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JSF – F-35

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What are we talking about here?

Canada’s CF-18’s are wearing out. Or so Canadians are told, and there is little reason to doubt this as they first came into service over thirty years ago (1982). And apart from the fact technology marches on, and avionics and electronics in particular have undergone a revolution during this era, fighters wear out faster than other aircraft because of the way they are flown. That is flat-out full-throttle with afterburner in all weather conditions and at high gravitational loading while fully loaded. By comparison your old Chevy would not last 10 seconds in the kind of conditions a modern fighter must endure.  So, they need to be replaced from time to time, and the time is nearly up for the current fleet. The discussion about this has mainly centred around the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) as Canada partnered with other nations to help develop it, and as such it is assumed will eventually buy it.

Like today there was much discussion forty years ago about what kind of fighter to purchase to replace the fleet that existed at the time, then being comprised of Star-fighters, Voodoos and Freedom fighters, the CF-104, CF-101 AND CF-116 respectively. Ideally three types would be replaced with one, no small feat given the highly specialised capabilities some aircraft have, and for which Canada has a need.

How far do you need to fly? How fast do you need to be able to go? How high? With how many people, and with how much equipment? What weapons will be required when you get there? To answer those questions and a thousand others you need to understand something of the capabilities of any potential enemy. Not just the obvious ones that might be shooting at you today, but also the possible enemies twenty-five or thirty years from now. In the context of war around the world thirty years is something of an eternity, and there is on average one major conflict in the world about every seven or eight years. Canada has attended in nearly all of them during the last one hundred years or so and always with aircraft since World War Two. Proudly, in fact, helping to defend principles of freedom and human rights all over the place. Libya most recently, Yugoslavia prior to that, and Iraq before that. Given how difficult it is to predict who the enemy will be, this can more easily be narrowed down to the equipment they are likely to be using.

Our adversaries during the last fifty years have mainly used fighters built in Russia. Sukhois and Migs for the most part and some of the modern versions of their products are formidable. High flying, fast and equipped with modern avionics and weaponry. Serious consideration must be given today as to whether or not one of Canada’s current CF-18’s could even put up a fight against these more modern airplanes. China and Iran could also need to be confronted in the coming years and they also use Russian technology, and let us not forget that Russia has been making runs against our shoreline with super-sonic bombers to test defenses again in a cold-war tactic that hadn’t been seen for many years, but which has recently been resumed.

As with today, thirty years ago Canada could choose from a list of types, including the F-14 (Tomcat), the F-15 (Eagle), the F-16 (Viper), and the F-18 (Hornet). Soviet manufactured aircraft were not considered to be an option at the time, and French aircraft such as the Mirage and a handful of other types from other countries were never really serious contenders due to the limited scope of their capabilities. Nor are they, really, today.

The F-16 was considered a “light” fighter and never had the legs, the top speed, or the ability to carry a sufficient load of weapons as to satisfy Canada’s needs. Even today’s version of the F-16 is no replacement for the CF-18. To select this airplane would be to consciously decide to downgrade our capabilities.

F-14’s (Tomcats, think ‘TopGun’) have been taken out of service nearly everywhere in the world except Iran, which clings onto theirs in the midst of embargoes that are meant to contain the open hostility they have demonstrated toward their neighbors. It remains one of their best weapon platforms even today and would be a serious adversary to Canada’s current CF-18’s. They are exactly the same generation of airplane as our Hornets and in its day, the F-14 was considered superior, we just could not afford them. Today, we could not buy them if we wanted them as they are no longer produced.

The F-15 is still in service, and is still being produced, and the most recent model (the F-15SE) has incorporated the latest in avionics and weapons systems, elements of fifth generation stealth technology and compared to the F-35 is not all that expensive (approximately $100 million per). The F-15 has an excellent combat-proven track record too. It can fly 2400 miles on a single-tank, carry up to 24000 pounds of weapons, an enormous load that is exceeded only by heavy bombers, and is capable of mach 2.5+ (faster than our current F-18’s) and can cruise at well over 50000 feet. The USAF has had them up over one hundred thousand feet. Save the F-22 Raptor there is no more capable fighter in the world today than the F-15. It is also worth noting that Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea are all negotiating purchases of F-15’s right now.

The Raptor is currently in service with the United States Air Force only, and due to limitations the U.S. Congress has placed on the export of certain stealth technologies no export permits are ever likely to be let loose for this product. Purely fifth-generation stuff the Americans are keeping this tech to themselves, so scratch that one off the Christmas list.

The latest version of the F-18, the Super-Hornet is based on the same proven airframe our current Hornets are, but with greater range, endurance, higher-overall speed,  more powerful engines that are also more efficient, and with the latest whiz-bang avionics in the cockpit any modern fighter requires. They are around $68 million apiece, for the aircraft only. Still, a deal compared to the F-35 even at twice the price! The future cost of operating all of these aircraft, including items like fuel, wages, weapons, and maintenance is a distinctly separate discussion, and that part of the conversation is not currently being separated out in the mainstream media, and this is creating confusion.

That confusion and misinformation surrounding the discussion about what to buy next is the reason for the question “What are we talking about here?” For this part of this conversation let us all acknowledge that the operational costs of running a fleet of F-35’s is not the same as the operational costs of running a fleet of F-18’s, and that is because there is stuff you could spend money on with the F-35 that does not even exist on the F-18, like its one-of-a-kind sensor systems. This has not been an ‘apples to apples’ discussion, so much of the comparison made in the media thus far has been irrelevant. Separately, these things need to be considered but wide-scope statements such as ‘JSF is more expensive than a Hornet’ are not necessarily correct, and are too wide-sweeping to even allow the formation of a coherent answer too. Unfortunately such statements have been a part of almost all media articles about the JSF lately.

The F-35 was developed as a future replacement for three current (In-service) types; The F-16, the A-10 (Warthog) for ground attack, and the Harrier Jump-jets that are currently in service with the United States Marine Corps flying from amphibious ships, and also with the British Navy. One version of the new F-35 has the ability to take-off and land vertically (Like a Harrier) and it is that version of the new fighter that is replacing the old Harriers. While they have all been excellent third-generation aircraft built in the same era as our current fleet of F-18’s, none of these planes has the capabilities of the F-18. As an economical medium-weight fighter the F-18 has the ability to cover long distances, at relatively high speed (up to mach 1.8) and with an adequate weapons load to get the job done. It was a compromise, but it was one that almost perfectly suited Canada’s sovereign needs in defence, and allowed Canada to fulfill its role as a N.AT.O. partner. By the way; every airplane that has ever been built is in some dimension a compromise.

So what about the F-35 JSF that is being considered to “replace” the F-18? Firstly it is crucial that we are perfectly clear about the most fundamental element of this question; the F-35 is not a replacement for the F-18. It is different.

While the F-35 is built on an entirely new (clean sheet design) airframe, and utilises stealth technology and the most advanced avionics systems available, and may also be a superior aircraft to the aforementioned F-16, A-10 and jump-jets, it conspicuously does not do some important things. For example it does not go as far as our current F-18’s, despite having only one engine to the F-18’s two. It does not fly as high. It does not go as fast. It does not carry as much. If we switch out the fleet for F-35’s, we are consciously downgrading our ability to actually fight quite markedly. Apart from down-grading our capabilities, we would also be making a wholesale switch in function, requiring the development of new tactics and new strategic defense plans, both of which would require a lot of new training.

The only close replacement to the existing fleet of F-18’s available today is more F-18’s, and this is far more progressive than one might understand at first glance. The new super-hornet is a far more capable aircraft than the existing Hornets we currently have, and the transition to the Super-Hornet would be less painful than a wholesale switch to an entirely new (new to everyone in the world, that is) type.

If you actually want to upgrade your fighting ability, then the F-15 Strike-Eagle is the only choice. It is the plane that flies further, faster, and higher with more weapons than what we currently have, and it also comes with features of stealth and that seems to be what the conversation is really all about. So how about stealth, do we need it? What does it do for us that we can not do now?

Just like the Mountie that hides a cruiser low in the ditch, out of sight of traffic until the last moment and only activating radar at the last possible second before you have any hope to avoid a ticket, so too will the F-35’s stealth technology allow our fighter pilots to loiter high in position to attack and kill without warning. That is the defensive advantage stealth provides for the fighter.

Offensively, it allows the pilots to get in closer to a target before being detected, making successful attacks harder to defend against. It is really handy in the opening moments of a war to have stealth capability, allowing you to eliminate the key defensive elements that might prevent you from attacking with more conventional aircraft. But there are degrees of stealth.

We do not get, for example, the same level of stealth that a B-1 Bomber provides, or the F-22 Raptor provides, with an F-35 JSF. On the other hand a JSF is stealthier than the new versions of the F-15. Also the F-15SE is stealthier than the F-18’s we currently have. However sacrifices come with the JSF as a platform that in the end, the stealth it provides may not be worth the price. Not just the cost, but the price of lower speed, shorter range and a smaller weapons load.

If it is a surprise first-strike capability you require then acquire some nominal fleet, perhaps a half dozen F-35’s to provide this. But for the main body of our air force let us be careful to avoid diminishing our ability to fight, and even try to increase our capabilities if we can.

Once you take the word stealth out of the current discussion, then you get back to the ‘apples to apples’ type of comparison that needs to be made first. Super-Hornets and Eagles are a step up, the JSF is a step down. These fundamental capabilities are now black and white. Go back next and ask ‘what do we get with the stealth capability that would be worth sacrificing so many of the basics for?’  Everything is on the line with this kind of a purchase, so let us be sure to get it right. It is time we looked past the discussion about stealth and began looking a little harder at the fundamental capabilities of each of the aircraft we could choose from.

Finally think about the cost. It is an afterthought after-all, because when someone is about to shoot at you any cost is worth it if it saves your life. But still; F-35 Joint Strike fighter: $133,000,000.00 each. XM radio not included.

 Edit: July 12th 2015: Australia is apparently wavering:

Edit: December 2nd 2021: Canada is now excluding the Super Hornet from consideration:

Written by snappledagain

05/27/2013 at 11:57

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