A U.S. Air Force pilot manoeuvres an F-35A Lightning II aircraft into position for refuelling.
$49 billion. That is the most recent cost estimate for procuring, operating and maintaining a fleet of just 65 F-35A Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter jets by Lockheed Martin, according to a 2014 report by the Department of National Defence. That number is over triple the original estimate of $16 billion provided by the Conservative government in 2010, and nearly double the estimate provided by the Auditor General, who tallied the cost to be closer to $25 billion in 2012. There is no shortage of analysts critical of the program, who are not only questioning the ridiculous cost overruns, but also the capabilities of the fighter itself.
If the Canadian government wants to ensure that its armed forces can counter future threats and patrol its skies in the most effective way possible, the best option would be to take a two-pronged approach. The first order of business would be to scrap the plan to purchase several dozen F-35s, and instead have the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) look into buying cheaper and most importantly — proven — combat aircraft. When it comes to its domestic patrolling needs, the Canadian government should take advantage of Canada’s own aerospace industry to research, develop and build large numbers of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, commonly referred to as “drones”) to accomplish this task.
How Canada Got Involved
Canadian involvement in the Joint Strike Fighter Program started in 1997, and has resulted in substantial economic benefits. After investing an initial sum of $200 million, Canadian aerospace firms are actively involved in developing and building components for the aircraft, winning over $637 million worth of contracts so far. Despite its involvement, the Canadian government is not contractually obligated to actually purchase the F-35. If Canada was to buy the jets, however, Canadian companies would have the potential to gain another $10 billion worth of contracts over the next few decades.
In addition to economic benefits, Canada’s main jet fighter is in dire need of replacement. Canada’s current fleet – comprised of around 80 CF-18s – are over 30 years old. Within the next few years, the aging airframes will no longer be considered airworthy, as metal fatigue from decades of use means that high-stress conditions (such as high G-forces sustained in a dogfight) can result in the wings being torn off. As a result, the CF-18 is scheduled to retire in 2025.
One Problem after Another
Envisioned as a jack-of-all-trades by the U.S. military, the F-35 is designed to serve as a stealth-capable fighter, bomber, and ground support aircraft all in a single platform. However, the various amount of jobs that the fighter is expected to do means that the plane may not even meet the mission performance and capabilities of the multitude of specialist aircraft it is supposed to be replacing.
The Rand Corporation, an American policy think tank, concluded that the F-35 “can’t turn, can’t climb and can’t run”, with the Pentagon’s testing office offering a similar assessment regarding its performance. The F-35 is currently on par to the F-16 when it comes to its handling and dogfighting characteristics. The problem with this is that the F-16 — a 40 year-old platform — is considered to be less agile than Canada’s CF-18s. In other words, when it comes to maneuverability, the F-35 is worse than the very fighter it is supposed to replace. In addition, some analysts have argued that the plane can even be beaten by Russia’s Soviet-era fighters. This is worrying; since the F-35 is geared to replace the majority of America’s current tactical air fleet, the sky, it may prove to be a handicap rather than an edge for its various operators.
Along with mission capability and handling issues, the plane has suffered from a near-constant stream of problems, forcing several redesigns in the process. Most recently, a DoD report has warned of the aircraft being overrun with software bugs — a concern that threatens to delay the project even further.
Many of these problems have been the result of the Pentagon allowing Lockheed to “design, test, and produce the F-35 all at the same time…” As Adam Ciralsky explains, “Building an airplane while it is still being designed and tested … creates an expensive and frustrating non-decision loop: build a plane, fly a plane, find a flaw, design a fix, retrofit the plane, rinse, repeat.”
Nevertheless, Canadian proponents of the F-35 such as Richard Shimooka maintain that the F-35 is the only fighter capable of satisfying the RCAF’s multiple mandatory requirements created for its next combat aircraft. However, Alan Williams, a former Assistant Deputy Minister of Materiel at the DND and the official who signed off on the original F-35 project, has suggested otherwise. According to Williams, these requirements
“…[were] written to ensure that only the F-35 could comply. Furthermore, the SOR [statement of requirements] was finalized just before the government’s announcement that it was purchasing the F-35. There was no time available between the completion of the SOR and the government’s announcement to undertake any comprehensive evaluation of options.”
When taking Williams’ view into account, it appears that the RCAF, rather than creating requirements suited to what they actually needed (as would be normal procedure), tailored the checklist to favour the F-35 instead. Not only is this bad strategy when it comes to asking for a plane that best fits Canada’s unique environmental and combat needs, such methodology also severely limits alternative procurement options if necessary. And when it comes to the F-35, an alternative option is sorely needed.
If the RCAF is serious about procuring an affordable aircraft uniquely suited to Canadian operative doctrine, it should rewrite its requirements to best reflect this. While this might require abandoning stealth capabilities, currently only the global military superpowers (i.e. the United States, Russia and China) are focusing on developing and using stealth aircraft in large numbers. Historically, the Canadian military has focused on peacekeeping and supportive roles rather than being involved in frontline combat operations. This means that Canada does not need the same first-strike capabilities as its American ally.
Can Canada Create Another Arrow?
Canada has tried and succeeded in developing and building its own fighters before. Spurred by the success of the CF-100 fighter jet by Avro Canada, it began the development of the CF-105 Arrow for the RCAF in 1953. This resulted in the creation of one of the world’s most advanced aircraft at the time. However, the cancellation of the Arrow program by the Diefenbaker government in 1959 (who deemed it obsolete and too expensive), resulted in the dissolution of the company and ultimately devastated the Canadian aerospace industry.
Since that time, Canada had gone from being able to research, develop and build cutting-edge aircraft tailored exactly to its own needs, to being forced to purchase foreign-designed aircraft. A large reason for this was the industrial “brain-drain” caused by many of the talented, terminated engineers who worked on the Arrow being taken by American companies such as Boeing and NASA after the dissolution of Avro Canada.
Abandoning the plan to purchase the F-35 offers an opportunity to revitalize the Canadian aerospace industry to once again become a world leader. At the same time, Canada can continue meeting its obligations to the Joint Strike Fighter Program by remaining a production partner. Not only will this approach ensure that Canada’s initial investments in the JSF are well placed, sponsoring a domestically designed UAV platform will foster economic and technological growth for a key Canadian industry.
As the F-35 and CF-105 programs have shown, it is incredibly expensive to develop a new fighter jet from scratch. In Canada’s case, it would be best to purchase a cheaper alternative to the F-35, while taking steps to fund the development of drones, tailored to Canadian needs such as arctic operations and cross-country patrols. Various analysts have suggested a number of alternatives to the F-35, all of which offer capabilities matching or exceeding the F-35 at a cheaper unit price.
Out of all possible contenders, the best choices to replace the F-35 would be either the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet or the F-15SE. Compared to the F-35’s “flyaway cost” of $170 million per plane, the Super Hornet costs just $80 million apiece, including support costs. Secondly, since the Super Hornet is essentially an upgraded version of Canada’s current fighter, pilots will already be familiar with the aircraft, saving some time and funds needed for training. The cost reductions offered by Super Hornet means that the RCAF can either purchase more planes than the 65 F-35s it planned back in 2012, or potentially use the remainder to as a starter fund for a domestic UAV development program.
If the RCAF decides that it cannot do without stealth capabilities, the answer may be the F-15SE Silent Eagle. Originally designed as an air-superiority fighter instead of a universal aircraft, it has already been ordered by Saudi Arabia and is under serious consideration by Israel. The F-15SE offers limited stealth capability, has avionic technology comparable to the F-35, and clocks in at an estimated $100 million per unit. While this is pricier than the Super Hornet, it still provides similar capabilities to the F-35 at a much lower cost.
An even wilder option took the form of a proposal to the government back in 2012 – a plan to revive the Arrow project and update the design to 21st century standards. However, that proposition was rejected by the previous Harper administration for budgetary reasons. Interestingly, even in its original 1950s design specifications, the CF-105, which was designed as an all-weather, high-altitude interceptor, is better in some aspects compared to the F-35: it has a higher flight ceiling, flies twice as fast and would be cheaper to build.
Why Drones are the Future
When it comes to keeping an eye on its Arctic regions, drones are the best choice for Canada. Drones are also cheaper to build, operate and maintain than traditional jet aircraft, and the lack of a pilot makes them the perfect candidates for flying over environmentally harsh or hostile combat environments where the life of the operator is at significant risk.
UAV platforms are also highly flexible. For an offensive role, the MQ-9 Reaper has been favoured by the U.S. military as a precision-strike tool, used to support ground operations. For pure surveillance, the RQ-4 Global Hawk is a possible option but is admittedly quite expensive.
Finally, Canadian forces participating in the ISAF mission have pointed out some shortcomings of their UAVs used in Afghanistan, thus proving that doctrine-specific drones are needed to support operations in all branches of the Canadian military and not just for domestic aerial surveillance duties. Multiple operational needs only offer more opportunities for Canadian companies, which could produce specialized UAVs tailored for specific mission requirements.
What also makes the drone option viable is that the Canadian military is already considering such an approach; it has already started the research and development process of using drones in an Arctic surveillance capacity through its JUSTAS program, where contracts are expected to be awarded by 2020.
While the American UAV industry is highly established, Canadian options have already shown potential. The Canadian aerospace industry has a history of designing and developing UAVs, with a Canadian-built UAV having been tested last year by the RCAF to see if it had the potential to serve in anti-submarine operations and coastal surveillance. This shows that the domestic aerospace industry is already more than capable of creating drones that can meet the requirements of the Canadian military. If the federal government ever decides to explore domestic options for drone procurement, there is no doubt that Canada’s defence industry can deliver, and could easily make up the several billion in contracts that it may lose as a side-effect of not purchasing the F-35. Additionally, the purchasing of Canadian drones instead of American ones is beneficial for domestic politics and for the national economy.
Choosing the Best Path
It is clear that abandoning the F-35 would be the best option for Canada. Not only is the JSF program incredibly over budget, real-world tests and simulations have shown that the aircraft’s capabilities are not as good as promised. Alternative aircraft, such as the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet or the F-15SE Silent Eagle will provide similar, if not better capabilities for the RCAF at a heavily reduced price.
Handing over surveillance and patrol duties to mostly to drones would allow the freeing up of Canadian jet fighters to take a more active role in providing international support duties to Canada’s allies. For example, Canada would be able to contribute more towards NATO’s air patrol operations in the Baltic, or any future UN peacekeeping operation requiring air power.
In addition, having more jets available to be scrambled at a moment’s notice means a stronger response in matters of national security, such as escorting aircraft or patrolling areas in the event of a potential terrorist attack. Finally, financing domestic UAV research and development (or at the very least, buying Canadian-made drones) will ensure that government-spent dollars are put right back into the Canadian defence industry. Best of all, such a strategy will provide the various branches of the Canadian Forces the proper tools they need to operate effectively in the field.
Whatever the Trudeau administration decides, it must make sure that the revised fighter jet procurement process is transparent, provides the capabilities that the RCAF needs and is fiscally responsible. Given that the new defence minister has ordered a long-overdue defence review, it appears that the Liberals are already taking steps towards that direction.
Michal Jastrzebski is a graduate of the University of Toronto with an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and History.
Image Attribution: “A U.S. Air Force pilot navigates an F-35A Lightning II aircraft” by MSgt John Nimmo Sr., licensed under Public Domain