Friday, January 13, 2017

Can Trump really cancel the F-35?

United States President-Elect Donald Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.  In his late night Twitter rants, he has gone so far as to suggest that the Pentagon's JSF purchase be curtailed in favor of more Super Hornets.  This, of course has had serious repercussions toward Lockheed Martin's stock price.


[Let's get this out of the way:  The fact that the future American president is willing and able to negatively effect the value of people's investments through a single tweet is bone-chilling.  The value of the JSF program is estimated to well over a TRILLION dollars throughout its lifetime.  Any decision regarding its future should be carefully planned, thought out, and communicated...  NOT summed up in 140 characters or less.]

Ugh.
Can Trump "fire" the F-35?

In a word:  No.

The F-35 has already entered initial operating capability (IOC) with both the USAF and the USMC.  Despite a seemingly never-ending series of delays, the JSF is now considered part of the American arsenal.  At this point, no amount of political pressure could cancel the F-35 completely.  The USA has bet its airpower future on the JSF, and it is just about "all in".

Currently, the American fighter fleet, while still impressive, is populated mostly by aircraft that were designed and built in the 60s and 70s.  Even the USAF's flagship fighter, the F-22, is approaching its 30th birthday.  These airframes are aging.  Replacements are needed.

This does not render the F-35 completely off-limits, however.

Trump may be able to make good on his threat merely by reducing production of the JSF in favor of higher numbers of legacy aircraft.

For the USN, the alternative is clear:  More Super Hornets.  The F/A-18E/F is already a proven yet relatively modern design.  It is likely the stealthiest fighter in the US inventory besides the F-35 and F-22.  Developments like the Advanced Super Hornet concept show that there may be even more potential for the airframe.  Given the popularity of the Super Hornet with the USN, combined with the cost and continued development issues with the carrier version of the JSF, the F-35C is in most danger of being dropped altogether.

For the USMC, the F-35 is safe.  There is no alternative to the F-35B.  Current AV-8B Harriers are well past their prime, and there is no other comparable STOVL.  This requirement is needed to operate from the USMC's smaller carriers.  The F-35B's existence could even be further rationalized if the USN drops the F-35C, as the F-35B would remain as the Pentagon's sole carrier-based stealth aircraft.

F-16V "Viper"

For the USAF, there are a few alternatives.

An updated F-16, the F-16V "Viper" brings the familiar Fighting Falcon into the 21st Century.  It lacks any sort of stealth treatment, however.  Currently, the F-16 is constructed in the same Fort Worth assembly plant as the F-35, so it may not be practical to build both.  At best, the F-16V could be considered a lower-cost supplement to the F-35A, but not a realistic alternative.

As per Trump's tweet, the Super Hornet may be a possible alternative to the F-35A for the USAF, but such a thing would be BIGLY unpopular with the upper brass.  Unlike the USN, the USAF is quite infatuated with the JSF, and having to replace it with a Navy fighter would incur major pushback.

The Boeing F-15SE Silent Eagle could be seen as a possible alternative.  While lacking the F-35's all-aspect stealth, it is a "stealthier" fighter.  No one would argue against combat prowess and strike capability of a platform based on the F-15 Strike Eagle, either.  Unfortunately, the F-15's design is nearly 50-years-old.  It is also an expensive aircraft to fly and maintain (even compared to the F-35).  F-15SEs would likely offer very little in terms of cost savings.

Foreign-made aircraft; like the Gripen, Typhoon, and Rafale would pretty much be non-starters.  While the idea has been bandied about by some, the idea of the Pentagon approving a foreign designed and built aircraft in such large numbers could be dismissed based on security risks alone.  Not to mention the sheer embarrassment of such a thing.  At best, perhaps Boeing could license-build the the Gripen, as it already partners with Saab for its T-X bid.  Like the F-16V, any American Gripen would likely be a supplement to the F-35, not a true alternative.

Realistically, the USAF would want to keep as many of its planned F-35s as possible.  At most, it might compromise slightly and allow "lesser" airframes to take residence with Air National Guard units.



Even if Trump's staff manages to miraculously devise a plan to reduce planned F-35 numbers in favor of other fighters, there is still a BIGLY YUGE political wall to climb.

The position of US President does not carry unlimited power.  There are checks and balances (i.e. political bureaucracy) that ensures a single individual cannot run roughshod over the will of the people.  In order to make any serious changes to the JSF program, Trump would need the support of the majority of the US Senate and House of Representatives.  This poses a problem.  Trump may share a political party with the majority in both houses, but he is still very much a Republican outsider.

The F-35 was purposely "politically engineered" to be hard to kill.  Various contractors and sub-contractors for the program are littered across the map.  Any Senator or Representative voting against the JSF would be risking the loss of high paying jobs in their constituency.  Given the vitriol surrounding Trump's upcoming presidency, do not expect everybody to simply "fall in line".  Especially if the upcoming four years are as golden as the month leading up to his inauguration.

The President-Elect's own pick for Secretary of Defense; Jim Mattis, even doubts that Trump would cancel the JSF program.

Killing the JSF may be a near impossibility.  Given Trump's language, however, it would be reasonable to prepare for possible cuts to the F-35.  This is where foreign buyers need to be extra-cautious.  If the USA significantly reduces its planned JSF numbers, unit prices will undoubtedly skyrocket.  Nations that are betting the future of their air force on the F-35 may be in for a rude awakening.

The Trudeau Government's plan to put off buying the JSF in favor of some "interim" Super Hornets may end up being surprisingly prescient.  Risk management is never a bad thing.


Saturday, December 24, 2016

About those ads...


I was initially hesitant to allow advertising on this blog.   I did not want the appearance of "shilling", nor did I wish to add to the clickbait-culture of the internet.

Since their implementation, the ads have provided a very modest income.  Google Adsense is set up to pay out only if the earnings are above $100.  For this humble website, that means months between payouts.  I certainly will not be quitting my "day job" any time soon.

I would like to put this money to good use, however.



This year, I decided to take the most recent payout and donate the majority of it to the Wounded Warriors of Canada.  Some of you may remember this non-profit group from this past summer's "22 Push-Up Challenge".  WWC's goal is to help veterans and first responders suffering from PTSD and other mental illnesses, as well as their families.

Their website can be found here.

This holiday season, I encourage all my readers to consider donating or volunteering their time to those in need.  A little can often go a long way.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, or whatever holiday you choose to celebrate this season.

-Doug


Friday, December 16, 2016

Best Starfighter of the Galaxy is...

What?  You thought it might be something else?

While science fiction has many examples of what could be described as a starfighter, there really is nothing more iconic than the Incom T-65 X-Wing starfighter from the Star Wars universe.

Instantly recognizable by both young and old, the X-Wing has not only taken a prominent role in film, but in countless video games, comics, novels, toy chests, and model shelves.  The X-Wing ranks up there with pop-culture icons like the starship Enterprise, Batman, Barbie, or Mickey Mouse.

In universe, the X-Wing is just as legendary.  As the ship that blew up the Death Star, it became an everlasting symbol of the Rebel Alliance and their fight against the Galactic Empire.

What was it about the X-Wing that made it so special?

Oddly enough, the X-Wing does not really stand out when compared to other starfighters in the Star Wars universe.  In relation to other starfighters, the X-Wing is decidedly average.
The TIE fighter is more maneuverable, the A-Wing is faster, the B-Wing has more firepower, and even the venerable Y-Wing was more durable.

Being superlative in a category does not make a good fighter, however.  TIE fighters lacked deflector shields, B-Wings were unreliable, A-Wings were notoriously unforgiving, and Y-Wings were too sluggish when pitted against Imperial fighters.  The X-Wing, while not class-leading in any particular category, struck the right balance of speed, agility, firepower, and ruggedness.

It was this balance that made the X-Wing so popular with Rebel pilots.


Incom, the manufacturer behind the X-Wing, was responsible from successful Clone War designs like the Z-95 Headhunter and ARC-170.  The X-wing evoked design elements from both.  The X-Wing design ended up in Rebel hands thanks to the defection of Incom's design and engineering staff.  This was exceptionally good news for the Rebel Alliance, as their current fleet of venerable Y-Wing fighters were ill-equipped to deal with faster and more maneuverable TIE fighters.  The arrival of the X-Wing for space-superiority missions allowed the more robust Y-Wing to take on heavy assault duties.

The design philosophy behind the X-Wing was simple in theory, difficult in execute:  A starfighter that was easy to learn, easy to maintain and deploy, yet deadly in the battlespace.  Incom managed to to find the perfect balance.

The need for ease of use was necessary due to the Rebel Alliance's pilot diversity.  Imperial pilots had the advantage of strict training regimens starting from an early age at the Imperial Academy.  Rebel pilots, on the other hand, came from much more diverse backgrounds.  Rebel pilot ranks were filled by smugglers, farm hands, Imperial defectors, and even planetary royalty.  To help ease transition, Incom fashioned the X-Wing's controls similarly to the T-16 Skyhopper, a cheap airspeeder that was a common sight throughout the galaxy.

The X-Wing's ruggedness and deployability was inherent to its design.  Unlike Imperial TIEs, it was equipped with a hyperdrive.  This was mandatory for the Rebel's hit-and-run tactics; surprise attacks quickly followed by a jump to light speed.  R2-units provided navigation duties, power management, and minor repairs in flight.  Not only did its distinctive S-foils help cooling, but they helped spread out the engines and laser cannons.  Spaced apart, a hit on one was not always disastrous.  Plenty of X-Wing pilots can share stories of a engine nacelle being damaged, but living to fight another day thanks to their heroic R2-unit rerouting power and facilitating repairs in the heat of battle.  This would explain why many X-Wing pilots became so attached to their astromech droids.


The design philosophy behind Rebel snub fighters served as an antithesis to that of the Empire.  Having no shortage of pilots, the Empire's strategy was simple:  Overwhelm using sheer numbers.  Unlike their Rebel counterparts, most TIE fighter variants lacked deflector shields or hyperdrives.  TIE pilot that survived a mere handful of missions were considered "elite", earning them the privilege of helming more advanced ships like the TIE Interceptor or even the TIE Avenger.

In contrast, the Rebel Alliance knew that skilled combat pilots were a valuable commodity.  Even if a battle was not a full success, an X-wing pilot could often "limp home" allowing them to live long enough to fight another day.  One such pilot, Wedge Antilles, lived long enough to become a veteran of not one, but TWO Death Stars.

The X-Wing, like other Rebel fighters easy to deploy.  Whether it from a capitol ship, jungle planet, or even the frozen wasteland of Hoth, the T-65 was always ready.  With no hyperdrive and requiring dedicated infrastructure, Imperial TIE's required a nearby Star Destroyer or other base.



The X-Wing was so successful that its design lives on 30 years later.

While superficially similar, the newer T-70 X-Wing shares very few components with its predecessor.   Advancements in miniaturization has resulted in a sleeker shape, allowing for the enhanced atmospheric performance.  The T-70 also mounts a rear-firing blaster, useful for defense against pursing fighters.

Continuing the fine tradition of X-Wings scoring a killing blow against "planet killers", Poe Dameron led a force that scored the killing blow against the massive Starkiller Base.

Oh man...  I have done SO many hours in this simulator...
The X-Wing stands out as the quintessential starfighter...  Or fictional fighter in general.  While much of its lasting endearment is based on the strength of the Star Wars franchise, the X-Wing still serves as the gold standard of cool spaceship models.  

While other fictional craft like the Millennium Falcon, the Enterprise, and even Serenity evoke just as much nostalgia as the X-Wing, these are one-off spacecraft that are given ample screen time and may as well be considered part of the cast.  By comparison, the X-Wing is ubiquitous, usually flown by secondary characters.  The X-wing itself is content to be a supporting character, never the star.  

It is this "everyman" status that makes the X-Wing great.  While the Star Wars franchise tends to focus on the Skywalker family, never forget that the Empire is brought down by countless Rebels that have no affinity for the Force.  It is these "average" Rebels that are the true inspiration behind the franchise.  Risking everything against a more powerful foe simply because it is the right thing.  

Yes, I will be watching Star Wars: Rogue One this weekend.  Like its protagonists, I too choose to rebel.  


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Best Starfighter for the Galaxy: The Runners Up.

(Clockwise from upper-left) Viper, Thunderfighter, X-Wing, Starfury

Science fiction is filled with examples of small, deadly spacecraft able to engage in dogfights as well as conduct attack missions on enemy capital ships and space stations.  Usually, these are flown by the story's heroes against overwhelming odds.

What is the best starfighter in all the galaxy, or universe for that matter?

For this article, I will focus on starfighters that occur in franchises (i.e. properties that consist of multiple mediums:  TV, movies, games, etc.)  I will disregard most of the star fighters that occur in science fiction novels, as there is simply no way to account for the overwhelming number of designs.  Most of these designs fall into several archetypes, anyway.  We will also ignore star fighters that occur strictly in video games, as these fighters have to worry about game-balance issues and the like.


There is, of course, the Wing Commander franchise.  This series consists of some excellent games...  And a truly awful movie.  Since the movie leaves such a bad taste in my mouth, I will disqualify the Wing Commander franchise simply out of spite.

Babylon 5's Starfury
Fans of Babylon 5 will immediately recognize the distinctive shape of the Earthforce Starfury.  Armed with plasma weaponry, the Starfury stands out for paying attention to Newtonian physics.  This starfighter does not maneuver similarly to a earth-borne aircraft.  It accelerates, decelerates, and changes direction by utilizing its four vectored thrust engines and various thrusters.


What really makes the Starfury interesting is its design aesthetic.  In universe, it's practical, no-nonsense construction is immediately recognized as a human design.  Alien races are recognized by their design aesthetic as well.  For example, the Vorlon use more organic squid-like shapes, while the French-empire-inspired Centauri use a more gothic design.

While small, the Starfury is capable of faster-than-light by utilizing jump gates.  Unlike the other starfighters here, the Starfury cannot operate inside an an atmosphere and requires either a carrier or spacestation.  A later version, the Thunderbolt, rectified this issue...  But looks a little too similar to another starfighter.

Starfuries get bonus points for displaying some incredible WWII inspired nose art.

[For those who have not seen it, I highly recommend watching the Babylon 5 series.  While the early CGI may not have aged well, the storyline, dialogue, and acting are absolutely brilliant.  It requires a bit of patience, as the first season starts off slow, but the second-through-fourth seasons are a huge payoff.  The fifth season is hit-or-miss, but worth the watch.]


Buck Rogers Thunderfighter
In one form or another, the Buck Rogers franchise has been around since the 1920s.  The franchise, while undergoing changes over time, ultimately centers around a modern-day human who gets frozen in time only to reawaken in the 25th century.  Buck Rogers has been brought to life through comics, role-playing games, and television.

Most readers will recognize the campy television series of the early 80s.  Despite occurring in the year 2491, the series utilized disco music, shiny spandex body suits and even Gary Coleman.  Despite the shows flaws, Buck Rogers and the 25th Century did have some interesting production design.  Not the least of which was the Thunderfighter.

The main starfighter of the Earth Defense Directorate, the Thunderfighter was a two-seat fighter capable of faster-than-light travel thanks to star gates.  For special missions, a four-seat variant was available with two-abreast seating in a widened cockpit.

Thunderfighters relied on a sophisticated combat for combat maneuvers.  Unfortunately for its pilots, these computers were rather predictable in their tactics.  Combat losses were high until Rogers suggested pilots relied less on the combat computer and flew more "by the seat of their pants".

Battlestar Galactica's Viper
The dirty secret behind Buck Roger's Thunderfighter is that it was originally a design study for Battlestar Galactica's Viper.  Both were designed by legendary concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, a man who is name is attached to an embarrassing amount of science fiction franchises.

The Viper itself is an iconic design.  A blunt-nosed fuselage with three engines places in a pyramidal shape, each affixed with a stabilizer fin.  A simple shape that can be easily doodled, yet enough interesting details to make it seem real.  While the design has gone through some changes over the year.  It has maintained its basic shape.  During preproduction of the 2000's reboot series, the decision was made early on to dramatically change just about everything...  Except the Viper.

Depending on the series, the Viper was armed with either "laser torpedoes" (original series) or mass driver cannons (reboot).  They were capable of operating in a planetary atmosphere, but worked their best when deployed out of the pinnacle of Colonial warships, the Battlestar.

In the rebooted series, more computer systems in state-of-the-art Mk7 models were easily hacked by enemy Cylon forces.  In a desperate attempt to mitigate this, older Mk2s were brought out of mothballs.  These more "analog" fighters gave Colonial forces a fighting chance.  Surviving Mk7s were later corrected of their vulnerability.



As great as all these starfighter designs are, they all pale in comparison to the legendary status of the true winner.  So what does that leave as the Best Fighter in the Galaxy?

As if you didn't already know...  Tune in tomorrow.




Thursday, December 8, 2016

Canada finally has a new FWSAR!

Airbus C295
Well...  That only took...  Forever.

Twelve years after announcing a need to purchase new fixed-wing search and rescue (FWSAR), the Federal Government announced plans to procure 16 Airbus C-295 aircraft.  These C-295s will replace aging CC-115 Buffalo and CC-130 Hercules currently used.

The FWSAR replacement has been an ongoing reminder of just how broken Canada's military procurement process can be.  After starting a competition in 2004, the program has been in a state of "on-again/off-again" with allegations of rigged requirements that were too favorable to the Alenia C-27J.

Potential candidates for Canada's FWSAR included:

  • Alenia C-27J Spartan
  • Airbus C-295
  • Embraer KC-390
  • C-130J Hercules (new build)
  • Bell/Boeing V-22 Osprey
  • Bombardier Q400
  • "DHC-5NG" (new build Buffalos with modern engines)
The Q400 fails to meet the requirement for a rear loading ramp.  The Osprey was pitched but was likely too deemed too costly.  The "Buffalo NG" was likely to risky.  Despite the fact that the C-130 is already being used as a FWSAR for the RCAF, Lockheed declined to offer a newer model.  (This may have been in response to Canada's waffling on the F-35 program.

Embraer KC-390

The Brazilian KC-390 was a late entry into the competition.  The only jet offered in playing field full of turboprops, the KC-390 certainly stood out.  Its size (roughly that of a standard C-130) and speed almost made it too much aircraft.  Especially when part of its FWSAR role would have seen it navigating mountain ranges.  

Ultimately, the KC-390s immaturity may have been its biggest downfall.  Having first flown in 2015 and not yet entering full production, there are a lot of "unknowns" associated with it.  This made it a bit of a long-shot for a program already plagued by delays.

Of course, Embraer may choose to offer the KC-390 as a possible replacement for the CC-150 Polaris as a multi-role tanker transport (MRTT).


Throughout the entire process, the C-27J Spartan was always considered the frontrunner.  Faster and longer-legged than the C-295, the Spartan shares a common engine with the C-130J "Super Hercules" already in service with the RCAF.  It is understandable why the RCAF showed preference to it.   Being seen a "mini-Herc" certainly wins it a few fans given the versatility of the C-130.  

While the Spartan may appear to be a smaller, two-engined C-130, its smaller size does not translate into substantial cost savings.  The USAF found there was no significant cost savings for the C-27J when compared to the Herc.  


Ultimately, the decision to declare the C295 as the winner likely boiled down strictly to economics.  The Airbus was by far the most affordable aircraft of the three finalists.  Its bid included stationing in Comox, Winnipeg, Trenton, and Greenwood.  The deal also includes a new training facility in Comox.  The fact that the C295 utilizes Canadian-built Pratt&Whitney PW127G certainly does not hurt either.

The selection of the C295 may give some insight into the Trudeau government's overall defense procurement strategy.  While not as capable as some of the other aircraft, it certainly qualifies as "good enough".  More importantly, it fills the required criteria without breaking the bank.  With plenty more equipment needed, this may be the only way for the CAF to procure needed equipment without drastically upping the defence budget.  

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Best (Interim) Fighter for Canada


Last week, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced that Canada would take steps to acquire 18 Boeing Super Hornets to help the RCAF deal with a "capability gap".  This would then be followed by a full, open competition to replace Canada's fleet of CF-18s.

This announcement was timely, as less than a week later, tragedy struck the RCAF.

There is still a great amount of debate as to the political motivations behind the Liberal government's move.

  • Will sole-sourcing the Super Hornet as an interim fighter give it an unfair advantage over the other fighters in a competition?
  • Is the RCAF really in dire need of new fighters so badly that it cannot wait a few more years?
  • Canada already has more than enough information to render a decision on a full fighter buy.
  • An open competition should be able to be completed with fighter delivery beginning by 2025.
The Liberal Government will have their feet held to the fire answering these questions, and rightly so.      Most of these questions center around the current viability of the RCAF's fleet and its intended mission.  

The one thing we CAN be certain of:  They picked the right airplane.



Long-time readers here may be confused by that statement.  My personal appreciation of the Super Hornet has been lukewarm.  It is a solid workhorse, no doubt...  But it fails to stand out when compared to its contemporaries.  It does not offer the blistering performance of the Typhoon, the cutting edge technology of the F-35, or the elegant minimalism of the Gripen.  In comparison to the others, the Super Hornet is...  Generic.  

Yet the Rhino is the perfect aircraft to serve as an interim fighter alongside the RCAF's current CF-18 fleet.  

Why?


Expediency. 

Unlike the F-35 and the Gripen E, the Super Hornet is ready now.  Boeing can easily produce the requested eighteen aircraft within three years or less.  At its current production rate of two aircraft per month, Boeing's St. Louis assembly plant can fulfill both Canada's (18) and Kuwait's (40) orders in under 30 months.  

Australia's acquisition of 24 Super Hornets took less than five years from initial decision to final delivery.  Canada could very well have its entire stock of Super Hornets by 2020.  Possibly sooner.  

The Eurofighter Typhoon, with its current production rate of 35/year, could match this delivery schedule.  Dassault, producing a mere eleven Rafales a year, would likely have difficulty given its current commitments.  While production rates could be increased, this would be unlikely on such a small order.  



Commonality.

Part of what makes the Super Hornet so attractive politically is the fact that it is marketed as a variant of the legacy F/A-18 Hornet.  It is not.  A more accurate designation for the Super Hornet would "F-24", but political motivations discouraged that.

While the Super Hornet is a lot more than an upgraded Hornet.  It is bigger, more powerful, and much more advanced.  Parts commonality is much less than you would think.  While the two aircraft look similar, the forward fuselage is the only part shared by both aircraft.  

Despite the difference in parts, the Super Hornet will be familiar to CF-18 pilots.  The cockpit layout is roughly the same, and the aircraft has similar handling characteristics.  For ground crews, most maintenance items are exactly where they would expect them to be.

The Super Hornet is as close to "plug-and-play" as you can get, operations wise.  It is compatible with Canada's CC-150 Polaris's probe-and-drogue system, fits in the same hangars, and can handle the same weather conditions.  It would have no problem operating from the RCAF Forward Operating Locations.  


Versatility/Capability.

There is no denying that the Super Hornet offers a major upgrade in capability for the RCAF.  While the smaller CF-18 has a slight edge in maneuverability, the Super Hornet improves on just about everything else.  More range, more payload, and a more powerful AESA radar offer a substantial improvement.  While some might argue that other fighters would offer even more of an improvement, there is no arguing the fact that the Rhino is better equipped than what we have right now.  

Besides its increased combat capabilities, the Super Hornet offers the RCAF some interesting new options that may be worth looking into.  The Rhino has the ability to act as a "buddy tanker", something that could prove useful if the CC-150 Polaris is not available.

There is also the possibility of acquiring or converting those Super Hornets to the electronic warfare version, the EA-18G Growler.  While the official word is that Canada's interim Super Hornets will be of the "vanilla" version, we could replicate the RAAF's original intention to buy Super Hornets and then convert them to Growlers at a later date.  (Australia ultimately decided to simply purchase twelve extra Growlers in addition to their Rhinos)

If the Canadian government ultimately decides on a different fighter after a competition, converting some or all of those eighteen Super Hornets into Growlers would be a true quantum leap for RCAF capability.  Which brings us to our next point...


Mixed fighter fleet.

One of the biggest sticking points of an interim Super Hornet purchase followed by a competition is that it opens up the possibility of a mixed fighter fleet.  Despite some treating this possibility as a near-doomsday scenario, the truth is that it might not be so bad.  The Super Hornet strengths complement another fighter types.

If the F-35 is ultimately selected,  the Rhino would still be useful thanks to its lower operating cost, more robust design, and the ability to add external tanks for range.  This would make it ideal for arctic sovereignty missions.  The Rhino would also be a preferable training aircraft, as the F-35 lacks a two-seat option.  

If paired with the Gripen, the Super Hornet can offset the Saab's lower payload capability.  It would as the the "ground pounder" while the smaller, faster Gripen acts as air-superiority or reconnaissance. The two aircraft share a common engine, helping to mitigate some of the extra costs of a dissimilar fighter fleet.  



Even if the "interim" Super Hornet buy is a means to merely "kick the can down the road", that may not be such a bad thing.  The fighter market, as it stands right now, is a mess.  

The expected replacement to the CF-18, the F-35, is still troubled.  With no other "5th generation" alternative, Canada faces a difficult choice.  Purchase the troubled fighter and hope things improve or purchase a more proven design and hope that it is "good enough" for the future.  

Instead of risk, the Liberal Government has chosen compromise.

By choosing to buy a small order of Super Hornets now, Canada buys itself a bit more time to see if the F-35 lives up to its promise.  If it does, Canada simply continues on with its purchase of the stealth fighter later and possibly in less numbers than originally intended.  

If the JSF remains an unattractive choice, Canada still has the option to buy either a token fleet of F-35s or walk away altogether.  That would still leave us with a modern, capable workhorse of a fighter that will remain relevant until the 2040s.  In that time, Canada may have more options to ponder.  

New technologies are always being developed and the emergence of possible threats like the PAK FA and the J-20 have thrown the multi-role fighter industry on its ear.  Perhaps waiting a little while longer on the CF-18's "true" replacement could result in a true "paradigm shift".



Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Interim Super Hornets: Winners and Losers


After more than a year of speculation, the Liberal government has announced its plan to replace the RCAF's aging fleet of CF-18 Hornets.  An election promise to walk away from the F-35, combined with promise to hold an open and fair competition meant there was going to be some sort of a shake-up.

Things were shaken up even more when Harjit Sajjan, Canada's newly appointed Minister of Defence, announced that the RCAF's current CF-18 fleet was in worse condition then initially thought and that Canada was faced with a "capability gap".

Rumors circulated during the summer that Canada would announce the sole-source procurement of a small number of Super Hornets to be used as an interim solution.  This week, the Federal Government announced exactly that.  Canada will procure 18 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, followed shortly by a full and open fighter competition that will last approximately five years.  Canada will continue to act as a JSF industrial partner during this time.

Naturally, this move has been met with both praise and criticism.  There are also some big winners and losers.

Winners:

Boeing.   One year ago, Boeing was in serious danger of leaving the fighter jet business.  This announcement, combined with a recent sale of 40 Super Hornets to Kuwait and 72 F-15s to Qatar, means that Boeing will continue to build fighter aircraft well into the 2020s.

RCAF.  There is no denying that the addition of eighteen Super Hornets will provide a huge boost to the RCAF.  Not only does it take some of the pressure off aging legacy fleet, but it adds new capabilities like AESA radar, longer range and increased payloads.  

The U.S. Government.  Canada's Super Hornet purchase helps the U.S. Government in two ways.  First, it ensures that Boeing's St. Louis assembly plant stays open.  This not only does the plant provide high-paying manufacturing jobs, but it is a major strategic asset and it keeps Lockheed Martin from having a defacto monopoly on the fighter aircraft business.  

Saab.  Oddly enough, this recent news actually improves Saab's chances of a fighter sale to Canada.  Currently, its Gripen E/F variants are still "paper airplane" that have yet to flight tested. In five years time, it should be in service with both the Swedish and Brazilian air forces.  The Gripen E shares its GE F414 engine with the Super Hornet, and the two fighters complement each other nicely.  If Canada decides to keep its interim Super Hornets alongside a new fighter, the Gripen makes an excellent choice.  

Nope.  

Losers:

Lockheed Martin.  There is no sugarcoating this.  This is a blow to the F-35 program.  While Canada will remain a partner, the chances of it going ahead with the purchase of 65 F-35As seem negligible at this point.  It seems more likely at this point that Canada will either buy a reduced number of F-35s...  Or forgo the JSF in favor of another aircraft (or aircrafts) entirely.

Eurofighter.  By the time Canada decides on a more permanent replacement to the CF-18, the Eurofighter Typhoon may no longer in production.  Even if it still is, the Typhoon would be a hard sell next to the more technologically advanced F-35 or the cheaper Super Hornet and Gripen.

Dassault.  Like the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Rafale may not even be still in production after 2020.  This would result in Canada's fighter competition becoming a three-way race between the Super Hornet, F-35, and the Gripen.

The RCAF's future.  Legacy (above) and Super (below) Hornets!

Winners and/or Losers (only time will tell):

The Liberal Government.  Canada's CF-18 replacement was always a "no-win" situation for the Trudeau government.  One way or another, they would have been criticized for either spending too much money or by purchasing the wrong aircraft for the RCAF.  Claims that they inherited a mess from the previous Harper government are partly true, but that makes little difference if things go wrong.  As it is, they will be accused of using an interim Super Hornet buy to both "kick the can down the road" as well as "stacking the deck" in favor of the Super Hornet when a full competition is announced.  

Yet there was no real "right choice" here.  Putting off any fighter purchase put the RCAF at undue risk during an increasingly unsure period of history.  Sole-sourcing a full fighter fleet would have been (rightfully) criticized as hypocritical.  Rushing into a fighter competition would be seen as overly rash.  The current plan, while not perfect, may be the "least wrong" approach.  

The Canadian Taxpayer.  Fighter jets are not cheap.  Not only will the Canadian taxpayer be on the hook for these multi-million dollar aircraft, but the RCAF will need more money to maintain them alongside the similar (yet still different) CF-18.  Mixed fighter fleets are more expensive to operate and the RCAF will be operating a mixed fleet of two, possibly three, different fighter aircraft as it transitions from the CF-18, to the Super Hornet, to whatever ultimately replaces the CF-18.  This could lead to logistic challenges.  

The current plan may still be more affordable than the previous plan, however.  Going ahead with the sole-sourced F-35 would have stuck Canada with a very expensive aircraft of dubious readiness.  The RCAF would also be in immediate need of new airbase facilities and aerial tankers to support the JSFs.  



Best case scenario?

Since Canada is taking a page out of Australia's playbook, we might as well follow their example \by insisting on Super Hornets that are compatible of being converted to perform electronic warfare duties.  The addition to EA-18G Growlers to the RCAF's fleet would not only counter the upcoming "capability gap", but would add a valuable new capability.  The RCAF would be one of the few air forces equipped with a dedicated EW aircraft capable of operating in high threat environments.

For more on this, be sure to check our Stephen Daly's piece on "Northern Growlers".  This "modest proposal" suggested procuring interim Super Hornets with the caveat that some (or all) be of the EA-18G Growler specification.