Thursday, July 22, 2010

F-35. The project, the plane, the mission - from the seat

During the past few days Boris (leading the way) and I have put out a few posts regarding the announced plan to purchase the F-35 Lightning II as a replacement for the Canadian Air Force fleet of F/A-18 fighter jets. Those posts generated some long and highly informative debates in the comments sections. One commenter was clearly very well informed on the subject, from various angles, and expressed some frustration at articles which appeared in national media publications, specifically The National Post, by Mark Collins, and The Toronto Star, by Michael Byers.

Unfortunately, if you don't read the comments section (75 comments can be daunting) you might have missed an important part of the whole debate especially the part offered by an informed, educated Air Force officer in procurement. While not a member of the fighter jet community we invited that commenter to respond to Mr. Collins and Dr. Byers (and to some degree, Mercedes Stephenson) on this site.

His/her post is presented unedited and without further comment except to say that he/she is closer to the subject than any of we regular contributors.


Michael Byers writing in the Sunday edition of the Toronto Star and Mark Collins writing in the National Post's Full Comment have recently sought to portray the decision by the Conservative government to acquire the F-35 Litening II (the Joint Strike Fighter) as wrongheaded and inappropriate for Canada's defence needs.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Setting aside the politics of the purchase and process in which Canada acquiesced to it, there are a number of points both authors have raised about the aircraft's technical merits and the alternatives to the F-35 that I would like to address:

- "stealth" aircraft are offensive platforms equipped solely for "shock and awe" first night types of missions
- that the F-35 lacks the range for the defence of Canada' Arctic
- that the Boeing Super Hornet is viable and cheaper alternative for Canada

These assertions demonstrate a serious lack of understanding of the rationale and reasoning behind the Air Staff's choice of the F-35. To start with, the purchase has not come out of thin air. The Next Generation Fighter Capability (NGFC) office has been in existence for the better part of a decade and has been tasked with (like all other defence procurement programs) finding a platform that will serve the CF for 30+ years after the retirement of the CF-18 Hornet.

To accomplish this task, one must understand the evolving nature of the air threat in the decades to come. This environment has markedly changed in the post-Cold War era. During the Cold War the best platforms our fighter pilots might encounter were usually possessed by the Soviet Union and to a somewhat lesser extent, the Warsaw Pact forces. And while fighter aircraft were sold to friendly regimes elsewhere in the world, they were rarely top of the line.

In the post-Cold War era though, this situation has been reversed. Russia, starved for cash, particularly for its aerospace and defence programs now seems to have no qualms selling its best technology to anybody willing to pay. The proposed sale of the S-300 air defence system to Iran is an excellent example. But it's even worse on the combat aviation side of the business. Some of the best versions of its platforms are not even flown by the Russians. For example, While the Russians field several hundred Su-27s, they have sold the Su-30 MKI, a significantly more advanced model of the Su-30 (a derivative of the Su-27) to India and the Indians intend to field hundreds of them in the years to come. The Chinese also operate over 150 of less capable Su-30 MKK (still more advanced than the base Su-30 operated by Russia). And while Canada entertains no desires to enter into conflict with the rising Asian powers, more disconcerting for us, is that this platform (the Su-30 in various variants) is rapidly becoming the air superiority fighter of choice around the Pacific Ring and for those flush with cash. New operators of the Su-30 now include Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Uganda, Algeria and (most importantly for North Americans) Venezuela. The Russians even go so far as to develop advanced platforms largely for the export markets, that they don't intend to induct into service themselves. The MiG-35 is a good example of this.

The Russians aren't the only ones in the game, either. The Chinese have also recently awakened to the revenue potential of exports of advanced fighter jets. Their recent partnership with Pakistan for the J-10 program is the first effort at exporting a medium capability fourth generation fighter. This is an aircraft that's on par with the F-16 or Mirage 2000 and is being offered up by the Chinese, often as a sweetener (and a way to recover some of their spending) to their resource partners in Africa.

Looking at this proliferation of advanced 4th and 4.5 gen aircraft around the world, combined with the sales of advanced anti-air systems like the S-300, the CF is rightly concerned that potential adversaries today are fielding platforms that may already outclass the CF-18. For example, the Sudanese are now fielding significantly modernized MiG-29s. Should Canada decide to participate in any sort of action similar to Operation Allied Force (NATO's intervention in Kosovo), it would mean our fighter pilots would be facing opposing platforms that are potentially as capable as their own. And while training, weapons and tactics can give us the edge, the margin is far too discomforting for the Air Staff on which to risk the lives of our fighter crews.

The situation in the future does not look markedly better. As platforms like the J-10, Su-30, MiG-35 and even the Su-35 proliferate around the world, the CF will face a significant challenge in maintaining its combat edge in any potential combat scenario overseas. Domestically, the development and fielding of 5th generation fighters by the Russians and Chinese (combined with China's attempt to field aircraft carriers) will pose significant challenges to our security in the Arctic. For this reason, the combat aircraft that the CF acquires for the future has to possess certain characteristics that ensure our crews have the ability to counter the threats they will face abroad and in the defence of Canada. For a small, single type multirole fleet there are three characteristics: stealth, advanced sensors/networking/sensor fusion and improved aerodynamics.

It is unfortunate that some of these characteristics (such as stealth) have been mis-characterized in the press as being solely required for offensive missions. Stealth characteristics dramatic improve survivability. While stealth technology has been associated with offensive aircraft to date (particularly by the public watching "shock and awe" footage), in the future air combat environment of highly capable 4th and 4.5 generation fighters combined with advanced anti-air systems like the S-300, stealth is essential for the survivability of the platform. The enemy can't engage our fighters if they can't detect them. Stealth gives our pilots a significantly better shot at completing their missions and coming home safely.

Advanced sensors, networking and sensor fusion is also vital for a future fighter platform. These systems dramatically increase the pilots awareness of his surroundings and allow several fighters to operate as a single system as opposed to a team of aircraft. This significantly improves both their combat power and combat efficiency. Such networking and fusion not only improves situational awareness, it allows the pilots to engage targets they cannot "see" using the combined air picture derived from multiple sensors on multiple aircraft.

The third characteristics is improvements in the aerodynamics characteristics of the aircraft. The big improvement here is the internal carriage of ordinance. Weapons and fuel tanks hanging from the fuel tanks incur significant aerodynamic drag penalties. This causes aircraft to significantly underperform from their advertised figures on range and speed. Internal carriage of weapons eliminate these drag penalties allowing the aircraft to perform much closer to the glossy brochure figures. An alternative here would be an improved airframe and engine that allows for supercruise (the ability to travel faster than Mach 1 without using fuel guzzling after-burners).

Aerodynamics brings us to the next major discussion point: range. The Joint Strike Fighter has been impugned as possessing insufficient range to adequately operate in Canada's vast Arctic expanses. Is there any truth to that? To answer this question, range has to be understood the way engineers and pilots discuss it. For us, there are two range numbers that matter: ferry range and combat radius. The first lets you pre-position your aircraft. The second lets you fight as far away from your base, tanker or whatever you are trying to protect. In the Canadian context, the F-35 has more than adequate ferry range to reposition from Cold Lake to our forward operating bases in the Arctic. But combat radius is where the F-35 shines. It's combat radius is significantly higher than most of its competitors (except for maybe the Eurofighter Typhoon) and the currently in-service CF-18. This means the F-35 will be able to operate further away from its base or tanker, putting distance between the enemy and their targets. In a future where our potential polar adversaries are fielding advanced fighters with significantly longer range missiles, putting some distance between their combat aircraft and our defenceless tankers or bases or urban centres is vitally important. Lastly on range, Michael Byers suggests that the range is insufficient because it takes 8 hours for a tanker to arrive in the Arctic. Here he is getting range and endurance mixed up. They are not the same thing. Simply put, however, the F-35 has the requisite range and endurance to operate in the Canadian domestic environment.

And all this leads us to our third major point of contention: alternatives to the F-35. Several have been proposed, and if the Air Force was willing to compromise on its requirements, some (the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Rafale for example) could be contenders. However, the one being pushed by some commentators opposed to the JSF purchase, is the Boeing F-18 E/F Super Hornet (largely because of its price). This is an aircraft that is wholly inadequate for Canada's future defence needs. Mark Collins insists that its adequate since the US Navy operates the aircraft. However, that's only half the story. The US Navy does indeed operate the Super Hornet in the fleet air defence role today. It replaced the F-14 Tomcat in that role. However, it does not intend to do this in the years to come. Like the CF, the US Navy too has recognized the changing air threat environment and it too has committed to the Joint Strike Fighter program. As has the other operator of the Super Hornet: the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Both these operators recognize that going forward the Super Hornet will not possess sufficient survivability in a medium or high threat battlespace. So both are procuring Joint Strike Fighters to escort the Super Hornet. That should have told Mark Collins something. The Super Hornet is being relegated to the role a light bomber in the future, a bomb truck. This is not what the CF desires in its next fighter. And this is not what Canada needs for its own defences.

The Super Hornet has a significantly lower combat radius than the F-35 (meaning it has to fight closer to what it's trying to protect), no stealth characteristics (a must for survivability in the future) and no improvements in its aerodynamic characteristics over our existing CF-18. In sum, it's a terrible alternative for the Canadian Forces. Those pushing the Super Hornet, are either unaware of the CF's requirements or don't care about them and seek to simply impose the cheapest solution possible.

And the Super Hornet isn't all that cheap either. The RAAF's experience is instructive for Canada. The Aussies spent about AUS$ 6 billion, paying out about US$ 2.2 billion to acquire 24 aircraft and agreeing to a US$ 2.4 billion agreement for 10 years of support. Given the Australian experience, a fleet of far less capable Super Hornet would cost us between $6-$7 billion to acquire and up to $13 billion to support over 20 years. Contrast that to the $9 billion spent on acquiring 65 F-35s and a rumoured cost of $7 billion for a 20 year maintence contract. So while the Super Hornet might have a lower acquisition cost, it is far more expensive to maintain (understandable since engines account for one third of an aircraft's maintenance costs and the Super Hornet has two) over the long run, significantly negating any savings in acquisition costs. Furthermore, being less current that the F-35 also then means that the CF would have to spend billions on upgrades sooner to keep the aircraft at par with the threats it might face. This makes the Super Hornet a terrible value proposition. We'd be paying significantly more over the long run for a lot less capability.

In summary, the Air Staff and the CF are right when they suggest that the Joint Strike Fighter is the most capable and most cost-effective solution that Canada can field in the decades to come. It meets or exceeds all our defence requirements at a reasonable long term price. The alternatives are all significantly more expensive and could result in capability gaps in the later stages of the platforms expected service life (2030-2045), possibly requiring significant and expensive upgrades or simply sacrificing survivability putting our air crews and possibly our national security at risk.

While it's understandable that some commentators and politicians are unhappy with the method in which the Joint Strike Fighter was selected, they should understand that significant efforts were put into studying the future threat environment, evaluating the options and identifiying the best value proposition for Canadian taxpayer, and the best platform for the Canadian Forces for the next 30 years. The Air Staff's recommendations should not be taken lightly. Their decision was not concluded in a flippant manner. And those attempting to portray the F-35 as a unaffordable luxury, a "cadillac" of fighters are doing significant disservice to the fighter pilots, engineers and civil servants who have spent the better part of a decade studying the issue. It's one thing to criticze the government for its processes. It's another matter entirely, to challenge the choice of the CF, assume you know better than the professionals and then insist on a cheaper alternative without knowing if it's suitable or not. I sincerely hope these commentators will be a little more responsible in the months and years to come and place the needs of the CF and concerns for our national security over partisan bickering.



magnet said...

Do you Know how much it cost?
Do you know how difficult for taxpayers to make that money. Young and Stupid.

p-roc said...

If there are as many as good or better planes as you state, then why isn't Canada considering all of it's options?

Chuck said...

I think that the F-35 is a great plane but I've worked in Bagotville, Qc and I have had many dealings with CF-18s losing an engine due to the harsh Northern Canada conditions and coming back safely because they could rely on a second engine. The F-35 only has one engine and that is what I could see as a problem.