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​Three F/A-18E Super Hornets assigned to the US Navy’s Strike Fighter Squadron 97 fly in formation for an aerial change of command ceremony. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kenneth Rodriguez Santiago.

Canada is beginning talks with the US and Boeing about purchasing 18 F/A-18E/F Superhornets to shore up the country’s aging fleet of CF-18s, the Canadian defense ministry said Tuesday. The ministry will “immediately explore” buying the Superhornets while simultaneously launching a competition for a fleetwide replacement for its CF-18s, which have been service-extended already and are more than a decade past their planned retirement. The competition could take five years to conclude. Canada is a partner on Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but the Trudeau Administration has said it can neither afford nor wait for the F-35, costs of which have risen since Canada joined the multinational partnership that developed and is building the fighter. Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan said Canada will remain part of the JSF program as a partner, but won’t necessarily buy the jets. He also said it would be “imprudent” to delay action in starting to replace Canada’s CF-18s any longer, because of Canada’s NATO and NORAD responsibilities.

In the last Canadian election, Trudeau’s Liberal Party said it was uncomfortable buying a stealth jet with “first-strike” capabilities, saying the nation really needs a defensive fighter. Canada asked world fighter makers last summer to offer performance information about their products, along with their potential industrial cooperation with Canada. In addition to Boeing and Lockheed Martin, Dassault offered the Rafale, Eurofighter the Typhoon, and Saab the Gripen. If Canada were to withdraw from the JSF, it would have to pay the partnership some $300 million in promised funding, industry officials reported. A Lockheed Martin spokesman said the company is aware of Canada’s announcement that it intends to “procure the fourth-generation F/A-18 Super Hornet as an interim fighter capability.” He said that while “disappointed,” the company remains “confident the F-35 is the best solution” to Canada’s airpower needs “at the most affordable price,” and said the jet has “proven in all competitions to be lower in cost than fourth-generation competitors.” He also said the F-35 is “combat ready and available today to meet Canada’s needs for the next 40 years.”