that are only realized after the purchase has been made. Of these secondary costs servicing, maintenance, training, and upgrades are the key considerations. When it comes the reducing these costs, the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet is the clear leader, as it shares 30% of its parts, 90% of the software, and significant portions of the training and maintenance procedures with Canada’s current planes. This would mean a greatly reduced cost for training, replacement parts, and new maintenance practices which, over the life of the aircraft, could mean significant cost savings (DefenceTalk, 2005). The Eurofighter and the Rafale are also comparably simplistic, as they are designed to integrate into many different air forces. The F-35 Lightning II is not as simple. Through the inherent design of the aircraft, and its reliance on computers for an increasing number of capabilities, the F-35 requires a much more complex service regime, made even more complex by the restrictions that only the United States, not even the purchasing countries will have access to the aircraft’s source code. The implication of this means that for many repairs the aircraft will need to be shipped back to the manufacturer, costing the Canadian Armed Forces time and money.

The most noticeable signs of the planes ageing will almost always be in the flight computers, communications, and avionics equipment. The current CF-18 fleet has undergone two major avionics, weapons, and communication upgrades over their lifetime, allowing them to stay up to date and in the air (Candian Defence Procurement, 2004). Thus, the ease and cost of these upgrades is a major concern when purchasing any new aircraft. The Eurofighter Typhoon, the Dassault Rafale, and the Super Hornet all provide easy access to their flight computers, the ability to install new equipment, and the ability perform repairs without returning the aircraft tot he manufacturer.

When making large government purchases, such as fighter jets, cost is a very important consideration. Of the options, the F-35 Lightning II is the most expensive at $154 million (without the modifications required for it to work in Canada). Canada is planning to purchase 65 of these aircraft for a total of $10 billion. At this price, we could instead purchase 80 Dassault Rafales, 70 Eurofighter Typhoons, or 143 F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets, all of which are closer to the original 138 CF-18 Hornets.



With the number of available options for the Canadian Government to choose from when looking at a replacement fighter jet, there is no one right answer. This report has set the goal of outlining a short list what suitable contenders for a comparison. This is by no means an exhaustive list of planes, and many allied NATO planes have not been included for the sake of brevity. There are also many fighters developed in Russia, and the former Soviet Union that are arguable comparable to those shown here, but for political and diplomatic reasons, they would never realistically be chosen.

This report has provided a detailed account of each of the compared aircraft and has used this analysis to determine a series of conclusions for best replacement for the CF-18 Hornet. The Dassualt Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon are both highly advanced, modern fighter jets, but if the greatest range and payload as well as carrier capability are of utmost importance then the Rafale this is the right choice. The Eurofighter is the best choice when looking for the fastest and most powerful, and all-round most capable fighter. The F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet provides the most cost efficient, low risk, and incremental upgrade option. With so many competitive alternatives available F-35 Lightning II has been shown to be the least capable, most costly, hardest to integrate, worst possible choice for a replacement for the CF-18 Hornet.

On December 6 the Canadian government cancels their plans to purchase the F-35 through a sole sourced contract. Boeing’s Super Hornet, Dassault’s Rafale, and the Eurofighter Typhoon are being considered as the likely alternatives. (Tandt, 2012)

Chart 1: Fighter Numerical and Specification Analysis

FighterCF-18 HornetF-35 Lightning IIDassault RafaleEurofighter TyphoonF/A-18 E/F Super Hornet
Unit Cost (million $)123 (based on inflation)15412414370
Country of OriginUSAUSAFranceUK, Germany, Spain, ItalyUSA
Fuel Capacity (kg)44748382470045006780
Range (km)20002220370029002346
Combat Radius (km)537108018521389722
Ferry Range (km)370037903330
Service Ceiling (m)1500018288168001676515000
Wing Span (m)12.3110.710.810.9513.62
Wing Area (m)37.1642.745.751.246.5
Number of Engines21222
Thrust to Weight Ratio0.890.871.11.150.93
Max Speed (mach)
Climb Rate (m/s)254304.8315228
Internal Gun20 mm M61 Vulcan25 mm GAU-22/A Equalizer30 mm GIAT 30/719B27 mm Mauser BK-2720 mm M61 Vulcan
Internal Rounds578180125150578
Hardpoint Payload (kg)62158100950075008050
Carrier CapableYesNoYesNoYes

(Royal Candian Air Force, 2012), (F-35 Lightning II Program), (Marine Nationale, 2011), (Spick, 2000), (United Stated Navy, 2009)



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Hayward Peirce Written by:

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