Why Canada does not need the F-35

L’auteur est un fonctionnaire d’une organisation régionale
The author is a civil servant in a regional organisation

Mots clés : capacité des chasseurs aériens, défense, Canada, OTAN, politique défense

Keywords : fighter aircraft capacity, defense, Canada, NATO, defense policy

Abstract: While the Lockheed F-35 might well, in spite of the current development saga, turn out into the much dreamed-of ubiquitous replacement of the F-16 – the conditional tense remains of use for now, the question remains of whether the choice of this new machine is appropriate for Canada. The purpose of this article is to show that this is not the case, and that there are better, cheaper, more adapted alternatives.

The competitive advantage claimed by the proponents of the F-35 are known.

  • Stealth is a formidable force multiplier giving forces equipped with it parity with other 5th generation fighters and air superiority over forces equipped with 4th generation materials or older.
  • Interoperability with American
    forces and other nations equipped with the airplane will be a cost saver

The question of whether missions requested from the Canadian Air Force in the future are well suited for the F-35 is however entirely different.

Such a stealthy airplane would be ideal for engagements over what was NATO’s central European theatre two decades ago. Stealth would have guaranteed a high survivability in the dangerous environment of a frontline exceptionally well equipped in surface-to-air assets. The relatively low payload capacity and short range of the aircraft would not have been too much of a problem, considering the relatively small geographical area concerned. The presence of other NATO air assets in the vicinity would have complemented missions outside the F-35’s scope and range.

Fortunately, all this belongs to a never-to-be future in the past and the probability of a standoff involving Canada in Europe is extremely low.

What are Canada’s needs for the next 30 years ? One can investigate several likely directions.

Canada needs a long range fighter to fulfil its NORAD and NATO commitments, as well as provide adequate defense assets for the Canadian territory. The fighter must be capable of both combat air patrols and / or long range interceptions, with a low-speed cruising capability as well as fast accelerations. Mach 2+ would be an asset. So would be supercruise (non-postcombustion supersonic flight). Such an airplane, combined with appropriate detection assets, would have the capability to intercept potentially hostile long range reconnaissance / bomber aircraft far from potential missile launching positions as well as to conduct extensive barrier CAP (Combat Air Patrol) if necessary.

Canada needs a polyvalent aircraft with decent air-to-ground capability including a variety of precision weapons and guided weapons. A large payload would be an asset. Such an aircraft would provide the capability to be deployed overseas as part of a coalition effort.

Canada needs an aircraft with manageable procurement, operation and maintenance costs. It is often forgotten that quantity is in itself an asset and too small a force could fall below a critical mass threshold.

It may be argued that 5th generation fighters such as the Russian Sukhoi T-50 or its Chinese equivalent might, in one or two decades, if their developments are successful and their deployments practical, change the correlation of forces in the air. Again, the likeliness of such advanced fighters reaching Canadian airspace is low. And if Canada deploys overseas, it will operate in the frame of a coalition. Even more important, the pertinence of a limited number of F-35 in combat against 5th generation fighters has been widely discussed and is not yet clearly established.

The recent conflict in Libya showed that 4th generation aircraft were well suited to the task; In Libya, French Air Force Rafales proved their first-entry capacity. Over potential high-threat environments with double-digit SAMs in the Middle-East, Canadian aircraft would be part of a coalition effort where they would get backup for air-defense suppression from dedicated air assets.

Why the F-35 does not meet Canada’s needs ?

The latest information available on the Air Force version of the F-35 reveals a remarkably short range (1 135 km of total operational autonomy, the equivalent of a 570 km combat radius) and a very limited (250 km maximum) supercruise capability. This is clearly insufficient in a vast country where interceptions (for example, of Russian transpolar reconnaissance flights) could involve total distances 5 or 6 times longer, and would require a substantial increase of in-flight refuelling capacity or external fuel tanks that would negate the aircraft’s vaunted stealthiness. Even the addition of two massive external fuel tanks would hardly increase non air-refuelled operational autonomy beyond 1 400 km.

One may also question the relevance of a single-engine aircraft over large area. Engine failure on a single-engine aircraft means the loss of the machine, whereas a twin-engine aircraft can often limp back to its base, a simple fact that has contributed to the increased proportion of twin-engine aircraft among 4th generation fighters.

Regarding stealthiness, one may observe that the F-22 that have been deployed by the US air Force in Elmendorf AFB (Alaska) – in
replacement of ageing F-15 experiencing mechanical trouble – incor­porate radar transponders designed to make them more visible and conceal their actual stealthiness from the Russian reconnaissance aircraft they are intercepting, preventing the Russians from getting intelligence on their actual performance.

Stealthiness has a cost, which has been so far largely guessed at, but for which hard figures are beginning to emerge. For example, the cost of an hour of flight of a B-2 Spirit as calculated by the American Center for Defense Information is of 135 000 US Dollars, nearly 5 times that of an F-15E. Unfortunately no figures are quoted for the F-22, but there is little need of scientific evidence to admit the notion that the maintenance at operational standards of the delicate skin of a stealth aircraft is more expensive than a conventional one.

Ultimately, the bottom line resulting from these constraints is obviously cost as the F-35 appears expensive to develop, purchase and, very likely, to operate.

There are alternative choices available

In a world devoid of any political constraints, one would recommend the purchase of Eurofighter Typhoon or Dassault Rafale as the optimal aircraft for Canada’s air forces. The Typhoon is optimised for the RAF long patrols over the North Sea and is an excellent air-superiority platform, but has less developed air-to-ground capabilities. The Rafale has lower air-to-air capabilities (although further radar developments and the integration of the Meteor missile will reduce the gap) but is a better, combat-proven multirole fighter-bomber. Both aircraft have similar purchase costs, probably lower operational costs, better payloads and combat radius than the F35. In both cases, the issue of interoperability with American fighters should not be insolvable as both aircraft are fully up to NATO standards; obviously less synergies will be generated than with a fully integrated F35 fleet. Information available on industrial compensations and technology transfers seem attractive in all cases and does not build a convincing case for the F-35 on an industrial basis alone. Regarding potential alternatives, one has to rule out the agile and inexpensive Saab Gripen, as its short range and single engine makes it better suited to air policing missions over smaller territories.

Admitting the political need to buy American aircraft rather than European one, even the F-18 E/F Super Hornet (or possibly an improved version) would be a cheaper and perfectly viable alternative that would hugely simplify operational transformation from the existing, ageing CF-18 and at the same time make a substantial cost savings to allow funding to be reallocated towards much needed other defense assets such as patrol aircraft, tankers and drones. The twin-engine F-18 E/F has a 30% better combat radius and better payload. It is not stealthy, but stealth is not crucial in air policing missions and could be compensated by other assets in high risk environments.

From any perspective, the procurement of the F-35 has consistently looked like a suboptimal military choice dictated by other concerns, and the risks associated to the project (financial, industrial, and in terms of military effectiveness) are likely to persist in the near future. The interest of the Canadian Air Force is clearly an open competition process where different options can be weighted and an informed and well prioritised choice can be made.