Tuesday, December 12, 2017

USED AUSSIE HORNETS: IT’S OFFICIAL



Well...  We all saw this coming, didn’t we?

It was announced today that the the Canadian government will acquire 18 used RAAF F/A-18 Hornets. This will address the “capability gap” that the RCAF finds itself in thanks to an aging fighter fleet.  

Along with this announcement, it was announced that Canada would begin its search for a permanent CF-18 replacement.  If all goes according to plan, a contract will be awarded by 2022 with deliveries beginning in 2025.  Interestingly enough, it was announced that the new fighter analysis will include an assessment of "overall impact on Canada's economic interests," (take that, Boeing!)

So...  I looks like it’ll be ANOTHER four years (at least) before this long, winding CF-18 replacement saga.  (And me without my iMac!)


p.s:  I want to thank all of you who have offered support after my recent personal challenge.  It is very much appreciated.  

Just to give you an update, my family and I are safe and sound. We have a place to stay and the insurance company has been great so far.  While the house fire was limited to the kitchen, smoke damage has written off most of the interior of the house. It’s all mostly stuff that can be replaced or repaired and we we are looking at it as chance to do some much needed renovations. 

This holiday season is going to be different for sure, but it’s driving home what is really important:  Family, friends, and good will toward mankind. 

I hope to make the occasional post here over the next few months. Luck willing, things will be back to normal just in time for Canada’s fighter search to begin in earnest. 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

GONNA HAVE TO TAKE A SABBATICAL...



Due to circumstances beyond my control, I am going to have to take a short break from blogging.

Too put things bluntly, my house caught fire.  Everyone is safe but I will be without a home (and my trusty iMac) for several weeks (months?).  Needless to say, this puts a damper on things for a bit.

I hope to get back as soon as I can.

I’m the meantime, Happy Holidays (yes, all holidays matter!) and be well.

-Doug

Sunday, November 26, 2017

DO WE REALLY WANT TO BUY USED?

"Have I got a deal for you..."
In the wake of the Boeing/Bombardier/Airbus fiasco, the Boeing Super Hornet is all but disqualified as Canada's "interim fighter" to fulfill the "capability gap" inflicting the RCAF.  That has left the Government of Canada scrambling to find another fighter to bolster is aging CF-18 fleet.  Unfortunately, this means considering buying used legacy Hornets from other nations.

To some, this is an acceptable idea.  Next to buying simply nothing at all, it certainly is the most affordable option.  Apart from the the initial purchase price and getting the aircraft up to Canadian spec, there would be no additional costs required for training or setting up separate supply chains.  Procuring used Hornets would be as close to "plug-and-play" as we could ever get.

It could be argued that used Hornets would be a much more sensible option than new-build Super Hornets.  This certainly is true from a value proposition.  Those mere 18 Super Hornets had a cost of $6.4 billion.  This is a staggering amount considering the initial estimate for 65 F-35s was $9 billion. Even if the Boeing/Bombardier spat never happened, it would have been wise to reject interim Super Hornets based on sticker shock alone.

RAAF F/A-18A Hornet
Buying used fighters does have its critics, however.  Not the least of which is Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

These used fighters would add no new technology or capability.  Adding them to our fleet would bolster our number of available fighters, but little else.

These used Hornets are being replaced for a reason, after all.  They are rapidly aging and becoming obsolete.  The RAAF Hornets are roughly the same age as those used by Canada.  Like the CF-18, they have flown well beyond their intended lifespan thanks to various refits over the years.  Also like the CF-18, they would require all the additional maintenance a 30+ year-old fighter jet needs to stay airborne.  They would also have a similar lifespan and would be unlikely to make it past 2025 to 2030.  Any delays in acquiring a replacement fighter would still be uncomfortably close.

It also seems highly unlikely that the RAAF will be willing to part with any of its F/A-18 fleet until deliveries of its successor, the F-35A, begin in earnest.  Even then, the first fighters to be retired from the RAAF would likely be the oldest and most decrepit of the fleet.

Kuwaiti KC-18C
Another option could be to acquire used Kuwaiti Hornets.  These would likely be in far better condition than RAAF Hornets.  While the RAAF's F/A-18 fleet is roughly the same age as Canada's, Kuwait did not acquire its first Hornet until the 90s.  As such, it flies the more modern F/A-18C.  While this would not add much capability to the RCAF fleet (CF-18s were upgraded to a similar technology level), at least the aircraft themselves would be much newer.  (Think Millennials to the CF-18s Generation X).

Unfortunately, there is a bit of an availability problem with Kuwaiti Hornets.  Kuwait maintains a relatively small fleet (27) and they are not ready to part with any just yet.  They do have plenty of aircraft on order (28 Typhoons and 40 Super Hornets), but deliveries are still years away.

The ill-fated HMCS Chicoutimi.
One might wonder why the Liberal government is even considering used military equipment.  After all, Canada has a bit of a mixed history when it comes to such a thing.

Perhaps the most glaring example are the Victoria-class submarines.  These formerly-mothballed Upholder-class British boats ended up being a terrible bargain.  While $750 million may have seemed like a great price for a entire submarine fleet, these things have cost additional billions of dollars getting them seaworthy and combat-ready.  Not only that, but the HMCS Chicoutimi ended up costing a sailor his life and injuring another eight.  Even after years of refits, these subs are still trouble-prone.

CC-150 Polaris:  Proof that buying used can work.
It should be noted that not all used military equipment ends up as regrettable as the Victoria-class.  The RCAF's CC-150 Polaris fleet was once owned by the defunct civilian airline Wardair.  By most accounts, the Polaris has been relatively trouble-free.  Of course, these Airbus A310-300s were relatively new at the time, and did not spend years and mothballs like the Victoria-class submarines.  The demands placed on a transport/tanker are also quite different than that of a combat-capable submarine (or fighter jet for that matter).

Buying used fighter jets would certainly be a case of "buyer beware" for the Canadian Department of National Defence.  The Liberal Party of Canada certainly does not have the best reputation when it comes to military procurement, and acquiring 30-year-old fighters to address a "capability gap" certainly will not do much to mend this.

Unfortunately, there may be no ideal solution.  Buying new build Super Hornets would be politically unwise for cost reasons and as retaliation for Boeing trying to stymie Bombardier.  Buying used Hornets runs the risk of repeating the same risks as the RCN's used submarines.

Perhaps a third option should be considered?

Czech Gripen C, operated under lease from Saab
While Canada's Chief of Defence Staff believes "One cannot lease fighters"; Saab would argue otherwise.  Saab has proven to be more than willing to lease out its Gripen fighters to nations like the Czech Republic and Hungary.  Canada is not the first cash-strapped nation in need of fighters, after all.

As luck would have it, Sweden may have a sizable surplus of Gripen C/D models in the near future.  Unfortunately, the Gripen C/D is not as capable as the JAS 39E.  The C/D variants lack the increased range, power, payload, AESA radar, and IRST of the Gripen E.  In some ways, like range and payload, the Gripen is inferior to Canada's CF-18.  However, these aircraft are all fairly new (built in the 2000s), have an enviable safety record, and are famously affordable.

Acquiring Gripen C/Ds for the RCAF would come with a major caveat.  There would be the additional cost of dealing with a mixed fighter fleet.  This is mitigated somewhat due to the Gripen's use of the same weapons, ease of maintenance, and the fact that its Volvo RM12 is based on the same GE F404 found in the CF-18.  The RCAF would have a similar issue with the Super Hornet, however.  Despite its name and appearance, the Super Hornet shares very little in common with the CF-18.

A more minor caveat would be the fact that the Gripen is simply a smaller, lighter fighter than the CF-18.  For some, it would be seen as a "downgrade".  There would also undoubtedly be uproar over its single-engine layout, for right or for wrong.  The fact of the matter is that there is very little the Gripen cannot do that the CF-18 has done over the last 30 years.

Leasing, or even purchasing, slightly used Gripen C/Ds would certainly be more affordable than purchasing Super Hornets.  Yes, there would be additional start-up costs related to training and logistics, but certainly not in the $6.4 billion range.  They would almost certainly cost more than second-hand RAAF Hornets, but this would be money well spent considering that the RAAF Hornets would require costly refits just to make them last another decade (possibly less).

A leased fleet of Gripens would certainly eliminate plenty of variables associated with an interim fighter.  There would be no need to find a buyer for the aircraft when they are no longer needed.  No need to dispose of fighters that are no longer airworthy.  Canada simply uses the fighters for ten years while it waits for the CF-18 replacement to happen.  It also gives the RCAF a chance to "try-before-you-buy" of the Gripen platform itself.

The Gripen is not a perfect solution for Canada's interim fighter...  But neither is the Super Hornet, old surplus Hornets, or any of the other fighters.  The Gripen certainly merits a look, however.  A short term lease of the C/D model may be enough to convince the powers that be that the more advanced Gripen E/F is the best fighter for Canada.



Sunday, November 19, 2017

HAS THE TYPHOON WON BY DEFAULT?



The last few years have seen Canada's ongoing quest to replace its CF-18s turned upside down.  The F-35 has gone from the odds-on-favorite to a political landmine.  Its assumed alternative, the Super Hornet, has gone from a no-bid certainty to being shunned.

This pretty much leaves the three Eurocanards (Typhoon, Rafale, and Gripen) as the only alternatives.  This would have been unforeseeable five years ago.  Still, stranger things have happened.

The current state of affairs would seem to suggest that the Eurofighter Typhoon has huge advantage over the other choices.  Airbus, part of the Eurofighter consortium, did just perform a last-minute rescue of Bombardier's C Series, after all.  This puts it in much higher regard with the Canadian government, especially compared to Boeing.

As I have mentioned before, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Airbus C295, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

This would not be Airbus's first time winning a coveted Canadian military contract after seemingly losing it to others.  Remember that the Alenia C-27J Spartan was originally selected as the RCAF's fixed wing search and rescue (FWSAR) aircraft, only to have that decision struck down.  After a (fair) competition, the Airbus C295 was selected based on value.  

The C295's selection caught many by surprise.  The C-27J, after all, was a perfectly suitable aircraft, and it had the benefit of using the same engines as the CC-130J already in RCAF use.  Its selection, however, was tainted by a set of requirements that were written specifically around the C-27J.  After a new competition was announced (after seemingly endless delays) the Airbus C295 managed to beat not only the C-27J, but the Embraer KC-390 as well.

As with the FWSAR contract, The Eurofighter (Airbus) Typhoon may well emerge as the winner only after a selection is based on merit, rather than predetermination.  At this point, however, the Typhoon may simply be the default choice.

If a Typhoon in Battle of Britain livery doesn't do it for you...  I don't know what will.  
Politically, the Typhoon could very well be the default choice.

The ruling Liberal Party campaigned on dismissing the F-35 during the election that brought them to power.  While the JSF has not been completely dismissed, its selection would bring rightful taunts of hypocrisy from the media and opposition parties.  Naturally, this led to the Boeing Super Hornet as the heir-apparent to the CF-18.  While the "Eurocanards" were mentioned as candidates, it would be highly unusual for Canada to purchase a non-American fighter.  The last non-American fighter to serve in the RCAF was the CF-100 Canuck, which had the distinction of being a Canadian design.

By now, we all know the story of how Boeing cut off its nose to spite its face regarding Canada's eminent interim Super Hornet purchase.  At this point, buying any Boeing product could be seen as near-treasonous.

The Saab Gripen and Dassault Rafale were always (and still are) considered long-shots to replace the CF-18.  While there chances have gone up considerably in the last few months, they are still unlikely.  Canada has rarely bought military equipment from Sweden or France, let alone something as complex as a multi-role fighter.

Canada does have a long-standing history of purchasing British, German, Spanish, and Italian military equipment, however.  This includes stand-outs like the CH-149 Cormorant (UK/Italy), CT-155 Hawk (UK), and even the deHavilland Vampire.  The RCAF also currently flies the Airbus CC-150 Polaris; and will soon add the Airbus C295 to the fleet.

Heck, it would not even be the first time Canada flew a fighter named Typhoon.



Given Airbus's recent history in helping (rather than hindering) the Canadian-made Bombardier C Series, one could certainly see a political argument for just selecting the Eurofighter Typhoon.  After all, not only is Airbus a major partner in the Eurofighter consortium, but the Typhoon is fully NATO compatible and would likely be an easy fit into the RCAF.

As tempting as this would be, it would still be wrought with political landmines.  The Typhoon has not been without controversy itself, for one thing.  Austria's purchase of the Typhoon has been led to fraud charges.  There have been availability issues.  Its current operating costs are 30-40% higher than a comparable F-16.  In 2015, some Typhoons were found to have manufacturing defects.

Put simply, the Typhoon is far from perfect.

While a quick Canadian purchase of the Eurofighter Typhoon could be easily justified; it could also be a source of great headaches later.

The truth of it is, while Canadians may be getting impatient waiting for the CF-18's successor to be named, the best course of action is still to perform a proper and open competition that compares the fighters based on their performance, price, and industrial offset merits.

Given Airbus' recent actions, it may just have the category of industrial offset merits locked down.



Wednesday, November 8, 2017

A COMMENT ABOUT THE COMMENT SECTION...



Apparently...  The comment section has gone to potty.

I want people to know that I am aware and not entirely happy about it. This is not the first time this has happened...  And I doubt it will be the last.  I do apologize for this.

In the past, I have preferred to take more of a “hands off” approach to the comment section. I have more than my fair say in each blog post, so adding more would seem redundant. I also (as much as I would like to) cannot read every post, since they often number into the hundreds, if not thousands.

To put it simply, I would much rather spend time researching and creating content.  I encourage you all to "police yourselves".  I also invite you to join the Facebook group, where I have additional moderator help and people are less likely to use "burner" accounts.  It is a closed group, but that is only to help cut back on the spam and scammers.

Just remember that Disqus does give individuals the power to report and/or block other users.  I would also remind you about the futility of arguing with people on the internet.



Just to clarify a few things regarding my recent "softening" on the F-35 Lightning II...


  1. I still think it is a terrible choice to replace the CF-18 as Canada's sole fighter type.  I also believe it would be a mistake to dismiss it out of hand.  
  2. As always, my intention with this blog was not to bash the JSF specifically, but to ensure Canada procure the right fighter for its needs (not somebody else's).  This can only be done through a open and fair evaluation of ALL the options.  
  3. Lockheed Martin has not bribed me in any way, shape, or form.  (The negative symbol in front of my current back balance can attest to that!)
  4. I have not undergone any recent head trauma, nor is my mental health in jeopardy.  (No more than usual, anyway...)
  5. I still like the Gripen.  Like...  A lot.  
Anyhoo...  

I hope to continue this blog until (if?) Canada finally selects a new fighter.  There will be periods where the posts are sporadic, as my personal life and "real job" have to take priority.  I should have a few more posts coming soon...  As quickly as I can sit down at a keyboard long enough.

Until then, thank you all for your input, your readership, and your patients.

-Doug


Sunday, November 5, 2017

HOW TO MAKE A MIXED FLEET WORK.

We've done it before...
One way or another, Canada will soon have a mixed fighter fleet.

The RCAF will be fielding at least two, possibly three different fighter designs.  The CF-18, its replacement, and whatever is chosen to be Canada's "interim fighter" (which may end up being one of the former).  One way or another, a mixed fleet will be unavailable as Canada takes delivery of newer fighters while still flying old ones.

Needless to say, the usage of multiple fighter types will put additional strain on the RCAF as it is forced to juggle with different training requirements, basing requirements, and logistic concerns.  Simply put, multiple fighter types means more cost.

It is for this reason that Canada retired its fleet of CF-116 (CF-5) Freedom Fighters.  Despite being much cheaper to operate than its CF-18 stablemate, this was not enough to justify the extra hassle of maintaining a less capable fighter.  It was deemed wiser to phase out the CF-116 and use those resources towards the CF-18.

CF-18 and CF-116
It should be noted that the concept of a single fighter type fleet is a relatively new one.

While the term "multi-role fighter" is ubiquitous today, such a thing was unheard of 40 years ago.  Due to the limits of technology at the time, aircraft needed to be specialized for one role or another.  A fighter was designated an "interceptor", "fighter-bomber", or "day fighter".

Canada's own F/A-18 was arguably the first true "multi-role" fighter, capable of both air-superiority duties and ground attack without much compromise.  One could argue that the F-4 Phantom II preceded it, but the F-4's balance between interceptor and ground attack differed depending on the variant.

Before the introduction of the CF-18, the RCAF utilized a veritable smorgasbord of fighter aircraft.

  • The CF-116 Freedom Fighter.  This was used as a low cost day fighter, "aggressor" trainer, light attack, and reconnaissance.  
  • The CF-101 Voodoo.  Used as an all-weather interceptor in a role originally intended for the CF-105 Arrow.
  • The CF-104 Starfighter.  Used an attack aircraft, despite being originally intended for use as an interceptor (which possibly explains its horrific safety record).
The fact that the CF-18 could perform the roles of all three three aircraft was no doubt a boon for the RCAF.  Pilots and maintainers needed only be trained on a single aircraft.  Supply chains and logistics were greatly simplified.

Multi-role fighters do have limitations, however.  


RAAF FB-111 and F/A-18 Hornet

As good as the Hornet is at multiple roles, it is still surpassed by aircraft dedicated towards a single purpose.  The USN still preferred the A-6 Intruder for assault missions and the F-14 Tomcat for air superiority.  The RAAF bolstered its air power by utilizing the FB-111 Aardvark. 

Even the very term "multi-role" can be interpreted loosely, as some multi-role fighters are designed with a bias towards one role or another.  The Eurofighter Typhoon, for example, skews more towards the air-superiority role.  This is because Eurofighter partner nations utilize the Panavia Tornado for attack missions.  Conversely, the F-35 Lightning II places more emphasis on ground attack, as the USAF utilizes the vaunted F-22 in the air-superiority role.  

Despite the fact that it was a true multi-role fighter, the Hornet's spin-off, the Super Hornet, is less worthy of the title.  While it boasts many improvements over the legacy Hornet, most of these improvements (payload, size, etc) only improve its ground attack capability.  As an air superiority fighter, the Super Hornet actually falls behind its progenitor in several areas.  With a less favorable power-to-weight ratio, the Super Hornet is slower and less maneuverable.  (The Super Hornet makes up for this thanks to its better radar and more fuel, but its still less of a dogfighter)

There is also the question of cost.  

To put it simply, the more you want a fighter to do (and do it well), the costlier it is going to be.  Not only to procure, but to operate as well.  Heavy payloads require big aircraft with big engines that burn more fuel.  Precision targeting equipment and smart munitions are notoriously expensive compared to their "dumb bomb" counterparts.  Stealth coatings require extra maintenance and climate controlled hangars


Out with the old...  In with the new.  RAAF F-111 and F/A-18Fs
Australia does make an excellent case study.  

Like Canada, Australia is a Commonwealth nation with deep ties to the USA, lots of coastline, and close proximity to a potential adversary (Russia for Canada, China for Australia).  While not officially a member of NATO, Australia is considered a "major non-NATO ally" and has participated in many of same military coalitions as Canada.  Both nations are roughly the same size.

Australia does spend more on defense than Canada, however.  Despite its smaller population, Australia's military budget is roughly 50% more than Canada's.  This is thanks to Australia spending the NATO-recommended 2% of GDP on defence versus Canada's 1%.  (Odd that a non-NATO country follows the recommendation while the NATO one does not.)

Thankfully, the current Liberal government plan is to increase defense spending to more closely match that of Australia's.  With similar military spending levels, there is no reason why Canada could not afford to adopt to the same multi-fighter fleet as Australia.  

Several years ago, much like Canada, Australia was in need of fighter jets.  Its fleet of F/A-18 Hornets were rapidly approaching the end of their usefulness.  It was also desperately attempting to fill a "capability gap" left behind when it retired its FB-111 fleet due to costs.  Australia was already a member of the JSF program so it selected the F-35 as a default choice to replace the F/A-18.  Unfortunately, the F-35s would not arrive soon enough to fill the gap left by the FB-111.  Australia promptly addressed this by ordering 24 Boeing Super Hornets.  Half of these are the EA-18G Growler electronic warfare variant, with the other 12 being prewired for easy conversion.

By accident or by design, the RAAF will soon be flying a fighter force resembling that of the USN.  Like the USN, the RAAF will be in possession of a advanced stealth fighter, an EW platform, and a solid "workhorse" type.  If there proves to be too much redundancy, Australia has the option of converting its "workhorse" Super Hornets into Growlers.

The USN and the RAAF's future fighters.
Until recently, Canada's procurement path seemed to be emulating Australia's; albeit at a slower pace.  Like Australia, Canada had selected the Super Hornet as an "interim fighter" with additional fighters to be selected later.  That came to a crashing halt when the Canadian government retaliated against Boeing's attempt to stifle Canadian aerospace.

Now, Canada is back to square one.  The ruling Liberal Party of Canada has backed themselves into a political corner by first promising not to buy the F-35, then the Super Hornet.  Of course, backtracking in politics is certainly not unheard of so neither option is truly off the table yet.  With less than two years before the next federal election, there is considerable pressure to come up with an answer to Canada's fighter problem.

As I mentioned in my last post, the F-35 Lightning II is still very much a contender.  After maturing somewhat, it is better than it once was, but still far from perfect.  It is still too unreliable, too expensive, and too beholden to the USA to be Canada's mainline fighter.  There is still a great deal of pressure to purchase the JSF however.

At its current rate of production, the F-35 would be readily available for purchase if Canada wished to do so.  This comes with a caveat, however...  The F-35s themselves may not be ready for primetime.

Other fighter choices, like the Typhoon or Gripen, come with their own caveat:  Due to the much slower production rates compared to the JSF, it would take many years to acquire the full complement of 88 fighters.

The solution to this quandary may be for Canada to hedge its bets by purchasing two different fighter types.  One as a "workhorse" type and the other as a "special purpose" type.  Unfort, this would entail additional cost when compared to utilizing a single fighter type, but there are ways to mitigate this somewhat.



First of all, both fighter types would have to utilize the same weapons.  This is a rather easy stipulation as the F-35, Typhoon, Gripen, and Super Hornet all use the typical Sidewinders, AMRAAMs, Paveways, and other ordinance commonly found in NATO.  Only the Rafale sticks out due to its preference for French-sourced MICA missiles and the like.

Second, cost differences must be enough to make a mixed fleet feasible.  It is for this reason that the Typhoon and Rafale lose out somewhat.  While both have lower operating costs than the F-35, neither is remarkably so.  Flying a mix of F-35s and Typhoons would almost certainly cost more than flying a fleet consisting solely of F-35s.  However, the Super Hornet, which has nearly half the cost per flight hour (CPFH) certainly makes an argument.  The Gripen, on the other hand, at less than one-quarter the CPFH, would seem to make a much larger argument that a mixed fleet would be economical feasible.

The third consideration is capability.  When the RCAF retired the CF-116 Freedom Fighter, there was little protest.  Simply put, there was nothing the Freedom Fighter could do that the CF-18 could not.  The CF-116 also lacked modern features like beyond-visual-range (BVR) capability.  Despite all the differences between the fighters being considered now, none of them are lacking capability.  It could be easily argued that real-world use would only reveal minor differences between them.

It is in these minor differences that Canada has potential to do something truly great.

The rough-and-tumble Gripen.
By choosing two fighters that are on opposite ends of the spectrum, Canada could greatly improve its capability at an affordable cost.

The first candidate would obviously be the Gripen.  It is by far the cheapest to operate and makes an excellent fit for Canada's climate and defence budget alike.  Despite its affordability, the Gripen is no slouch.  The upcoming E version will utilize an AESA radar, IRST, and advanced countermeasures system.  It is available in one or two-seat versions and its low operating costs make it an excellent high-end trainer and aggressor craft.  The Gripen would have no issue utilizing the RCAF's current infrastructure; including the Forward Operating Locations and aerial refueling assets.

The JAS 39E/F makes an excellent candidate for the RCAF's workhorse fighter.  As such, it should make up the brunt of the fleet, replacing the CF-18 on a nearly one-to-one basis.  This would make 70 fighters delivered gradually over the next 10 years.  The Gripen does lack in payload and does not have stealth capabilities, which makes its choice of stablemate a clear one.

The futuristic but flawed F-35
To address the "capability gap" that nobody even acknowledged existed until recently, the F-35 makes a good candidate.

Like it or not, the F-35 is the only fighter with stealth capabilities.  This alone makes for an argument that Canada should purchase at least a few of them.  There is also the simple fact that since we have already paid into the program (and continue to do so) we would be wasting money if we passed the JSF over.

Does Canada really need 88 stealth fighters however?  It seems like it would be a bit of a stretch to declare we would need more than a handful of high-cost stealth fighters at most.

By purchasing a 18 fighters within a three year period, Canada would address its capability gap in short order.  Those 18 F-35s would not be an "interim" fighter but more of a "special purpose" fighter.  As such, its use would be reserved for duties less suited to the Gripen, like high-risk coalition actions and the like.  A single squadron operating out of a single base would lessen the need to modify other airbases to accommodate the JSF's special needs.

I have argued before that the Gripen and the Super Hornet would make a good pairing due to their common engines, low costs, and differing capabilities.  A similar argument can be made for a Gripen/JSF pairing, except the low costs would be replaced by an even wider range of capabilities.  What the Gripen lacks in payload and stealth, the F-35 delivers.  What the F-35 lacks in ruggedness and affordability, the Gripen delivers.  By going with a mixed fleet, the RCAF would enjoy the best of both worlds.

Best of all, by choosing a small number of F-35s, Canada not only lowers costs, but avoids the risk of putting all of our eggs in the JSF basket.  If another grounding were to happen for one reason or another, the loss of 18 out of 88 fighters would merely be an inconvenience.

Purchasing a small amount of F-35s followed by a larger amount of fighters purchased elsewhere would also send a political message as well.  It would show that we still have faith in our American neighbors, but that faith is waining.

Of course, a clearer message would be sent if we avoided US-sourced military hardware entirely, but that is a discussion for another day...




Wednesday, November 1, 2017

SHOULD CANADA RECONSIDER THE F-35?

Still a contender?
When I started this blog's progenitor, http://gripen4canada.blogspot.ca, my thesis was that the F-35 was not the right fighter to replace Canada's aging CF-18 fleet.  At the time, the JSF project was years behind schedule, billions of dollars over budget, and still nowhere near to fielding a competent multi-role fighter.

It turns out a lot of people agreed with me.

Since that time, Canada has changed governing parties.  The current ruling party went so far as to promise to cancel Canada's F-35 purchase and to hold a fair and open competition.  Since coming into power, they also made it known that Canada suffers from a "capability gap" that required immediate attention.

We all know how that turned out so far...

As the years have gone by, the Joint Strike Fighter program has continued to plod on.  The F-35 has undoubtedly made progress, and both the USAF and the USMC have declared the fighter fit enough to meet Initial Operating Capability (IOC).

With Boeing's Super Hornet now being declared persona non grata amongst the Canadian government, the door is now open for the Trudeau government to reconsider the F-35.  After all, despite its faults, at least Lockheed Martin did not actively attempt to squash Canada's indigenous aerospace industry.

Is it time to give the F-35 a second chance?


Despite all the initial bluster, the Trudeau government has not yet closed the door on the F-35.  It will be among those fighters considered in a "fair and open competition".  Not only that, but Canada has continued (albeit quietly) to pay its membership dues in order to remain a partner in the JSF Industrial Program.

Lockheed Martin (no doubt smelling blood in the water) has even been so nice as to offer the F-35 Lightning II as an interim fighter in lieu of Boeing's Super Hornet.

Ignoring the ludicrousness of adopting the JSF as a short term "interim" fighter, the offer does make a certain amount of sense.  The mechanisms are already in place for Canada to purchase the F-35

The mechanisms are already in place for Canada to purchase the F-35.  As a longstanding JSF partner, we would not need to additional permission from the US Government.  Lockheed Martin is ramping up JSF production to seventeen aircraft per month by 2020, so it would not take long for those Canadian F-35s to be built.  Oddly enough, the F-35 may be fastest way for Canada to address its "capability gap".

F-35s recently flew within spitting distance of North Korea.
Despite its troubled history, the F-35 is finally starting to enter service.  The USMC declared the F-35B's IOC more than two years ago.  The F-35A's (the version Canada would procure) IOC back in  2016.  Officially, the JSF is no longer a prototype.  It is in service.

Despite assumptions to the contrary, the F-35 has not been relegated to the role of hanger queen.

While an engine fire preempted the JSF's transatlantic debut at the 2014 Farnborough Air Show, the aircraft was able to perform as planned two years later.  Since then, the F-35 has performed at multiple air shows and events without nary a hitch.

The F-35 has proven itself beyond air shows, however.  It is being deployed around the world.  During Red Flag, the F-35 posted a simulated kill ratio of 15:1.  (It should be noted that these events are scripted in favor of "blue air" and the outcome is never really in doubt)

As the F-35 slowly enters service, it continues along its development path.  Examples fitted with the "Full Combat Capability" Block 3F are now being delivered.  While the 3F software still lacks some capabilities, it is enough to declare the jet battle-ready.

One could argue that Canada's initial misgivings regarding the JSF were premature...  But there are still some issues.

F-35C performing carrier trials.

As has always been the case with the JSF, its most outstanding issue is its cost.  Its acquisition cost still remains quite high at $95 million per unit.  This, despite aggressive cost-cutting actions and pressure from the White House.  

Despite Trump's self-congratulatory tone regarding F-35 price drops, the GAO (Government Accountability Office) has taken a less optimistic view of the JSF's progress.  Put simply, the JSF fleet is currently "unsustainable".  

A lack of repair depots have resulted in a severe shortage of spare parts for the aircraft.  Broken parts take up to six months to replace.  Because of this, an F-35 has a 22% chance of being unavailable.  This is more than twice the expected 10%.  Until these depots are up and running (around 2022), this problem will get continue to get worse as the number of aircraft in service overwhelms the capability to repair them.  

There was, of course, a minor problem with the F-35 starving its pilots of oxygen.  We can only hope a recent "algorithm tweak" fixed that particular issue.  

Many have argued that most of these issues are simply "teething problems" associated with a new aircraft type.  Given time, they say, the F-35 will be just as dependable as the F-16 or F/A-18 are now.  This may be the case, but the JSF will need many more years getting there.  


So should Canada reconsider the F-35?

Of course it should.  

Like any of the other fighters being considered, it should be considered and ranked based on its merits.  All the fighters have their strengths and weaknesses, the F-35 gets most of the attention because of its newness and large scope.  Due diligence needs to be exercised to ensure what is the right fighter for Canada.  In order to be selected, a fighter would have to prove itself capable, reliable, and affordable.  It would also need to offer additional economic benefits to Canada as well (a category in which Boeing recently earned a solid "ZERO").

As it stands, Canada may have made a wise decision to not go forward as planned with the JSF.  Early plans on being an early adopter would have resulted in fighters that were still in need of retrofitting.  Possibly, we may have been stuck with some some that will never be combat capable.  

Perhaps Canada would be better off avoiding an "all in" approach the the F-35.  Most JSF buyers are operating the F-35 as part of a mixed fighter fleet.  Perhaps Canada should reexamine this option.  A small amount of F-35 acquired under the auspices of an "interim fighter" may allow Canada to "try before we buy"...  In theory, anyway.  

Unfortunately, there would be little time to field test the F-35 in the RCAF before a final decision would have to be made.  Selecting the F-35 as a full-on CF-18 replacement would remain a risky prospect.  

There is an opportunity here for the Government of Canada to compromise on a JSF purchase and purchase a few (18) instead of many (88).  This would give the RCAF the F-35s vaunted abilities to operate in high risk environments.  The other 70 fighters could be seen as a "workhorse" for use in training, sovereignty missions, and operating in lower risk environments.  

If Canada ends up flying a mixed fleet due to the need for an "interim fighter" the F-35 may indeed be smart choice.