The following is my letter to Jack Harris, the NDP‘s Defence Critic, regarding what I fear is the pending confirmation of the purchase of the F-35 Lightning II by Canada’s government. This after I recently read a staggeringly overstated defense of the aircraft by its manufacturer, Lockheed-Martin.
While I think our current government has realized the error of its ways and is making the F-35 procurement process more accessible to the public, I still believe we are on a disastrous course to saddling the Armed Forces with the F-35. I believe it is categorically NOT the fighter for Canada. While Lockheed-Martin can point to a long list of NATO countries and US allies procuring or committed to ordering the F-35, Canada is the only nation that intends to field ONLY the F-35 in all air combat and air support roles. This is reckless.
The fundamental problem for Canadians is that the DND procurement wonks are the proverbial tail wagging the dog. The Conservatives are engineering policy in order to placate procurement staff who are either in love with an airplane that is simply bad for Canada as a solitary system; or intending to build upon the F-35’s inevitable failings to institute yet more purchases of military aircraft.
I wanted to give you some lines of critique for your team to research and use as this issues comes to a head:
1) Two Engines are Better Than One
The F-35 is a (less safe) single-engine combat aircraft, and will experience higher airframe losses due to engine failure than a twin-engine aircraft. While the digital engine controls (FADEC) that have replaced hydraulic/mechanical engine controls provide greater reliability, the single Pratt & Whitney F-135 engine used in the F-35 is a brand-new design (first delivered in 2009) which will encounter teething problems as we’d expect with any new system. Where the F-35 is expected to operate air interdiction missions over the sparsely populated far North, where there are few suitable alternate landing locations for a powerless aircraft to safely land, any engine failure is catastrophic.
When the F-18 was selected by DND for the Canadian Forces, there was significant pressure to purchase cheaper F-16s (single-engine), and much ballyhoo was made of the need for a twin-engine fighter by none other than DND Procurement.. due to safety. Why the change of heart?
Here are two USAF studies comparing losses of Single-Engine vs. Twin Engine Fighters:
2) Stealth is a Fleeting Advantage
“There are no invisible aircraft, only less visible” – Zoltan Dani, Serbian Anti-Aircraft missile battery Commander who shot down an F-117 in 1999.
This event (the destruction of an F-117 only three days into the war in Kosovo) predicated the retirement of the entire F-117 “Stealth Fighter” fleet. The ground-based missile system used to shoot down this bird was a 1960s-era Soviet SA-3 Goa. Dani has never specifically stated how he reconfigured his systems, but it’s likely that he tweaked the sensitivity of his missiles, and triangulated information from multiple detection antennae. The point of this lesson is that claims that the F-35 can operate with impunity in denied environments are patently false. As soon as the F-35 is employed in combat, commanders like Dani will set to work exploiting the unique characteristics of the F-35 to shoot it down.
In recent conflicts, such as during Vietnam and Desert Storm, the prevailing strategy was to use the active radar of SAM sites to detect them, and to send a very-high-speed missile down that signal beam, and blow up the site before it can target aircraft.
More on Zoltan Dani’s story: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/world/2005-10-26-serb-stealth_x.htm
Perhaps more perplexingly, the F-35’s tiny internal bay size means it will almost inevitable be flying with external stores mounted on wing pylons. None of these objects are particularly stealthy, and so by nature of its mission alone the F-35 will be as visible and detectable as other fighters.
3) The F-35 Purchase is a (Dangerous) Force Reduction
The 138 F/A-18 Hornets currently in use by the CAF were delivered between 1981-1985. The newest is now 28 years old, likely older than the pilots flying it, and may be as old as 40 by the time they’re retired for good. About 20 have been lost, a few more mothballed or retired as museum pieces. There are currently about 75 in operational use, and they will likely not be stood up for combat roles past 2015.
With the purchase of 65 F-35s, and assuming that the higher loss-rate of a single-engine fighter vs. multi-engine fighter does NOT happen, at best we can expect to see 40-45 F-35s airworthy, fulfilling the country’s many obligations at home and abroad, 20 years into the program’s budgetary life, assuming no combat losses. By this point there would presumably be zero combat-capable CF-18s able to join them in in harm’s way, though they may be useful for training, Snowbirds, etc… all of which leaves Canada with its smallest fighting air corps since the close of the First World War.
While Canada generally doesn’t try to attain air superiority in combat alone, this certainly entrenches that for the foreseeable future. More critically, Canada could not operate without NATO or US air support in any theatre of combat. It could not even make a sizeable contribution to supporting its own ground troops, which is the single most important role for a combat aircraft in Canada’s arsenal, without phoning the Americans.
4) The F-35 Will (In Practise) Carry Less Ordinance than the CF-18
Officially, the F-35 has six hardpoints on the wings, and two internal bays for storing two missiles each, for a total of 10 weapons (for a total of 18,000 lbs). The CF-18 has nine hardpoints, all external (total: ~14,000 lbs).
Sounds great, right? But unfortunately, the second you strap some bombs and affix the wing pylons, any stealth properties of the aircraft you were hoping to exploit have been summarily negated. The F-35 will be as visible to enemy radar as any 4th-generation combat aircraft designed in the 1970s.
The F-35 will only be able to exploit its much-hallowed stealth properties in Air-to-Air missions, therefore.. and not with particularly great hang time (with only 4 missiles) at that. Unless DND’s strategy will be to ask its pilots to throw rocks at the enemy once they’ve depleted their tiny missile supply, these will return to base within a few short minutes of engaging an oncoming enemy air force, likely with the mission incomplete.
And since its range is more than 1000km shorter than the CF-18 it replaces, the F-35 will need to carry more fuel externally in drop tanks, further reducing its weapons load.
THE REASONABLE OPTION:
Combat aircraft have to perform basically three missions: Air-to-Air interdiction, Tactical Bombing, and Ground Support. Squeezing all of those missions into a single system inevitably compromises its abilities in each. The F-35’s original design was strictly for Air-To-Air. Amid the kerfuffle of cancelled programs at the US Department of Defense, attempts were made to turn this fighter into a jack-of-all-trades. It remains to be seen whether this will work in any respect, but it is certainly the master of none.
My suggestion (and that of numerous actual experts) is to do what the U.S. Navy has done — hedge our bet. In the mid-1990s, the Navy fooled US Congress into appropriating funds for the purchase of “more” F/A-18s by masking the development of an almost completely new aircraft, the Super Hornet, as an upgrade to the existing Hornet. While the newer aircraft shares much in common with the original Hornet, it is in fact a ground-up redesign (and is actually 1/3 bigger and MUCH more capable). Whereas the CF-18 is a 4th-generation fighter and the F-35 is a 5th-generation fighter, the F-18E/F Super Hornet is considered a 4.5-generation fighter and attack aircraft.
Its mission systems and designs would be familiar to a Canadian Forces already servicing the CF-18 (which is basically a US Navy F/A-18C). It would allow training to step more smoothly up to the Super Hornet. It carries more ordinance and flies faster than the F-35 with a full load.. and best of all, it’s less than 1/3 of the flyaway cost, at $65M, of the F-35.
On the assumption that the F-35 will eventually become the aircraft its proponents already claim it is, punting the F-35 purchase down the road would allow other air forces to be the crash test dummies in shaking out the bugs from early-production F-35s. Buying the Super Hornet (perhaps 60 copies), which is a FAR more capable aircraft in supporting ground troops than the F-35, and buying a small number of F-35s (say, 25) further down the road for Air-to-Air missions, makes a lot more sense, and saves money. It puts more planes in the air, and fulfills the full spectrum of mission requirements of the Canadian Forces with aircraft optimized for the job. And is less risky on all fronts.
Not only did the US Navy pursue this strategy when setbacks and disappointments with the Fifth-Generation Fighter projects rear their heads, the Australians did the same. The RAAF has 24 Super Hornets already in operation, and may elect to purchase more.
With the cash savings from an early Super Hornet purchase, the purchase of 20 AH-64D Apache Helicopters (at $28M a pop) will make the government very popular with ground troops. In the last few years, these proved invaluable as armed escort for CH-47 Chinooks, and in the close quarters of the Korengaal Valley in Afghanistan.. both missions which a fighter jet cannot fulfill at all. Canada is woefully bereft of combat helicopters and our troops are dying because of it.
Canada has a very important global role in peacekeeping and stabilization. Thanks to IEDs and more advanced Guerilla Warfare methods, these missions are more deadly than ever before. We need a force that is rapid, air-mobile, and that has real teeth. While I am (like you) not a warmonger, I am ultimately concerned with our ability to accomplish such missions with as much safety for the troops on the ground as possible.
I encourage you and your staff to delve further into the critique of this key Defense issue. Committing our forces to its largest procurement ever for a mission system that is completely unproven, encountering real problems, and which weakens our nation through its lesser numbers, is potentially a HUGE mistake and will affect the safety of troops on the ground for two generations (and is already).
If Canada continues with the purchase of 65 F-35s, to the exclusion of the other systems necessary to complete its full mission, we will be the ONLY country in the world to rely solely on the F-35 for all aspects of its air combat strategy.
This is not likely to bode well for the soldiers it is supposed to protect.