Monday, April 18, 2011

Canadian military can't refuel controversial fighter jet in mid-air


Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, also known as Joint Strike Fighter.

Jan31, 2011

The Canadian military does not have the ability to conduct aerial refuelling of the F-35 fighter jet it wants to purchase and is now looking at ways to get around the problem, the Ottawa Citizen has learned.
Options range from paying for modifications to the stealth jets to purchasing a new fleet of tanker aircraft that can gas up the high-tech fighters in mid-air. That option could cost several hundred million dollars, depending on how many new tankers are needed, according to sources.
In addition, because the F-35 would not be able to safely land on runways in Canada's North as those are too short for the fighter, the Defence Department is also looking at having manufacturer Lockheed Martin install a "drag" chute on the plane.
That parachute would deploy when the aircraft lands, slowing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter down. But some pilots have said that high winds affecting such runways could make using a drag chute tricky or even dangerous.
The purchase of the 65 F-35 stealth fighters is a centrepiece for the Conservative government's defence policy and a purchase that Prime Minister Stephen Harper says is needed to modernize the military.
The government has suggested the jets are required to defend Canada's Arctic from Russian warplanes as well as to take part in overseas missions.
But the acquisition, estimated to cost between $16 billion and $21 billion, has come under fire from a variety of critics as being unnecessary and too costly.
The opposition Liberals launched a series of advertisements attacking the proposed purchase.
The Liberals have said if elected they would hold a competition to select a new fighter, a process they maintain would save taxpayers money.
The government spent $126 million on modifying some of its current fleet of Polaris transport aircraft to handle mid-air refuelling of CF-18 fighters. The first of the two modified planes was declared operational in 2009.
But the system on the Polaris cannot refuel the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter model the Harper government has said it will purchase.
The Defence Department listed air-to-air refuelling as a mandatory capability for any new fighter aircraft Canada purchases, prompting some aerospace industry executives to privately question why this critical feature was ignored for the F-35 purchase. The refuelling is needed if the jets are going to cover long distances.
The Defence Department stated in an email that it "is studying options for F-35 air-to-air refueling capability."
"The analysis is at an early stage and we will inform Canadians as soon as details become available," the email said.
In an interview last summer, Tom Burbage, a senior Lockheed Martin official said he didn't think the refuelling issue would be a problem. He said the F-35 aircraft design could handle different types of refuelling systems, including those used by the Canadian Forces aerial tankers.
Canada wants to purchase the same type of F-35 being ordered by the U.S. air force. However, the F-35 being built for the U.S. navy carries the equipment needed to be refuelled by tankers such as the ones operated by the Canadian Forces.
"The airplane design can accommodate both refuelling systems," explained Burbage. "Canada has asked us to look at putting the navy refuelling system in the airplane and the air force refuelling system is already in it."
It is unclear what the cost of installing such a system would be. But sources say there are concerns that option could run into problems.
Another option to be considered would be purchasing new refuelling tankers. Military officers argue that by 2020 the Polaris aircraft might need to be replaced anyway.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter deal is the largest single military procurement in Canada's history but the development of the aircraft has run into problems and delays.
Earlier in January, the U.S. Defense Department issued a report noting there were variety of problems with the aircraft, including issues with engines, as well as how the aircraft handled.
But Lockheed Martin spokesman John Kent said the issues are being dealt with.
"Because the recently completed report includes information about F-35 flight testing through September of 2010, its information is dated, and the majority of the issues cited have since been resolved or are on a path to resolution," he noted.
Military officers argue that the JSF is the only aircraft that can meet Canada's future needs.
The plane is mainly designed for attacking targets on the ground as opposed to being an air-to-air fighter aircraft. That has prompted some critics to question the purchase since the main role for the planes is to patrol the country's airspace in a sovereignty protection mission.
Opposition MPs have accused the government of reneging on its promise to hold a competition.
Ottawa Citizen

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