Options for Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems and the Five Eyes Alliance

Dan Lee is a government employee who works in Defense, and has varying levels of experience working with Five Eyes nations (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand).  He can be found on Twitter @danlee961.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  Options for Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems and the Five Eyes Alliance

Date Originally Written:  September 29, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  October 29, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The article is written from the point of view of Five Eyes national defense organizations. 

Background:  The Five Eyes community consists of the United Kingdom (UK), the United States (US), Canada, Australia and New Zealand; its origins can be traced to the requirement to cooperate in Signals Intelligence after World War Two[1]. Arguably, the alliance is still critical today in dealing with terrorism and other threats[2].

Autonomous systems may provide the Five Eyes alliance an asymmetric advantage, or ‘offset’, to counter its strategic competitors that are on track to field larger and more technologically advanced military forces. The question of whether or not to develop and employ Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) is currently contentious due to the ethical and social considerations involved with allowing machines to choose targets and apply lethal force without human intervention[3][4][5]. Twenty-six countries are calling for a prohibition on LAWS, while three Five Eyes partners (Australia, UK and the US) as well as other nations including France, Germany, South Korea and Turkey do not support negotiating new international laws on the matter[6]. When considering options, at least two issues must also be addressed.

The first issue is defining what LAWS are; a common lexicon is required to allow Five Eyes partners to conduct an informed discussion as to whether they can come to a common policy position on the development and employment of these systems. Public understanding of autonomy is mostly derived from the media or from popular culture and this may have contributed to the hype around the topic[7][8][8]. Currently there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a fully autonomous lethal weapon system, which has in turn disrupted discussions at the United Nations (UN) on how these systems should be governed by the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCWUN)[10]. The US and UK have different definitions, which makes agreement on a common position difficult even amongst like-minded nations[11][12]. This lack of lexicon is further complicated by some strategic competitors using more liberal definitions of LAWS, allowing them to support a ban while simultaneously developing weapons that do not require meaningful human control[13][14][15][16].

The second issue one of agreeing how autonomous systems might be employed within the Five Eyes alliance. For example, as a strategic offset technology, the use of autonomous systems might mitigate the relatively small size of their military forces relative to an adversary’s force[17]. Tactically, they could be deployed completely independently of humans to remove personnel from danger, as swarms to overwhelm the enemy with complexity, or as part of a human-machine team to augment human capabilities[18][19][20].

A failure of Five Eyes partners to come to a complete agreement on what is and is not permissible in developing and employing LAWS does not necessarily mean a halt to progress; indeed, this may provide the alliance with the ability for some partners to cover the capability gaps of others. If some members of the alliance choose not to develop lethal systems, it may free their resources to focus on autonomous Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) or logistics capabilities. In a Five Eyes coalition environment, these members who chose not to develop lethal systems could provide support to the LAWS-enabled forces of other partners, providing lethal autonomy to the alliance as whole, if not to individual member states.

Significance:  China and Russia may already be developing LAWS; a failure on the part of the Five Eyes alliance to actively manage this issue may put it at a relative disadvantage in the near future[21][22][23][24]. Further, dual-use civilian technologies already exist that may be adapted for military use, such as the Australian COTSbot and the Chinese Mosquito Killer Robot[25][26]. If the Five Eyes alliance does not either disrupt the development of LAWS by its competitors, or attain relative technological superiority, it may find itself starting in a position of disadvantage during future conflicts or deterrence campaigns.

Option #1:  Five Eyes nations work with the UN to define LAWS and ban their development and use; diplomatic, economic and informational measures are applied to halt or disrupt competitors’ LAWS programs. Technological offset is achieved by Five Eyes autonomous military systems development that focuses on logistics and ISR capabilities, such as Boston Dynamics’ LS3 AlphaDog and the development of driverless trucks to free soldiers from non-combat tasks[27][28][29][30].

Risk:  In the event of conflict, allied combat personnel would be more exposed to danger than the enemy as their nations had, in essence, decided to not develop a technology that could be of use in war. Five Eyes militaries would not be organizationally prepared to develop, train with and employ LAWS if necessitated by an existential threat. It may be too late to close the technological capability gap after the commencement of hostilities.

Gain:  The Five Eyes alliance’s legitimacy regarding human rights and the just conduct of war is maintained in the eyes of the international community. A LAWS arms race and subsequent proliferation can be avoided.

Option #2:  Five Eyes militaries actively develop LAWS to achieve superiority over their competitors.

Risk:  The Five Eyes alliance’s legitimacy may be undermined in the eyes of the international community and organizations such as The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, the UN, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Public opinion in some partner nations may increasingly disapprove of LAWS development and use, which could fragment the alliance in a similar manner to the Australia, New Zealand and United States Security Treaty[31][32].

The declared development and employment of LAWS may catalyze a resource-intensive international arms race. Partnerships between government and academia and industry may also be adversely affected[33][34].

Gain:  Five Eyes nations avoid a technological disadvantage relative to their competitors; the Chinese information campaign to outmanoeuvre Five Eyes LAWS development through the manipulation of CCWUN will be mitigated. Once LAWS development is accepted as inevitable, proliferation may be regulated through the UN.

Other Comments:  None

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] Tossini, J.V. (November 14, 2017). The Five Eyes – The Intelligence Alliance of the Anglosphere. Retrieved from https://ukdefencejournal.org.uk/the-five-eyes-the-intelligence-alliance-of-the-anglosphere/

[2] Grayson, K. Time to bring ‘Five Eyes’ in from the cold? (May 4, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/time-bring-five-eyes-cold/

[3] Lange, K. 3rd Offset Strategy 101: What It Is, What the Tech Focuses Are (March 30, 2016). Retrieved from http://www.dodlive.mil/2016/03/30/3rd-offset-strategy-101-what-it-is-what-the-tech-focuses-are/

[4] International Committee of the Red Cross. Expert Meeting on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems Statement (November 15, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.icrc.org/en/document/expert-meeting-lethal-autonomous-weapons-systems

[5] Human Rights Watch and
Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. Fully Autonomous Weapons: Questions and Answers. (October 2013). Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/supporting_resources/10.2013_killer_robots_qa.pdf

[6] Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. Report on Activities Convention on Conventional Weapons Group of Governmental Experts meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems – United Nations Geneva – 9-13 April 2018. (2018) Retrieved from https://www.stopkillerrobots.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/KRC_ReportCCWX_Apr2018_UPLOADED.pdf

[7] Scharre, P. Why You Shouldn’t Fear ‘Slaughterbots’. (December 22, 2017). Retrieved from https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/military-robots/why-you-shouldnt-fear-slaughterbots

[8] Winter, C. (November 14, 2017). ‘Killer robots’: autonomous weapons pose moral dilemma. Retrieved from https://www.dw.com/en/killer-robots-autonomous-weapons-pose-moral-dilemma/a-41342616

[9] Devlin, H. Killer robots will only exist if we are stupid enough to let them. (June 11, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jun/11/killer-robots-will-only-exist-if-we-are-stupid-enough-to-let-them

[10] Welsh, S. Regulating autonomous weapons. (November 16, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/regulating-autonomous-weapons/

[11] United States Department of Defense. Directive Number 3000.09. (November 21, 2012). Retrieved from https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=726163

[12] Lords AI committee: UK definitions of autonomous weapons hinder international agreement. (April 17, 2018). Retrieved from http://www.article36.org/autonomous-weapons/lords-ai-report/

[13] Group of Governmental Experts of the High Contracting Parties to the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects – Geneva, 9–13 April 2018 (first week) Item 6 of the provisional agenda – Other matters. (11 April 2018). Retrieved from https://www.unog.ch/80256EDD006B8954/(httpAssets)/E42AE83BDB3525D0C125826C0040B262/$file/CCW_GGE.1_2018_WP.7.pdf

[14] Welsh, S. China’s shock call for ban on lethal autonomous weapon systems. (April 16, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.janes.com/article/79311/china-s-shock-call-for-ban-on-lethal-autonomous-weapon-systems

[15] Mohanty, B. Lethal Autonomous Dragon: China’s approach to artificial intelligence weapons. (Nov 15 2017). Retrieved from https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/lethal-autonomous-weapons-dragon-china-approach-artificial-intelligence/

[16] Kania, E.B. China’s Strategic Ambiguity and Shifting Approach to Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems. (April 17, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.lawfareblog.com/chinas-strategic-ambiguity-and-shifting-approach-lethal-autonomous-weapons-systems

[17] Tomes, R. Why the Cold War Offset Strategy was all about Deterrence and Stealth. (January 14, 2015) Retrieved from https://warontherocks.com/2015/01/why-the-cold-war-offset-strategy-was-all-about-deterrence-and-stealth/

[18] Lockie, A. The Air Force just demonstrated an autonomous F-16 that can fly and take out a target all by itself. (April 12, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com.au/f-16-drone-have-raider-ii-loyal-wingman-f-35-lockheed-martin-2017-4?r=US&IR=T

[19] Schuety, C. & Will, L. An Air Force ‘Way of Swarm’: Using Wargaming and Artificial Intelligence to Train Drones. (September 21, 2018). Retrieved from https://warontherocks.com/2018/09/an-air-force-way-of-swarm-using-wargaming-and-artificial-intelligence-to-train-drones/

[20] Ryan, M. Human-Machine Teaming for Future Ground Forces. (2018). Retrieved from https://csbaonline.org/uploads/documents/Human_Machine_Teaming_FinalFormat.pdf

[21] Perrigo, B. Global Arms Race for Killer Robots Is Transforming the Battlefield. (Updated: April 9, 2018). Retrieved from http://time.com/5230567/killer-robots/

[22] Hutchison, H.C. Russia says it will ignore any UN ban of killer robots. (November 30, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/russia-will-ignore-un-killer-robot-ban-2017-11/?r=AU&IR=T

[23] Mizokami, K. Kalashnikov Will Make an A.I.-Powered Killer Robot – What could possibly go wrong? (July 20, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/news/a27393/kalashnikov-to-make-ai-directed-machine-guns/

[24] Atherton, K. Combat robots and cheap drones obscure the hidden triumph of Russia’s wargame. (September 25, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.c4isrnet.com/unmanned/2018/09/24/combat-robots-and-cheap-drones-obscure-the-hidden-triumph-of-russias-wargame/

[25] Platt, J.R. A Starfish-Killing, Artificially Intelligent Robot Is Set to Patrol the Great Barrier Reef Crown of thorns starfish are destroying the reef. Bots that wield poison could dampen the invasion. (January 1, 2016) Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-starfish-killing-artificially-intelligent-robot-is-set-to-patrol-the-great-barrier-reef/

[26] Skinner, T. Presenting, the Mosquito Killer Robot. (September 14, 2016). Retrieved from https://quillorcapture.com/2016/09/14/presenting-the-mosquito-killer-robot/

[27] Defence Connect. DST launches Wizard of Aus. (November 10, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.defenceconnect.com.au/key-enablers/1514-dst-launches-wizard-of-aus

[28] Pomerleau, M. Air Force is looking for resilient autonomous systems. (February 24, 2016). Retrieved from https://defensesystems.com/articles/2016/02/24/air-force-uas-contested-environments.aspx

[29] Boston Dynamics. LS3 Legged Squad Support Systems. The AlphaDog of legged robots carries heavy loads over rough terrain. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.bostondynamics.com/ls3

[30] Evans, G. Driverless vehicles in the military – will the potential be realised? (February 2, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.army-technology.com/features/driverless-vehicles-military/

[31] Hambling, D. Why the U.S. Is Backing Killer Robots. (September 15, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/research/a23133118/us-ai-robots-warfare/

[32] Ministry for Culture and Heritage. ANZUS treaty comes into force 29 April 1952. (April 26, 2017). Retrieved from https://nzhistory.govt.nz/anzus-comes-into-force

[33] Shalal, A. Researchers to boycott South Korean university over AI weapons work. (April 5, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tech-korea-boycott/researchers-to-boycott-south-korean-university-over-ai-weapons-work-idUSKCN1HB392

[34] Shane, S & Wakabayashi, D. ‘The Business of War’: Google Employees Protest Work for the Pentagon. (April 4, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/04/technology/google-letter-ceo-pentagon-project.html

 

Artificial Intelligence & Human-Machine Teaming Australia Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) Autonomous Weapons Systems Canada Dan Lee New Zealand Option Papers United Kingdom United States

Options for the Strategic Goals of the Royal Canadian Navy

Lieutenant(N) Fred Genest is a Naval Warfare Officer in the Royal Canadian Navy and has deployed operationally in HMCS Charlottetown and HMCS Fredericton.  He is currently completing a Master of Public Administration degree while on staff at the Royal Military College of Canada.  He tweets at @RMCNavyGuy.  This article does not represent the policies or opinions of the Government of Canada or the Royal Canadian Navy.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) is in the process of recapitalizing its fleet but has not had a significant debate on its strategic goals in decades.

Date Originally Written:  December 19, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  March 12, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of the senior Canadian political and military leadership.

Background:  Successive governments have asserted that Canada must deploy warships overseas to help maintain international security and stability[1].  Despite the RCN’s fleet recapitalization, there has been no debate about the best way to employ its forces.

Current RCN employment is based on history, Cold War thinking, and national myths. Canada sees itself as “punching above its weight” since the Second World War.  In that war, Canada gave control of its forces to the British and American leaders, with disastrous results at home such as the closure of the St. Lawrence seaway.  During the Cold War, Canadian warships deployed with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Standing Naval Forces; this continues in the 21st century.  In its role as a “junior partner” since World War 2, Canada has followed the British and American lead in security and defence, subordinating its national interest to the alliance’s goals.

Significance:  As a sovereign middle power, Canada can set its own strategic priorities[2].  A commitment-capability gap—insufficient units to accomplish designated tasks—has been identified in the RCN since at least the 1964 White Paper on Defence[3].  The Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) saw this as normal at the end of the Cold War[4].  A 2013 report[5] stated that Canada would have difficulty meeting its readiness and force posture requirements until well into the 2020s.  Adjusting the current strategy could help reduce the gap.

Option #1:  Maintain the status quo with a medium global force projection navy[6], constant rotations with NATO, and a worldwide presence.

Risk:  With Option #1 the commitment-capability gap could grow.  The Government of Canada (GoC) intends to be prepared to participate in concurrent operations across multiple theatres[7].  However, readiness goals will not be met until the late 2020s[8], perhaps even until the Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) project is completed in the 2040s.  Manning is, and will remain, a problem in certain areas like anti-submarine warfare and engineering.

By continuing the historical pattern of letting alliance leaders determine its strategy, Canada is abdicating its responsibility to protect its national interests.

Gain:  There is prestige in being one of the few navies that routinely deploys around the world[9], and RCN ships are recognized by its allies as the “go-to” during operations[10].  Option #1 improves Canada’s standing in the world, especially amongst peer allied nations, and allows Canada to exercise some leadership in international affairs.  This increased leadership role allows Canada to further its interests through diplomacy.

Furthermore, there is a morale-boosting effect in having regular overseas deployments; sailors, like soldiers, are keen to acquire “bits of coloured ribbon.”  In the RCN, this is achieved through overseas operations.  Regular overseas deployments or lack thereof may therefore be a factor in recruitment and retention.

There is also an internal political gain: by highlighting successes abroad, the GoC can raise awareness of the RCN and increase popular support for its foreign policy[11].  This is beneficial to the RCN, as popular support can translate into political pressure to obtain the tools required to achieve its institutional goals.

Option #2:  Downgrade the RCN to a medium regional power projection navy.  Cease overseas deployments except for specific, time-limited United Nations or NATO missions critical for peace or security.

Risk:  No longer routinely deploying internationally would be seen as a loss of prestige, and could lead to a loss of informal diplomatic leadership.

Local operations are often unpopular with sailors, and removing the opportunity to go overseas could lead to a loss of morale, with obvious effects on retention.  Also, one of the main ways Canadian sailors are trained for full-spectrum operations is through workups leading to an overseas deployment, and through multinational exercises while deployed.  Removing those training opportunities could reduce personnel readiness.  Option #2 could also harm the justifications for future, or even current, procurement projects.

Gain:  RCN commitments would be more in line with capabilities.  The GoC’s commitments will continue to be difficult for the RCN to meet in the next decade[12]; reducing the level of commitment would allow the RCN and its allies to plan based on actual capabilities.

Carefully selecting operations as part of Option #2 would also let Canada set its own priorities for its warships.  In recent years, Canadian ships have taken part in operations that were only vaguely related to Canadian interests, such as European Union migrant activities.  Not committing to those operations would free up the RCN to take part in more nationally-relevant operations.

With the CSC, Canada will maintain a full-spectrum capability, and being a medium regional power projection navy does not preclude overseas deployments.  Option #2 would bring Canada in line its European NATO peers, who keep their warships near their own waters, to protect their national interests.

Another challenge for the RCN is its maintenance budget, which is insufficient to meet all requirements. One of the effects is that ships have to swap parts to achieve material readiness and some repairs are left undone due to a lack of parts or available personnel.  Deployments, especially repeated overseas deployments by the same units, are hard on equipment. Reducing the number of overseas deployments under Option #2 would reduce premature failures and maintenance costs.

Other Comments:  Option #2 may not be feasible in the current political climate, but this does not preclude vigorous examination.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] Department of National Defence. (2017a). Leadmark 2050: Canada in a New Maritime World. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://navy-marine.forces.gc.ca/assets/NAVY_Internet/docs/en/analysis/rcn-leadmark-2050_march-2017.pdf 
— Leadmark 2050 is a document produced by the Royal Canadian Navy to set its long-term vision beyond its five-year strategic plan. It is a follow-up to the 2001 publication, Leadmark 2020.

[2] Lindley-French, J. (2017). Brexit and the Shifting Pillars of NATO. Retrieved from http://www.cgai.ca/brexit_and_the_shifting_pillars_of_nato

[3] Department of National Defence. (1964). White Paper on Defence. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2012/dn-nd/D3-6-1964-eng.pdf — While it did not call it as such, the concern was evident.
  In Commonwealth countries, White Papers are used to provide information about government policy to parliamentarians and the public.  In Canada, there have been three White Papers on Defence since World War 2: 1964, 1971, and 1994. Major defence policy documents were also released in 1984, 1992 and 2017.

[4] Department of National Defence. (1987). Challenge and commitment : a defence policy for Canada. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2012/dn-nd/D2-73-1987-eng.pdf

[5] Department of National Defence – Chief Review Services. (2013). Evaluation of Naval Forces. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2015/mdn-dnd/D58-33-2013-eng.pdf 
— This document evaluated the RCN’s performance from 2008 to 2013, particularly the ability to generate and employ naval forces as directed by the GoC.

[6] Department of National Defence. (2017a). Leadmark 2050: Canada in a New Maritime World. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://navy-marine.forces.gc.ca/assets/NAVY_Internet/docs/en/analysis/rcn-leadmark-2050_march-2017.pdf

[7] Department of National Defence. (2017b). Strong Secure Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2017/mdn-dnd/D2-386-2017-eng.pdf

[8] Department of National Defence – Chief Review Services. (2013). Evaluation of Naval Forces. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2015/mdn-dnd/D58-33-2013-eng.pdf

[9] Department of National Defence. (2017a). Leadmark 2050: Canada in a New Maritime World. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://navy-marine.forces.gc.ca/assets/NAVY_Internet/docs/en/analysis/rcn-leadmark-2050_march-2017.pdf

[10] Department of National Defence – Chief Review Services. (2013). Evaluation of Naval Forces. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2015/mdn-dnd/D58-33-2013-eng.pdf

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

Canada Fred Genest Maritime Option Papers Strategy

Assessment of Canada’s Fighter Replacement Process

Jeremiah Cushman is a senior analyst at Military Periscope, where he writes about weapons.  He holds an M.A. in European and Eurasian Studies from the George Washington University.  He can be found on Twitter @jdcushman.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Assessment of Canada’s Fighter Replacement Process

Date Originally Written:  September 30, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  November 6, 2017.

Summary:  Canada’s aging CF-18 fighters need replaced.  While the U.S. F-35 was expected to be the choice, domestic politics, rising costs, and development problems caused controversy.  As such, both the Harper and Trudeau governments have hesitated to launch an open competition for a replacement.  The current plan is to upgrade existing jets and acquire interim platforms while carefully preparing a competition.

Text:  After more than three decades of service, Canada’s CF-18 Hornet fighter jets are due for replacement. This has proven easier said than done.

Delays and ballooning costs in the U.S.-led F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter program have made it a controversial option, despite Ottawa’s participation as a Tier 2 partner.  Domestic politics and a trade dispute have become another obstacle.  The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) says with additional upgrades it can keep the Hornets in the air until at least 2025.

The Hornet replacement was not expected to be so difficult.  Canada was an early contributor to the F-35 program and anticipated fielding the advanced fighter along with its closest allies.  Participating in the program was seen as a way to obtain the latest technology, while minimizing costs.  Interoperability with the allies Ottawa would most likely operate with was another bonus.  For these reasons, the RCAF has continued to favor the jet.

As development problems arose, defense officials began to emphasize that Canada’s contributions to the program did not guarantee a purchase.

In 2008, the Canadian Department of National Defense decided to reduce its planned procurement from 80 to 65 jets to compensate for growing costs.  The Conservative government of then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper continued to back the F-35 until in 2012 a government auditor reported problems with Ottawa’s procurement process and said that the purchase would cost more than publicized.

An independent review of the program reported in December 2012 that the full cost to buy 65 F-35s was around Can$44.8 billion (U.S. $36 billion), well above the Can$9 billion (U.S. $7.2 billion) indicated by the government in 2010.  Harper decided to conduct a review of other options.  The results were received in 2014, but no decision was made[1].  Instead, Ottawa announced that it would modernize the CF-18s to keep them flying until 2025[2].

The election of the Liberal Party led by Justin Trudeau in October 2015 began a new stage in the fighter replacement saga.  During the election campaign, Trudeau pledged to end participation in the F-35 program and buy a cheaper aircraft.  This move appeared to be driven by the growing costs outlined by the review in 2012 and ongoing development issues with the aircraft.  Nevertheless, Ottawa has continued to make the payments necessary to remain a program participant.

Such a hard-line seems to be out of step with the progress of the F-35 program.  The U.S. Marine Corps declared initial operational capability with its F-35s in July 2015, and the U.S. Air Force followed in August 2016.  The manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, has reported annual reductions in unit costs for the jet.  More North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies have signed on to the program, as well as countries such as Japan and South Korea.  Such progress does not seem to have affected the Trudeau administration’s position.

The Trudeau government released its defense policy review in June 2017.  The document made no promises on how a Hornet replacement might be procured or what platform might be best.  The review included a new requirement for 88 fighters, instead of the 65 jets proposed by the Harper government.  While the additional aircraft are a positive development given Canada’s myriad air requirements, the lack of clarity on the next step revealed the administration’s lack of seriousness.  Ottawa has information on several options on hand from the Harper government’s review.  There appears no good reason why a new process for selecting a Hornet replacement could not already be underway.

The government appears to be driven by a desire to keep its campaign commitment and not to purchase the F-35.  Instead of setting up a competition to select a replacement, Ottawa proposed an interim purchase of 18 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets from the U.S. to fill an alleged capability gap.  The U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced that the U.S. Department of State had approved such a sale on September 12, 2017[3].  This has been seen as a way to create a fait accompli, since it would make little financial sense to buy and maintain one jet only to switch to another later.

The slow pace of the procurement process so far might result in fewer options.  The Super Hornet line is nearing its end and there are questions about how much longer the Eurofighter Typhoon will be in production.

In any event, the Super Hornet proposal has fallen victim to a trade dispute.  Boeing, which builds the fighter, complained that Canadian aerospace firm Bombardier received government subsidies, allowing it to sell its C-series airliners at a significant discount.  The U.S. Department of Commerce agreed with the complaint, determining in late September 2017 that the aircraft should be hit with a 219 percent tariff[4].  This dispute has for the moment paused any Super Hornet purchase and led Ottawa to explore the acquisition of used Hornet aircraft.  On September 29, 2017, Public Services and Procurement Canada announced that it had submitted an expression of interest to Australia as part of the process to acquire used Hornets.  The release also said that preparatory work for a competition was underway, raising further questions about why interim fighters are needed[5].

Meanwhile, the RCAF is preparing to spend between Can$250 million (U.S.$201 million) and Can$499 million (U.S.$401 million) on further upgrades for its CF-18s to keep them in service until at least 2025.  Project definition is anticipated to begin in early 2018, with contracts being let in 2019[6].

As it stands, Ottawa appears to be trying to avoid selecting a new fighter.  It makes little sense to invest significant sums of money in interim measures when those funds would be better channeled into a new platform.  For reasons that remain unclear, it seems any decision will be postponed until after the next election, likely in 2020.  In the meantime, the RCAF will have to continue to invest scarce resources in its aging Hornets and hope for the best.


Endnotes:

[1] Pugliese, D. (2015, September 22). Canada and the F-35 – the ups and downs of a controversial fighter jet purchase. Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved Sept. 30, 2017, from http://ottawacitizen.com/news/national/defence-watch/canada-and-the-f-35-the-ups-and-downs-of-a-controversial-fighter-jet-purchase-2

[2] Canadian Press (2014, September 30). CF-18 upgrades will keep jets flying until 2025, Ottawa says. Retrieved Sept. 30, 2017, from http://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/cf-18-upgrades-will-keep-jets-flying-until-2025-ottawa-says-1.2031683

[3] U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency. (2017, September 12). Government of Canada — F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Aircraft with Support. Retrieved Sept. 30, 2017, from http://www.dsca.mil/major-arms-sales/government-canada-fa-18ef-super-hornet-aircraft-support

[4] LeBeau, P. (2017, September 26). US slaps high duties on Bombardier jets after Boeing complains they were unfairly subsidized by Canada. CNBC. Retrieved Sept. 30, 2017, from https://www.cnbc.com/2017/09/26/us-slaps-duties-on-bombardier-jets-after-boeing-subsidy-complaint.html

[5] Public Services and Procurement Canada. (2017, October 9). Exploring options to supplement Canada’s CF-18 fleet. Retrieved Oct. 9, 2017, from https://www.canada.ca/en/public-services-procurement/news/2017/10/exploring_optionstosupplementcanadascf-18fleet.html

[6] Pugliese, D. (2017, September 26). CF-18 upgrade plan more critical as Bombardier-Boeing spat puts Super Hornet purchase in doubt. Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved Sept. 30, 2017, from http://ottawacitizen.com/news/politics/cf-18-upgrade-plan-more-critical-as-bombardier-boeing-spat-puts-super-hornet-purchase-in-doubt/wcm/7828c1ea-ef72-4dc5-a774-92630297bb07

Assessment Papers Canada Capacity / Capability Enhancement Jeremiah Cushman