Sunday, April 10, 2011

Does Canada Need The Best Fighter Jets In The World?

A lot has been written and said about the sole-sourced contract signed for Canada’s 65 fifth generation stealth fighter jets, the F35 Lightning IIs, meant to replace our aging CF18 Hornets. What hasn’t received so much attention are the actual merits of the F35 compared to other fighter jets.

The CF18s were selected after a protracted national debate on what kind of plane we needed. This debate has not occurred around the F35. This is a pity, because it is a truly remarkable aircraft, by any stretch of the imagination, and can do things we couldn’t even imagine when we bought our CF18s in 1986. Since the cancellation of it’s more costly big brother, the F22 Raptor, it is truly the best jet fighter in the world. The question is, however, does Canada require the best jet fighter in the world, or one we can actually use?

The contract is not some shady sole-sourced manoeuvre by the Conservative government to sidestep normal procurement channels. It was the Paul Martin government which initially involved Canada in the F35 program, then known as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) project. We paid $100 million, along with most of our other NATO allies, to join the club of countries allowed to bid on development and manufacture of what was intended to be a state-of-the-art low-cost replacement for a whole host of other fighter jets being used by the various NATO allies.

This plan made eminent good sense then, and still does. It’s far more efficient to have all the NATO air forces flying the same planes, from an operational and a maintenance perspective. It makes joint operations much easier. Economies of scale allow more aircraft to be built at a lower per-unit cost. Still, we haven’t signed a purchase order, neither have any of our NATO allies.

Among the planes the F35 was intended to replace in the US arsenal were the A10 Warthog, a low and slow ground attack aircraft armoured like a tank and bristling with machine guns; the F18 Hornet (our current jet), a high-altitude, long-range interceptor and carrier aircraft; the F16 Falcon, a small, fast and agile strike fighter and bomber suitable for penetrating enemy airspace, the famed AV8 Harrier Jump Jet and the EA6B Prowler, an ancient electronics counter-measures aircraft.

These are all very different airplanes, all designed for very different missions. It may be impossible for one aircraft to not only replace them all, but to improve on them, which is the F35’s mandate.

None of these are stealth aircraft, which the F35 is, so it has that in its favour, and it also has a bigger payload than any other modern fighter. It’s faster and carries more than the A10, it carries more than the F18 (but doesn’t have the range), It’s not as fast as the F16, but more expensive, bigger and carries more, it has far more range, speed and payload than the tiny Harrier, but it can’t jump (yet) and it’s faster but doesn’t have the range of the EA6B.

In order to cope with all these demands, the F35 was designed to fit the missions most commonly being fought today by the US - low altitude, counter-insurgency missions in hot countries. As such, the F35 is, true to its name, a “strike fighter”, optimized to carry a payload into a contested airspace and drop or shoot it at defended targets. It’s called a fifth generation fighter because it can do all this while appearing to be the size of a golf ball to a radar scope.

This is not what Canada’s air resources are called on to do. We have an enormous airspace, mostly Arctic, to patrol, and a polar border with Russia. Our mission demands long-range, high-altitude interceptors that can chase intruding bombers from our shores and (regrettably) shoot down hijacked airliners. Apart from the anomalous mission in Libya, we are never likely to have a ground target to strike.

A US Navy study showed the F35 would be 30% to 40% more expensive to maintain than current jets. Technical problems with the US Marine Corps’ short take off, vertical landing version have put the whole project behind schedule and over-budget, and this variant has been shelved. The Danes, Dutch and Norwegians have either delayed or scaled back their planned purchases of the F35. A prominent US aerospace consultant has described the F35 program as “too big to fail”

Recently, it was disclosed that the F35 can’t land on some of our short Arctic runways. This can be fixed with addition of a drag chute (at additional cost), but some pilots say drag chutes are dangerous in high Arctic winds. In addition, the US Air Force variant of the F35, which Canada has ordered, uses a different mid-air refueling system than we do. This rules out long Arctic patrols and international missions. We can install the Navy refueling nozzle on our planes (which we use), of course (but at an additional cost).

What are the alternatives? It makes sense for Canada to buy US-built military hardware. They are our neighbours, our partners. The US does make other planes which might suit our needs. While the small, light, relatively inexpensive F16 is being phased out of US service, many variants are still being built for export. Our current jet, the CF18 Hornet, has been updated and improved into a faster, larger, heavier version called the Super Hornet, which still costs less than the F35.

Looking abroad, the best option appears to be the Swedish JAS39 Gripen. During the Cold War, rather than become enmeshed in the superpower armaments market, Sweden built its own military industry to retain its independence. They have been producing state-of-the-art aircraft ever since, and the Saab Gripen is the latest.

Optimized for Arctic performance, as befits an Arctic nation, the Gripen is designed to land on back country roads and be serviced and fueled in ten minutes by five men and a truck. It can take off and land in 500 feet. Finally, it’s not really foreign. Its avionics, weapons and engine, all the important bits, are all US- made.

Here’s a quick comparison of the F35 and the Gripen:

F35 Lightning II
JAS39 Gripen
Top Speed
Mach 1.6
Mach 2.0
Range (ferry)
1200 nm
2000 nm
Range (combat)
590 nm
430 nm
40,700 lb
18,400 lb
60,000 ft
50,000 ft
Cost per plane (including service)
Approx. $250 mil.
Approx. $185 mil.

While it is faster and has more range than the F35, the Gripen is not a stealth aircraft, it is not fifth generation. It does not carry the huge load of armaments the F35 does. However, it IS a good, fast long-range northern interceptor, optimized to land in out-of-the-way places, and it may be just what Canada needs.

So, do we need the best jet fighter in the world? For that’s what the F35 is trying to be, if it can ever get out of the development stage. Or are we better off saving money by buying an updated version of a proven aircraft, perhaps the one we already own and fly? Or should we look abroad, to a country similar to ours, the same scale, and with many of the same global aspirations and responsibilities? Perhaps they know something about aircraft we don’t.

After all, in what deserts will Canada be fighting its wars? What ground targets are we ever going to find ourselves striking once we leave Libya? And why do we want a stealthy aircraft, when the point of sovereignty patrolling is to let the other guy know you’re there?

Costs for 65 F35s, including pilot training and 20 years of maintenance and spare parts, are estimated at $28 billion total. Sweden has offered the same number of Gripens for $12 billion total. The $16 billion we could save by buying a jet fighter uniquely suited to Canada’s needs could pay for, what? A national day care program? A national home care program? A national pharmacare program? An increase in the GIS/OAS?

No, Canada probably doesn’t need the best fighter jet in the world.

John Corbett

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