Mark Collins - Those Damn Greeks… Mark Collins - Canada and the F-35 Update/India
Nov 02

In response to Commodore (ret’d) Lehre’s post on the F-35, Air Force Major (ret’d) Steve Fuhr, a former CF-18 pilot and CF-18 Fleet Manager at 1 Canadian Air Division for five years, makes the following points:

A few problems with the commodore’s assessment of what the F-35A brings to the table:

  1. His detection range information is based on current and well understood enemy radar systems. There are many defence experts who will counter this argument by saying that different radar wave forms or completely different search techniques, e.g. infra-red search and track (IRST), will marginalize current stealth technologies.
  2. First strike capability is quickly being assumed by cruise missiles and UCAVs.
  3. Alternatives to higher levels of stealth? Mastery of the electronic spectrum using sophisticated jammers will undoubtedly deny enemies a first shoot opportunity, i.e. they may be able to see us but there is nothing they can do about it. As the commodore alludes to, electronic support aircraft are an alternative to stealth.
  4. Outside our own borders Canada is a coalition partner not an autonomous air force when it comes to projecting air power. Canada, for example, is responsible to contribute well-defined capabilities to NATO. First strike capability in a high threat environment is not currently, and does not have to be, party of the capabilities we agree to provide. France and Germany are not buying F-35s. They have committed to the Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon respectively as their front line fighter aircraft. Does this mean they will be excluded from future coalitions? I don’t think so. Moreover, the UK now plans to purchase a much reduced number of F-35s (now the “C” carrier-based version, some 40-50) and will rely heavily on the Typhoon as their main fighter well into the future. Those countries are our three biggest European NATO partners.
  5. The US Navy is still buying Super Hornets and will have large numbers in service for many years to come. The Super Hornet is affordable, supportable, and interoperable. It will capitalize on our current infrastructure as a plug and play alternative that is orders of magnitudes more capable than our legacy CF-18. Is a fighter that will satisfy one of the world’s largest air forces (The US Navy) for many roles not good enough for the RCAF?
  6. The F-35 cannot deliver on time or on budget. Not even close!

What we give up with the F-35 option:

  1. TWO engines! Absolutely essential for remote and desolate operations.
  2. An aircraft capable of integrating into our current infrastructure. (tooling, training, runways, air-to-air refueling, SATCOM, etc). This will cost Canadian tax payers hundreds of millions, if not billions, more than the F-35 project has accurately accounted for. Out of the box the F-35A lacks the basics.
  3. The F-35 can’t service a large number of targets per sortie due to its small internal weapons carriage capacity. Weapons capacity is essential for NORAD and counter-insurgency operations. When the F-35 is eventually able to carry external stores that configuration will destroy its stealth characteristics which will marginalize the aircraft’s main rationale.
  4. A known price. One we can afford.

Major Fuhr wrote an article on the F-35 and Canada in the July 13, 2011 edition of Jane’s Defence Weekly (not available online); he appeared Sept. 21 on CBC TV’s Power & Politics (1:15:15 here, followed by Conservative MP Laurie Hawn (estwhile Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence and also former CF-18 pilot - more at end here))

Mark Collins is a prolific Ottawa blogger

3 Responses to “Mark Collins - The F-35 and Canada: A Former CF-18 Pilot’s Views”

  1. MarkOttawa Says:

    In 10-15 years the F-35 itself may be obsolete for its main role, and the one mostly necessitating stealth–the “first day of war” attack through and against heavy and effective air defences (Maj. Fuhr alluded to that). Remember the plane was designed in the early/mid-90s, coming up to two decades ago. A time when, e.g, today’s–and tomorrow’s–UCAVs were barely a dream in anyone’s mind. And there will be very stealthy cruise missiles to help in that first strike role too.

    When the F-35 finally enters large-scale operational service around 2020 it will have been over a quarter of a century in development. That in itself describes likely obsolescence for that primary mission.

    Mark Collins

  2. MarkOttawa Says:

    An observation from someone else knowledgeable:

    “Lehre’s claim that the F-22/F-35 are somehow an order of magnitude lower in RCS than the F-117 is dubious.

    The F-117 was designed against much the same threats as the F-22. In the F-22, the objective was to combine F-117-like stealth with high-performance propulsion and aerodynamics. The original goal for the F-35 was F-22-like stealth - most likely, however, that has been traded off in the quest for non-horrific maintenance costs.”

    Mark Collins

  3. dwpenney Says:

    A couple of points I would like to make. Note that I am not pulling for or against the F-35. I can see the benefits of the platform but I am concerned about the costs. I am not sure if those benefits are worth the price that we may have to pay; and I think that the ‘may’ in that sentence is one of the biggest concerns.

    1. Detection range will certainly change with regard to future sensor systems (even some in place today) with regard to the low-observability feature of the jet but, when taken in consideration with other viable options on the table the F-35 does provide best-of-breed capabilities. For example, argued within this context, the super Hornet would be, overall, not as well off;
    2. No argument here with regard to first strike;
    3. No argument here either - as long as we understand that choosing an alternative to the F-35, although it may save us money, would require that additional money be spend along this path (electronic warfare and support);
    4. I agree with this point - however it should be noted that the extended time it has taken us to upgrade our F-18 fleet to be able to carry laser guided (unavailable or added because of the Kosovo operations) or GPS guided (JDAM, etc) has been a hindrance to our involvement and integration in international operations. An often sited ‘quote’ used in reference to Canadian troops is the superb training of our forces with equipment that is considered by most of our peers in NATO to be our of date. It would be nice to be on par as soon as the jets are out of the box (F-35 or no F-35);
    5. I like the F-18E/F (Super Hornet) as a viable alternative to the F-35 but it should also be noted that the F-35C is intended to work along side the F-18E/F when deployed within the US Navy. Canada will not have that capability as we are choosing one or the other.
    6. I have to agree with this statement. However, we need to balance that against what we are getting … and that is the point of contention: Are we getting what we want/can afford/need for that cost?

    Now. Considering the points on what we are giving up:
    1. It has been argued back and forth that two engines _may be_ better than one. The argument comes down to are two highly reliable engines better than one highly reliable engine. Double the cost, double the maintenance, double the chance for human or material failures in the engines can be offset with a single engine and has been argued within the US military for some time. Please understand that I am not an educated resource on this be I reference the arguments made by John Boyd in designing the F-16 and the choice of the US Navy (and US Marines) to pick a single engine fighter (F-35 B and C) to meet their carrier obligations (which closely resemble the same requirements needed for ‘remote and desolate’ operations;
    2. I agree with this point. We will need additional training, tooling and extra equipment to bring the F-35 to Canadian requirements and this is indeed an additional cost;
    3. Also something that I agree with. I am not sure that a ‘first strike’ capability (not bombing which can be handled with UAVs or Cruise Missiles) is something that Canada needs to shoulder but it is a segment of operations that we currently have to defer to the American forces to provide. Initial first strike capability in air-to-air missions or augmenting UAVs/Cruise Missiles in actions that exceed their parameters is currently left to the Americans to provide.
    4. Point taken. We have to define our role and price accordingly.

    Personally, we position ourselves to what I call active front line support: we are not a first strike nation but we follow the first wave in and carry our responsibilities well. We need a force that can mirror that goal and although the F-35 pushes us to the forefront of combat aviation technology, a position that we have steadily lagged behind after World War II, Korea and the Avro Arrow, I am not certain that we are ready or willing to step back to that front. I am leaning toward wanting a better bang for our buck: 80+ F-18E/F and G (Growler, Electronic Warfare variant of the F-18) with strong support for that force. Strengthen our air force in size, structure and support before we push toward a cutting edge technology.

    How about a mix? 65 F-18E/F and 12 F-35?

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