F35 Joint Strike Fighter – The Biggest Procurement Mistake Ever

The Canadian Government’s plans to replace the current F18 Hornet fighter/bombers with the new, as yet incomplete F35 Joint Strike Fighter is a huge mistake. Explaining why is going to take a lot of words. This isn’t a simple case of an aircraft that is obviously not suitable, it’s a complicated, multiple-faceted series of issues.

I’m going to attempt to explain the whole situation in layman’s terms. Hopefully I’ll succeed. Feel free to tell me where you think I’m wrong. And don’t forget that politics are as always, involved. To start:

Procurement Issues

One of the issues that any project has to consider is the supplier, and effects on the supplier by outside forces. While there is no doubt that Lockheed Martin is one of the premier military aircraft manufacturers in the world, there are a variety of problems with the company, specifically it’s reliance on United States government purchases.

Which brings us to the United States government. It is never a good idea to rely on a politically unstable country as a source of military supplies. At the present time the United States is undergoing a time of instability. The causes of the instability are the banking crisis, demographic changes, the recession, high jobless numbers, a failing health care system, rising government debt, etc., etc.

Canada decided to take part in the Joint Strike Fighter project based on American assurances that costs would be kept within certain limits, assurances which have already been broken. Costs are likely to rise further. If the composition of the two houses of the American legislature changes as dramatically as some people think is likely during the current elections, and the American government decides to emulate the English government by cutting costs drastically, the military is a natural target for budget reductions.

One of the most expensive projects that the American military is undertaking is the Joint Strike Fighter project, and if the number of aircraft that the American military means to purchase is cut, this will drive up the costs for the other partners in the project, including Canada. And of course no one knows how bad the situation in the United States is going to get. It is possible, though unlikely that the country could split. A more probable scenario is that the United States may try to emulate Ireland and England, using drastic budget cuts to attempt to bring spending in line with taxes, and instead drive the country into a full blown Depression.

Because of the above, in my opinion the JSF is a less than desirable aircraft, but there are other issues as well.

Mission Requirements

What exactly does Canada plan to do with the JFS? That may sound like a stupid question. It’s a fighter aircraft. You use it to fight. But what specifically are the targets? What is the range required? How many of them do we need to defend Canada?

This is probably the most complex section of the article, and is limited by my lack of knowledge of what the Canadian military is planning for. But some of the questions are obvious.

1) Is 65 airplanes enough to be able to provide protection for all of Canada? Canada is the second largest country in the world. Even with Mach 2 capable aircraft, sited in a series of strategic airfields across the country, it is extremely doubtful that 65 aircraft could provide the level of protection that Canadians expect. We would need a minimum of ten bases, which means that only six aircraft would be available at each base, assuming none were down for maintenance. This also assumes that all of the pilots are healthy, and ready to fly, AT ALL TIMES. Quite frankly 65 aircraft just isn’t enough, especially if any are deployed overseas.

2) Is it the right plane for the mission? The JFS is supposed to be a multiple-mission capable plane. Fighter. Bomber. Ground attack. Interceptor. Supposedly it can do it all. But again we come back to numbers. With only 65 birds available, can it do everything we need it to do? Or would we be better off buying more of a less expensive, and less capable plane, or less of a more capable and more expensive plane?

The F22 Raptor is a superior multi-roll mission fighter. Due to ‘cost creep’ on the JFS project, it may end up being possible to buy the same number of F22 Raptors for the price, get a plane that’s already in service, and which the American military considers far superior to the F35.

The only problem is that the American government has decided that the F22 is so superior, that it won’t be sold to foreign militaries. Like the Canadian Armed Forces. Do we really want to buy military equipment from a country that doesn’t trust us? Should we buy military equipment from a country that doesn’t trust us? In my opinion by doing so we are sending them the wrong message. We’re Canadian. You can kick us all you want.

3) The F35 does have one advantage. It would allow us to integrate the Canadian Military with the American military. If say, Canada was to decide to join the United States in an attack on Mexico, this would be useful. In a defensive situation, it’s far less useful. If almost all of the airplanes defending North America are the same make and model, we’ve just made any potential aggressors job easier. A military monoculture is dangerous.

Effectively when the F35 goes into service, the United States will be flying one major front line unit (yes, there are 200 F22 Raptors in service, but the bulk of American fighters will be F35s). So we need to ask ourselves if we really want to be flying the same airplane as our closest ally? If an attacker finds a weakness in the design of the F35, we’ve just made it easier for him to take out our defenses. Unless we intend to join the Americans in conquering other nations, the F35 has some huge disadvantages.

4) Canadian industry gets almost nothing out of the deal. Why aren’t the planes being manufactured by Bombardier? This would help dramatically with employment in Canada. Yes, it’s nice to help the Americans out of the mess they are in, but we must remember that the mess is of their own making. A series of American economists warned them that there were problems with the economy years before the meltdown actually occurred. American carelessness hurt Canada. Our industries that supply the United States have been hurt badly. And even before this, well, anyone remember the softwood lumber fiasco? Do we really want to buy equipment from a country that couldn’t even follow it’s own trade laws?

So What Does Canada Really Need?

Probably a lot more planes. Canada purchased 138 F-118 fighters as a replacement for:

200 CF-104 Starfighters

132 CF-101 Voodoos

135 CF-116 Freedom Fighters

Which replaced

1145 CL-13 Sabres

640 CF-100 Canucks

I think you can see the pattern. Part of the problem of running a modern air force, is the cost of pilot training. One estimate that I have heard was that it costs over $1,000,000.00 for basic pilot training, not counting wages. Supersonic aircraft are also expensive.

The Canadian Government has been cutting the size of the Canadian Armed Forces for years. I think that we have reached the point where we cannot afford reduce our current numbers any further, without a negative impact on Canada’s defense.

But we do need to buy new planes, the current CF-118 airframes are near the end of their life expectancy. But what planes do we need? Let’s take a look at some of the general groups of jet fighters. While the planes in these groups had wildly varying performance and capabilities, they had some commonality due to their position in the evolution of fighter aircraft.

First generation subsonic jet fighters (mid-1940s to mid-1950s) – Subsonic designs, that in some cases were no more than piston engine fighters fitted with jet engines. The CL-16 Sabre was a First Generation fighter, the CF-100 Canuck while subsonic had some second generation features.

Second generation jet fighters (mid-1950s to early 1960s) – Supersonic speed, use of advanced structural materials, and better detection systems were the basis of second generation fighters. Because of the high speed capabilities of Second Generation fighters, First Generation fighters were effectively useless against them. The CF-101 Voodoo, and the CF-104 Starfighter were technically second generation designs.

Third-generation jet fighters (early 1960s to circa 1970) – Long range Missile armament and improved avionics were hallmarks of third generation fighters. The CF-116 Freedom Fighter was a third generation fighter. In direct fighter to fighter combat, a Third Generation fighter should be able to beat a Second Generation fighter, assuming that the pilot skill levels were equivalent. However missile reliability was an issue, which is why the Fourth Generation Fighters were designed.

This is where our neat ‘Generations’ really don’t work. The canceled CF-105 Arrow had many hallmarks of a Third Generation Fighter, but was closer to the Fourth Generation fighter in avionics and airframe technology. And it isn’t the only fighter which doesn’t neatly fit into the ‘Generations’. It would have been really interesting seeing how the Arrow would have held up against a CF-118.

Fourth generation jet fighters (circa 1970 to mid-1990s) – Improved maneuverability for dog fighting, and ‘Multi-Role’ capabilities, which is why a single model, the CF-118, could replace three earlier models. Being able to use one model instead of three simplifies logistics, training, etc. From this point of view the CF-118 has been a huge success. It’s also the first aircraft that the Canadian Armed Forces used in combat since the Korean War when Sabres and Canucks were flown.

4.5th generation jet fighters (1990s to the present) – Effectively an updated Fourth Generation fighter, far more effective in combat then it’s predecessor. The Americans updated their equivalent to our CF-118 into a 4.5 Generation model, effectively making it into a vastly superior new airplane.

Fifth generation jet fighters (2005 to the present) – The keyword here is stealth. Fifth Generation fighters are extremely difficult to spot using radar, in fact the easiest way to spot them is to home in on their own radar emissions.

Each generation of fighters was a reaction to the experience gained with the prior generation. Each had enhanced capabilities, that in theory made it superior to the previous generation. And often a lot more expensive.

The next question is who will we be fighting? The Americans? If so, we don’t want to be in a position where we have to buy parts for our planes from them. Yes, I know, the odds of Canada and the United States going to war, are only slightly higher than having the sun rise in the west. However you have to consider every option.

How about the Russians? Again, this is rather unlikely. While the Communist Party held power in the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics there was a real danger. However the Communists are out of power, and even if they came back into power, the party has changed. While there is and always will be tension between Canada and Russia over the Arctic, and actual shooting war is very unlikely.

France? While they are our next closest neighbor (the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon are French possessions), we aren’t likely to fight France. While we may not always like the French (remember Viva le Quebec Libre?), we aren’t enemies.

Denmark, is our other close neighbor (Greenland is part of Denmark). Denmark currently has sixty fighters in service, which are as old as ours. The Danes choose the F16 instead of the F-18 (the basis of the CF-118), as they don’t need the combat range that we need, and they also didn’t need the twin engine capabilities (Canada usually buys twin engine jet fighters so that if an engine fails, the plane can make it back to base – compare the size of Canada to the size of Denmark, and you’ll see what I mean). The Danish Air Force doesn’t keep fighters in Greenland, and even if they did, Canada and Denmark are extremely unlikely to go to war.

I think you can see where I’m going here. Canada isn’t a hostile nation. None of our neighbors are either. Where we do have problems, they tend to be with countries that don’t fly advanced airplanes, and for that matter can’t afford them. Consider the Somalian pirates. We don’t need jet fighters to combat them, what we need are ground attack helicopters based on our ships, all of which are already helicopter capable.

We do need jet fighters for sovereignty patrols. These fighters need to have an extremely long range, be capable of operating in arctic weather, with zero visibility. The ability to take off and land from practically any surface would be a plus, and a Short Take Off And Landing capabilities would be useful.

Going back to the Generations, Generations One through Three are obsolete, and shouldn’t be considered. Replacing our current Generation Four aircraft with new Generation Four aircraft is a good possibility. If we retained the current model, but updated the avionics, we could limit the amount of retraining needed, and also hopefully limit the costs. But there are other options.

The Saab Gripen NG has the ability to land on public roads, is faster, and longer ranged than the CF-118. It’s an interesting fit, because Sweden has a climate that is similar to Canada, and many of the same defense concerns. While the NG isn’t in production yet, since it’s a 4.5 version of a Generation 4 fighter, it’s expected that there shouldn’t be any surprises.

The Super Hornet is an updated F-18/CF-118. While it doesn’t have the performance of the Saab, since it’s a 4.5 version of the current Canadian fighter, it would be familiar to the pilots and ground crew. The Super Hornet is already in service in the United States.

The Dassault Rafale is a very high performance and long ranged airplane. It’s already in service, and there is a naval version, which means that strengthened landing gear is an available option – this would be useful for planes in the far north.

The Sukhoi SU-30 is one of those oddballs. Technically a fourth generation fighter, it has fifth generation capabilities including thrust vectoring.

The MIG-35 is another high performance 4.5 Generation fighter. Both it and the Sukhoi would be relatively inexpensive compared to American built fighters.

The Eurofighter Typhoon is another interesting option, and one that could be built in Canada. While the components would be manufactured at the current plants, the Eurofighter program was put together to allow each nation to assemble it’s own planes. While some nations such as Saudi Arabia don’t have the infrastructure to do this, Canada does.

All of the above assume that we buy something new. We could always buy F-15 Strike Eagles. While it’s an older design, it’s still in production, and a very capable aircraft. Or we could buy the design data on the Hawker Harrier, give it to Bombardier, and tell them to develop it into a 4.5 Generation airplane.

Heck, we could even resurrect the Avro Arrow. If we took what was an exceptional aircraft in it’s day, and modernized it, we could have an aircraft that would serve Canada for the next quarter century, and redevelop the aviation industry that we lost with it’s cancellation.

We have a lot of options. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter isn’t the best of them for Canada.

Regards

Wayne Borean

Tuesday November 2, 2010

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