Thursday, 17 April 2014

What's taking so long?

Not yet ready to fly off into the sunset.
Looks like this blog might be around for a while yet...

By all accounts, it looks like Canada won't able to start receiving new fighter aircraft until 2018 at the earliest.  There has been some progress however, as the "secretariat" seems to have finished looking at the CF-35 and its rivals.  It is now up to the federal government to make the next step.

What will that next step be?

If the Canadian government decides to continue on with the F-35, it needs to plunk money down now in order to take delivery in 2018.  That's looking more and more unlikely.  A general election is scheduled for October 2015 (possibly earlier) and the current government will likely hold off any decision until after that.  Dropping billions towards new fighters will simply evaporate any hope of the Conservative Party of Canada's (CPC) promise to balance the budget.

The Buffalo will roam for a little while longer too.
The current CPC government has made it clear they are in no hurry to procure new military equipment.  This is made abundantly clear by its recent decision to throw out all progress made on the fixed wing search and rescue (FWSAR) replacement program and start over.  Seeing as how the FWSAR program is even further behind that of the CF-18 replacement, it seems to be almost certain that the Tories will restart the fighter replacement program under its new Defense Procurement Strategy (DPS).  If nothing else, it gives reason enough to delay any decision for another year or two.

In the end, this might not be such a bad thing.

There seems to be no reason to rush into buying the F-35.  It is still trouble prone and over budget.  Any airframes bought now would likely have to be sent back to correct problems still being found.  It is still far from a mature platform.  Meanwhile, the Gripen E/F should be just about ready by 2018.   The Typhoon will likely have its fancy new AESA radar and EFTs.  The Advanced Super Hornet may have gotten the go-ahead by then as well.

The future production of the Super Hornet and Typhoon is still very much up in the air, with production tentatively winding down in 2016 and 2017 respectively.  Both will likely fight tooth-and-nail to win orders from Denmark.  A Canadian order could very well save those production lines, but would it be in time?  Most likely, lines could be slowed down, but not shut down during an active bidding process...  As long as things don't take too long.

Of course, the one real drawback to waiting longer is that our current fleet of CF-18s will have to soldier long past their prime.  Let us just hope that current tensions in the Asian Pacific and the unpleasantness in Ukraine don't boil over in the meantime.



Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Denmark declares a fighter competition.


The contenders.


The nation of Denmark has now declared a fighter competition to replace its aging fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons.

Much like Canada, Denmark's government was forced to implement a "reset" thanks to political unsavoriness regarding the F-35.  Concerns over high costs, performance, and availability forced the Danes to take a closer look at the alternatives.

Denmark is still considering the F-35, but will evaluate it alongside the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon, and the Saab Gripen E.  Conspicuous by its absence is the Dassault Rafale.

The similarities between Denmark and Canada's F-35 procurement are hard to ignore.  Both countries are Level 3  partners in the JSF program that have been forced to reevaluate their purchases.  Both have been forced to reduce their planned fighter buys due to costs.  Both countries have also shown a traditional preference for American built military equipment.  This would naturally lead one to believe that the race will be between the F-35 and the Super Hornet.


Will Saab make a Danish comeback?

Then again, Denmark has previously flown Saab 35XD Drakens.  Saab has also been aggressively promoting the Saab Gripen to Denmark recently.  Interestingly enough, Saab's initial offering to Denmark, the "Gripen DK" was the first step towards Saab's upgrade to the current "Gripen E" model.

Given Denmark's history with Saab fighter aircraft in the past, as well as its dwindling military budget, this fighter competition could very well turn into a two-way race between the high-dollar F-35 and the cheaper Gripen E.  Seeing as how Saab's Gripen has been on a bit of a roll lately, we might just see its first F-35 conquest sale.

Will we see a Danish Gripen?
At the very least, this might encourage Canadian officials to stop kicking the can down the road and declare an actual competition for Canada as well.  We aren't going to by buying fighters until 2018 anyway...

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

On vacation!

Holiday Ho!

Screw it.

This cold and wet Nova Scotia "spring" has gotten the best of me.  Me and the family are taking off somewhere warm and dry.

I'll be back in a couple of weeks.  In the meantime, keep an eye on David Pugliese's "Defense Watch"...  You never know what might turn up.

Monday, 31 March 2014

RCAF to refurbish (really) old fighters.

Like a phoenix from the ashes...
In a surprise move, the RCAF has released a statement describing a plan to reinvigorate their aging fleet of CF-18 Hornets.  With no funding available to purchase new fighters, or anything else for that matter, top generals at the RCAF have decided to refurbish several retired CF-101 Voodoo interceptors.

The choice to refurbish the Voodoo was a natural one.  There are currently 30 examples being used as gate guardians, museum exhibits, and the like.  Heck, some CF-101 proprietors are literally giving them away.

The RCAF's man in charge of the CF-101 Voodoo refurbishment, Lt. Colonel Gilbert "Gull" Able, had this to say about the project:
"It makes a lot of sense, when you think of it.  We got all these Voodoos laying around, doing nothing.  Most of them have less wear and tear than some of our CF-18s!"
Indeed, the Voodoo only flew for 26 years in Canada.  The CF-18 has been in service for over 30, and will be likely hit 40 before a replacement comes.  The CF-101 also did little more than intercept the occasional Soviet bomber, while the CF-18 has seen combat action over Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Libya; not to mention intercepting its fair share of Soviet (and Russian!) bombers.

On its way to resurrection.
While some have criticized the move, Lt. Col Able defended the plan.
"It really is the next logical step.  We've already done multiple life extensions on the CF-18, the Aurora, the Sea King, the Buffalo, a few Hercs, and we got paintings of all the Snowbird Tutors somewhere that no one's allowed to look at...  Just consider this a post-retirement life extension."
The Voodoo refurbishment could also point to an increased Canadian commitment to the F-35 Lightning II.  With concerns about the single-engine F-35's safety, the extra engine is said bring extra piece of mind for arctic patrols, with many swearing that 2 50-year turbojets is a better bet than a single, modern turbofan.

Taking flight again?

When asked if a similar program would take place for the CF-104 Starfighter, Lt. Colonel "Gull" Able simply laughed hysterically and said:  "Are you (expletive deleted)ing CRAZY?  Who'd be suicidal enough to fly that (expletive deleted)ing thing?"

Happy April 1st everybody.

Facepalm of the day: "Canada doesn't need fighter-capable aircraft".

"Ugh..."
From the Ottawa Citizen today comes an interesting opinion piece penned by no less than Charles "Buzz" Nixon, Canada's deputy minister of national defense way back from the Trudeau days.

Nixon believes that Canada has no need for a CF-18 replacement, citing that they are simply too expensive and "drones" should be used for asserting Canada's sovereignty and protecting against terrorist attacks.  Any incursion by a foreign nation should be met with diplomacy.
The sovereignty of Canada’s airspace can be affirmed by any aerial vehicle carrying an official logo of Canada. A non-credible event of a rogue Russian scouting aircraft actually entering Canada’s airspace would be addressed by a diplomatic response.
Let's ask Ukraine how that's working out...

Canada needs fighter jets.  We may not need many, but we certainly need a few.  Enough to police our own airspace, support our ground troops, as well as honor our NATO commitments.  We can't do this with a few drones.

Why not?

RQ-4 Global Hawk

As promising UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles) are, they are still nowhere near ready to replace manned aircraft.  One of the biggest, most expensive UAVs out there right now, the RQ-4 Global Hawk, has now been slated to completely replace the U-2 Dragonlady as the USAF's spy plane.  This hasn't exactly been heralded as a good thing, as the Global Hawk doesn't have near the capability of the U-2, and doesn't really have much cost savings.

For air policing, UCAVs are pretty much useless.  While some have been outfitted with short range Stinger missiles, not a single one is capable of utilizing long range missiles like the AMRAAM.  UCAVs are completely outclassed by even older, obsolete fighter jets.

Just check out the video:



I am not saying that UCAV's are pointless.  Far from it.  The fact of the matter is, however, right now they are best used as a supplement, not a replacement.



I am also not saying that Canada needs hundreds, or even thousands of top-of-the-line fighter aircraft.    Just enough to do the job.  To argue Canada doesn't need ANY fighter aircraft, however, is akin to making the argument that your house doesn't need a fire extinguisher.  Most of us never had to use one, and if our house does catch on fire, the Fire Department is only a phone call away...  Right?

Sometimes it's better to be safe than sorry.



Monday, 24 March 2014

Why everyone should be afraid of the PAK FA.

Scared yet?
Okay...

Given the recent excitement in what used to be part of the Ukraine, now is just as good a time as ever to start seriously discussing the great big bear elephant in the room, the Russian Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA.

When I started this blog, I never honestly thought that I would be writing it under the pretense that Russian expansionism would be a thing.  As a child of the Cold War, I remember watching those silly "duck and cover" films at school and referring to the Soviet Union as "The Evil Empire".  I still remember watching the 7 o'clock news reporting that Soviet Su-15s had shot down a civilian passenger jet, KAL Flight 007.

The threat of nuclear annihilation was still very much a thing in the early 80s.  Movies like WarGames, Red Dawn, and The Day After helped put fear of "The Russkies" into us.  But it turns out the Cold War was even harder on the Soviets.  Years of military buildup, as well as a failed war in Afghanistan had left their economy in ruins and their people demoralized.  Eventually, the Berlin Wall came down, and the Soviet Union was no more.

The west declared victory, of course.  It then found new enemies, and the seemingly never ending Cold War was replaced with the new "War on Terrorism".  Military spending quickly matched, and then surpassed, Cold War spending.  This had the benefit of rejuvenating America's defense industry.

And now...  Here we are...  The U.S. and its allies are fresh off fighting two long, drawn out wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The economy is reeling from recession and people are demoralized.  Sound familiar?

Anyway...  Back to the jet.

Didn't even bother painting it before flying it.  
Despite its post-Cold War economic troubles, Russia continued to slowly develop a replacement for its Su-27 and MiG-29 fighters.  While this resulted in several interesting looking concepts, like the MiG 1.44 and the Su-47, the money just wasn't there.  There was a substantial user base of older Flanker and Fulcrums, however and a merged Mikoyan and Sukhoi would continue to sell upgraded versions.

In 2007 it was revealed that work on a Russian 5th generation fighter was under way and that a prototype would be flying soon.  That prototype, the Sukhoi T-50 would first fly on January 29th, 2010.  The Russian air force has already taken delivery of its first airframe for testing and plans are for it enter service sometime in 2016.

Coincidently, 2016 is also the planed "in-service" date of the F-35, a date that seems optimistic given its current development.  It should be noted here that the F-35's first flight was December 15, 2006.  Six years earlier than that if you count the X-35.

The PAK FA.  aka:  "The Raptorski"

All one has to do is look at the PAK FA to realize it is a 5th generation contemporary to the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II.  So how does it compare?

PERFORMANCE:

The PAK FA is an air-superiority fighter, more akin to the F-22 than the F-35.  It's a big, twin-engined fighter with nary a thought put towards carrier operations or a STOVL version.  Its thrust-to-weight, wing loading, and speed should be close to the F-22.  Like the F-22, the PAK FA is capable of supercruise, allowing it to break the sound barrier without afterburner.  Judging by its estimated performance, the PAK FA certainly appears to be a match for the F-22.

The Sukhoi has a few extras compared to the F-22, however.  For one, it has movable leading edge extensions (LERX) just ahead of the air intakes.  These help distribute airflow over the wings and body at high angles-of-attack (AOA).  The PAK FA also utilizes three-dimensional thrust vectoring.  This enables engine thrust to be pointed in different directions, providing increased pitch, roll, and yaw control.  The Russian are well versed in 3D thrust vectoring, and its use has already been seen on MiG-35s, Su-35s, and others.  Even though it is still in development, the PAK FA has demonstrated its ability to perform the Pugachev's Cobra maneuver, where an aircraft seemingly breaks the laws of physics.



By contrast, neither the F-22 or F-35 uses anything akin to the movable LERX.  The F-22 does utilized thrust-vectoring, but only two-dimensional (up and down, for pitch control).  The F-35B utilizes thrust vectoring as well, but it is strictly to accommodate STOVL operations.

Both the PAK FA and F-22 are pretty much tied for speed, leaving the non-supercruising F-35 way behind.  Of the three, the PAK FA certainly appears to be the most agile of the bunch, especially at lower speeds where it can take advantage of its 3D thrust vectoring and movable LERX.  Both it and the F-22 are considered to have supercruise and supermaneuverability, but not the F-35.

Advantage:  PAK FA.  The F-22 comes close, but the F-35 isn't even in the same league.


STEALTH:

The PAK FA is definitely a stealthy design, using radar absorbing skin, internal weapon storage, and a  radar scattering shape.  

Then again, the Americans practically invented the concept of a stealth aircraft.  While the F-117 was the world's first "real" stealth aircraft, their experience goes back even further than that with concepts like the Have Blue and Tacit Blue.  Even the 60s era SR-71 was painted with a special radar absorbing paint.

Both the F-22 and F-35 are the result of years of stealth experience.  Both are said to have active cooling elements built into their design to help reduce heat signature.  Part of the reason for the F-22 2D thrust vectoring was to reduce it radar signature, as big round nozzles and large moving surfaces greatly increase radar cross section.  The F-22 is still the stealthiest fighter out there, and the best the PAK FA can do is hope it matches the stealthiness of the F-35.

Advantage:  F-22.  The PAK FA is likely closer to the F-35, if that.

View of the PAK FA showing its LERX and IRST.

SENSORS:

Sensors are the trump card to stealth, of course.  In this department, the PAK FA certainly seems impressive.  A large nose houses a large AESA radar with about 1,500 T/R modules.  Both sides of the front fuselage house an additional AESA radar with about 350 T/R modules each.  Located in the leading edge of each wing is a L-Band radar.  Its "stinger" located between the engines certainly looks capable of housing an additional radar, similar to the Su-35.

The PAK FA's 5 radars.  Main AESA radar (1), side firing AESA radars (2) and L-band (3).
On top of its impressive array of radars, the PAK FA houses an IRST sensor at the base of its windscreen.  It's cockpit is fairly traditional with two large MFDs, a HUD, and a helmet-mounted display (HMD).  Russia has been using IRST and HMDs for quite some time, starting with the Su-27 and MiG-29s.  While the use of AESA radar is fairly new, Russia was the first to introduce Passive Electronically Scanned Arrays (PESA) radars in the MiG-31 way back 1981.  In all, the PAK FA takes a "holistic" approach, combining new technology with tried-and-true.

By contrast, the F-22 has one AESA radar.  It is the very powerful AN/APG-77.  While it is possibly the best fighter radar currently flying, others are catching up.  More notably, the F-22 lacks the IRST, side firing radars, or L-band radars found on the PAK FA.  There is no HMD.  Recent attempts to add a HMD, along with the ability to fire high-off-boresight (HOBS) missiles have been shelved due to budget concerns.  The F-22's data-link is also notoriously picky about who it communicates with.

Where the F-22 falls behind, the F-35 pulls ahead.  While its AN/APG-81 radar is smaller, it makes up for it with its EOTS (electro-optical targeting system) and DAS (distributed aperture system).  While not outfitted with a IRST per se, the DAS and EOTS do allow the F-35 to detect and track targets all around it.  It also has a new generation HMD that eschews a traditional HUD.  While it all seems very impressive, there is the small caveat that none of it actually works properly yet.

Advantage:  F-35, but only if it can get the bugs worked out.  Otherwise, the PAK FA will run away with this one.  Meanwhile, the F-22 is in serious need of an update and upgrade.

If you look closely, you can see two weapon bays between the engine nacelles.

WEAPONS:

Two triangular "blisters" under the base of each of the PAK FA's wings hold a single R-77 (the Russian AMRAAM equivalent) air-to-air missiles.  A ramjet powered R-77M1 is in the works, as is a version that used infrared instead of radar targeting.  The PAK FA also has two large weapon bays located in-line between its two engine nacelles.  These longer, larger bays are able to carry a total of 4 R-37 long range "AWACS killer" missiles, similar to the discontinued AIM-54 Phoenix missile used but the F-14 Tomcat.  The PAK FA will also have the ability to carry an assortment of bombs, air-to-ground, and air-to-surface missiles; both internally and on 6 external hard points.  Russian missiles have more or less kept up to their western counterparts over the years.  Underestimating their missile technology could be a grave mistake.  The PAK FA's roomier weapons bays give it a few more options when it comes to internal carriage.  It will also carry a 30mm cannon when all else fails.

The F-22 carries a similar missile load-out, with 6 AMRAAMs and two AIM-9 Sidewinders internally.  Much like its planned helmet mounted display, the current F-22 has fallen somewhat behind and is not yet able to utilize the more modern AIM-9X Sidewinder with HOBS ability.Like the PAK FA, it has the ability to carry ground attack munitions, but it is limited to 2,000lbs worth of JDAMs or SDB (small diameter bombs).  It has 4 external hard points.  The Raptor also carries the venerable M-61 20mm vulcan cannon.  

Being of smaller size, the F-35 simply doesn't have the internal carrying capacity of the others.  It's weapon bays are also somewhat compromised by having to accommodate the F-35B's lift fan (this space is dedicated to fuel in the other versions).  The weapons bays, located aft of the air-intakes can currently carry one AMRAAM and one 2,000lb JDAM (1,000lb for the F-35B), each.  There are plans for the ability to carry up to 6 AMRAAMs internally, eventually.  The F-35 does have the edge on ground attack weapons, however, able to carry up to 18,000lbs total internally and on 6 external hard points.  The F-35 also has the equivalent to a ground targeting pod built into its EOTS.  A 25mm cannon is fitted to the F-35A, and will be outfitted to the other two models as a gun pod.  

Advantage:  PAK FA in the air, F-35 for ground pounding.  

How many?

NUMBERS:

"Quantity has a quality all its own."  This saying is, ironically enough, incorrectly attributed to Joseph Stalin.  The F-22's production was cut short at 187.  F-35 production planned for over 3,500 units; some find this optimistic, others downright delusional.

How may PAK FA's will there be?  That's the big question right now.  India intends to help develop a version known as the Sukhoi/HAL FGFA, although the relationship has soured somewhat lately.  Russia does have plans to make the PAK FA available for export sales, and promise it will be cheaper than its western 5th generation rivals.

This should be one of the most worrying aspects of the PAK FA.  Not only will it see use in Russia, but it will likely see use in other nations as well.  Potentially stealing sales away from the F-35, or finding its way into the hands of "undesirables".

The fictional "MiG-31 Firefox"
Against an F-22, the PAK FA will be roughly equal, with a slight edge in agility, sensors, and weapons.  A savvy F-22 pilot will need to take advantage of its superior stealth, and hope the U.S. Congress approved of some much needed upgrades.  The F-22 pilot had also better hope that he/she isn't facing 2:1 odds.

The F-35 will not be so lucky.  Whatever stealth advantage it has will be lost thanks to the PAK FA's extra sensors, and the JSF will not be able to outgun, outmaneuver, or outrun the PAK FA.  The F-35's only hope will be to get the PAK FA unaware, and hope its missiles hit on the first try.

What about other fighters?  Even without stealth, the PAK FA looks like a match for any of them.  The goal of the PAK FA is made quite clear in its design.  Where as the F-35 and F-22 place stealth as a priority, the PAK FA practices a more balanced approach.  It can still turn-and-burn with the best of them, and lacks the F-22's close range Achilles' heel.

Now, of course, there is always the chance that the PAK FA's capabilities are overstated.  There is also the chance that it runs into the same type of development and cost problems that seem to be a hallmark of 5th generation fighter aircraft.  Only a foolhardy general underestimates his potential opponent, however.  There is also a good chance that the PAK FA may still have few surprises.

In 1982, Clint Eastwood directed and starred in a movie based on the novel "Firefox" by Craig Thomas.  The premise:  An American fighter pilot is sent to steal a new Soviet fighter.  This fighter is faster, stealthier, and deadlier than anything the west has to offer.

It may have taken 30 years, but Russia now has its Firefox.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

A few housekeeping items.



First of all, I want to apologize for not posting much over the last week.  Between my "day job" and March break, my free time and energy levels were pretty much reduced to zero.

There has been a few developments, that I will touch base on soon.  I would also have a different undertaking in mind soon.


Disneyland for aviation enthusiasts.  I'm goin'.

Second:  I have a trip to Pima Air & Space Museum coming up, and I hope to get a lot of shots of the AMARG "boneyard".  Stay tuned...

Third:  I have decided to switch the commenting system to "Disqus".  I have been using it at bestfighter4canada.blogsite.ca, and it works like a charm.  Comments will no longer need approval prior to posting.  All you need for Disqus is a Google+, Facebook, or similar account.

Fourth:  I have decided to enable ads on this blogsite, just on a trial basis for now.  While I have no misconception of making it rich, I hope any revenue generated will allow me to access some paid content both online and in print.  The ads are run strictly through Blogger's "widget", which means I don't directly have any say in what goes up.  Conversely, they will have no effect on editorial content.   If you see ads for Boeing or Lockheed, it's only because that is what software deems suitable.  It's all strictly "3rd party".

If the ads are too disruptive, or not worth it, I will take them down.  If you feel generous, give them a click (that's how revenue is generated).

Do the ads mean I have "sold out"?  Keep reading and let me know what you think!


Friday, 7 March 2014

The F-35 still isn't an air-superiority fighter.


The F-35 is back in the news (what else is new).  This time, over the comments made by USAF General Michael Hostage.  While Hostage us adamant about the F-35's important, he goes on to state the F-35 would be "irrelevant" without the F-22 to provide support.
“The F-35 is not built as an air superiority platform,” Hostage said. “It needs the F-22.”
Regular visitors of this site will realize this is nothing new. I mentioned General Hostage's comments over a month ago.  I've also questioned the F-35's air-superiority chops in May of last year at the gripen4canada.blogspot.ca.

For those of you who missed it, I'll repost it here:

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Contrary to some of the posts I have made on this blog, I don't see myself as a "F-35 hater".  I prefer to see myself as a "F-35 realist".  There is simply no denying that the JSF program has been controversial, as well it should be for a government contract that is years behind schedule and billions over budget.  I have no doubt, however, that the F-35 will eventually make up the backbone of American air power, as well as playing a dominant presence in the rest of the world's air forces.  I also believe that the F-35 will be a formidable strike fighter when serving alongside F-22s, Typhoons, and Super Hornets.

My ire towards the Canadian F-35 selection is because it is simply not right for Canada's only multi-role fighter.  It's simply a matter of balance.  The JSF is a "Strike" aircraft first, meant to penetrate into enemy territory, drop bombs on enemy assets, and then return safely to base.  Some might argue that the F-35 will be a highly successful air-to-air fighter as well, but I'm not buying it.  Why?  Because so much of the aircraft is built around its ground attack role.

The F-35's EOTS.  


The F-35's equivalent to the IRST (infrared search and track), called EOTS (electro-optical targeting system) is on the bottom of the plane...  Facing down, towards ground targets.  This is because the EOTS also replicates the Sniper XR pod currently used for ground attack targeting.  If it works as advertised (in the above video) the EOTS promises great ground targeting abilities.

PAK FA prototype

Saab Gripen

Dassault Rafale

Su-35

Eurofighter Typhoon

Other multirole aircraft, especially those that focus on the air-to-air role almost invariably house their IRST systems just at the base of the cockpit...  Facing up, mimicking the pilots point of view. Why?  The better to see enemy aircraft, and then fire a missile at said aircraft, if needed.


Of course, the F-35 will also have its EO DAS (electro-optical distributed aperture system) consisting of sensors located around the plane but this system is more defensive in nature.  Try as I might, there is little information to be found on the effective range of the EO DAS for use in "locking on" to an enemy fighter.  Traditional IRST's have a range of 50-80 km or more, depending on the target's heat signature. Whether or not the EO DAS can match this is likely "classified" for the time being.  Will the F-35's combination of EOTS and EO DAS match a traditional IRST in the ability to find, identify, and target enemy aircraft?  With both Russian and Chinese stealth aircraft in the pipeline, IRST abilities will become increasingly important for air-to-air engagements.

The F-35 shows of 2 2000lb JDAMs (in red)
Further proof of the F-35's predominant strike role can be seen in its weapon bay design.  By default, the F-35 is intended to carry 2 AMRAAM missiles, along with 2 other weapons internally.  The weapon bays themselves were designed to fit the 2000lb JDAM guided bomb.  Other weapons, like smaller bombs, Joint Strike Missiles, and can also fit based simply on the fact that they are smaller than the "bunker buster" JDAM.

1 AMRAAM, 1 bomb.
Needless to say, another AMRAAM can fit in the bomb "slot".  There is also talk about the ability for 2 AMRAAMs to fit there in the future, but so far there appear to be no definite plans.  Unlike the F-22, there is no current way to carry the heat seeking AIM-9 Sidewinder missile internally.  They can fit on an external pylon of course, but again, this renders the F-35 unstealthy.

The B-17, comparable payload to an F-35.
Of course, stealthiness is not always needed, so for that, the F-35 can store up to 18,000lbs worth of weapons when using external pylons.  This exceeds the Gripen, the Typhoon, even the Super Hornet's abilities as a "bomb truck".  To put this in perspective, when combined with the F-35's internal fuel storage, this give it better range and payload to a B-17 bomber!


CF-18s over Kosovo (top) and Libya (bottom).  Notice the light bomb loads.

But...  Canada hasn't had need of a bomber since WWII.  Recent ground attack missions in Libya typically saw CF-18s fitted with 2 guided bombs combined with AMRAAMs and Sidewinders for self defense.  The CF-18's service over Bosnia was to enforce a no-fly Zone, meaning strictly air-to-air, combined with similar (2 bomb) light strike missions.  Operations over Iraq during the first Gulf War were similar, providing air cover and light strike missions.

"Take off, Hoser!"  (CF-18 and Tu-95 Bear)
By far, the CF-18's most important role has been in air policing.  During the Cold War, and even since, the CF-18's main role has been to keep foreign aircraft out of Canadian skies.  Although they are credited with "punching above their weight" during coalition actions, they didn't provide any service that could not be performed by another allied fighter.  On the other hand, only Canadian fighters can defend Canadian airspace.  This mission requires fast jets with air-to-air capability.  The USAF has F-22s stationed in Alaska, an aircraft that's capable of supercruise, supermaneuverability, and carries a mix of IR homing and radar homing missiles.

The Sidewinder slinging, supercruising, supermaneuvering, F-22.  How the USA keeps their skies clear. 
Would the F-35's stealth and greater bomb load made much difference over Iraq, Bosnia, and Libya?  Doubtful.  Will it make a difference in the future?  Possibly, but it's hard to say for sure.

If the F-35 finally matures into the fighter it is designed to be, it will undoubtedly be one of the best strike aircraft the world has ever seen.  But is that what Canada needs?  Do we need the ability to carry B-17 equivalent bomb loads into enemy territory?  Do we need to sneak into enemy airspace undetected?  Does stealth help us intercept incursions into our airspace?  The answer to all these questions is "No."  The F-35 may be a very capable strike fighter, but what its capable of, Canada doesn't need.

Canada's needs seem to favor an aircraft capable of interception, aerial superiority, and light strike.  With the F-35's slower speed and questionable aerial superiority claims, the JSF may be overqualified in one area, at the expense of the other two.


Thursday, 6 March 2014

Does Boeing have a "Plan B" for Canada?

What could Boeing offer Canada instead of the Super Hornet?
It was no real surprise Tuesday that the Pentagon's budget request for fiscal year 2015 didn't include any funding for building more F/A-18E/F Super Hornets or EA-18G Growlers.  Boeing's St. Louis assembly plant has enough USN and Australian Super Hornet orders to keep going until 2016...  And that's it.

Boeing has a few prospects for continuing the line, but the outlook is less than rosy.  Losing Brazil to the Saab Gripen was a definite blow, as Brazil's order for 36 aircraft would have likely been just a start, with the Super Hornet possibly finding a new home on Brazil's S ãu Paulo aircraft carrier.  Denmark and Canada are still possibilities, but both are "resets" of F-35 purchases.  There is no guarantee that a fighter competition will even be declared, and even then, no guarantee the Super Hornet would win.  Denmark in particular looks like it would favor the Saab Gripen, no surprise given that it was a Draken customer.

There are a few other interested nations, like Malaysia and the Middle East, but those orders would be years away for a relatively small number of aircraft...  If the Super Hornet was even picked.

It could be that the Super Hornet's "last, best hope" is Canada, but that looks tenuous now.  While some seem to believe it is Canada's default alternative to the F-35, and that it should be "single sourced" as an interim fighter.  This ignores the other fine choices available, but whatever.

It's kind of a moot point now anyway, with Canada forgoing any new military acquisitions until 2017 (one year after Super Hornet production is likely to end).  So that raises the question:

What will Boeing do if Canada declares an open fighter competition, but it's too late to offer the Super Hornet?

OPTION 1:  Bring it back.
Boeing's "Advanced Super Hornet".
Sorry for stating the obvious, but Boeing could always simply just restart production.  It could also slow down its current production in order keep the line open long enough to secure a few more orders.  Boeing is said to be contemplating this.  This would have consequences, however.  Slower production would likely either increase unit costs or decrease Boeing's profits.

Boeing would likely bolster the Super Hornet's chances by offering up its proposed "Advanced Super Hornet" upgrades, consisting of conformal fuel tanks (CFTs), enclosed weapon pods, and other upgrades.  While these upgrades certainly help modernize the Super Hornet, they are currently funded by Boeing.  If a buyer wants them, they will likely have to pay a premium for them.

Slowing production while adding expensive upgrades doesn't help the Super Hornet's value proposition.  It would be difficult to sell a Super Hornet that costs nearly as much as an F-35.

OPTION 2:  The Eagle.
The F-15SE Silent Eagle
Much like the Super Hornet in Brazil, Boeing's F-15SE "Silent Eagle" was dealt a harsh blow when South Korea decided to pass on 60 F-15SEs in favor of 40 F-35 Lightning IIs.  South Korea seemed like a great fit for the Silent Eagle, they already have a fleet of F-15K "Slam Eagles", so integration into the force would have been a snap.  With no other current potential suitors, the Silent Eagle's future looks dim.

Then again, the F-15SE seems like it could easily take the place of the Super Hornet in Boeing's offer to Canada.  F-15 production will continue until at least 2018, and if Canada hasn't selected a new fighter by then, it might as well not bother.

There certainly would be a case for the F-15 of any variant.  While it's "king of the sky" reputation has been surpassed by the new F-22 and upgraded Flanker variants, no one can really argue with its perfect combat record of 101 victories with 0 defeats.  Arguments about it being obsolete are put to bed by the fact that the USA is bolstering forces near the Ukraine with F-15Cs.  If the USAF has confidence enough in the F-15C to counter Russian forces, than that should be enough to convince anyone.

The F-15 is a reliable workhorse, as well.  Newer F-15E models could last as long as 32,000 flight hours, and even older F-15Cs could see up to 18,000.  There is a very good chance that F-15Es built today could outlast F-35s (rated for 8,000h) that haven't even been built yet.

All this begs the question:  Why hasn't Boeing offered up the F-15SE to Canada already?  First of all, the Super Hornet would likely be an easier sell, as Canada already flies the older "legacy" F/A-18 Hornet.  Switching over to the Eagle would require additional training and infrastructure changes, adding to the overall acquisition cost.  There is also the fact that the F-15 is an expensive aircraft to operate.  While a USAF F-16 costs just over $22,000/hr to operate, the F-15C runs almost double that, at almost $42,000/hr.  Even the F-35 is estimated to come in around the mid-$30,000 range.  After 8,000 flight hours, the F-15 would cost $80 million more, almost enough to buy another jet fighter to fly alongside the F-35.

It would seem doubtful that Canada would forgo the F-35 in favor of the older F-15 that would likely cost far more in the long run.

OPTION 3:  Partner up.


No hard feelings about Brazil?
One of the inalienable truths about business is that grudges are quickly forgotten if there is an opportunity for both parties to succeed by working together.  Despite competing against each other in several fighter competitions, Boeing and Saab have agreed to team up to submit a bid for the USAF's upcoming T-X jet trainer.  There seems to be some speculation on whether this T-X contender will be based on the Gripen or an all new design, but one can certainly see the potential here.

Unlike the Super Hornet, the USAF has requested funding for the T-X program.  $600 million in the next 5 years.

When Saab backed out of consideration for Canada's "reset" last year, it did so stating that it had doubts about whether it would be a fair competition.  What raises suspicion is that Saab's partnership with Boeing was likely being negotiated at that time, so there is a chance that Saab's backing out may have been a concession to Boeing.  But perhaps there's more to the story?

With the Super Hornet out of production and the Silent Eagle's future a big long-shot, Boeing may try to stay in the running by joining up with Saab to offer the Gripen.  Gripen production is guaranteed well into the 2020s, and its cost-effectiveness gives it a clear advantage over the F-35, the Typhoon, an the Rafale.  The Gripen's low cost could even make it a tempting secondary or interim fighter for those countries determined to procure the F-35, but in lower numbers.  South Korea is still looking for 20 fighters to go with its new F-35s, remember.

With Boeing's clout, Saab's ability to sell the Gripen skyrockets.  With the Saab Gripen, Boeing gets to stay in the fighter business at least until the T-X program, probably longer.  Most importantly, it hitches itself to the only fighter that seems to be enjoying significant sales outside of the F-35 program.  While Typhoon and Rafale sales seem to be at a near standstill, the Gripen seems to be picking up steam.  The trend is very clear, governments are either choosing the high-end JSF or the affordable Gripen.  It only makes sense for Boeing to get in on the action.

Boeing's T-X concept, predating its partnership with Saab.
Hopefully, Boeing will find a way to keep Super Hornet production going, at least long enough for Canada to make a decision.    The Rhino is a damn fine fighter, not as glamorous as the F-14 or F-22, but its proven to be a steady workhorse.  The outlook seems rather grim however.  Hopefully, Boeing will still be in the jet fighter business long after the Super Hornet is gone.

Monday, 27 January 2014

The Usual Suspects

Best performance ever from a non-Alec Baldwin brother.
Do a Google (or even Bing) search for news about various fighter jets, especially the F-35, and you will see that certain names pop up fairly often.  Sometimes you know exactly what the article is going to be like just by examining the names involved.  Certain authors will wax poetic about a subject, while another will scream that the emperor's naughty bits are showing.

As much as writers (or anybody else) would hate to admit it, we all have biases.  Nobody is truly objective.  One way or another, we are all swayed by our experiences, and by what resources we have at hand.    This is nothing to be ashamed of, it is simply a part of the human condition.  What is important, however, is that those biases be freely examined.

So let's look at some familiar faces and names involved in Canada's fighter jet procurement, shall we?

Billie Flynn

Lockheed Martin's Canadian poster boy.
Billie Flynn is possibly Lockheed Martin's "go to" guy when it comes to Canada's F-35 selection.  This former RCAF Lt. Colonel's resume reads like an alphabet soup of "M. Eng"s and "MBA"s and the like.  He's flown the F-35, CF-18, F-16, Typhoon, Tornado, F-4, and countless others.  The guy's even married to a genuine astronaut who happens to have a school named after her.

There is little question why Lockheed Martin has made Billie Flynn its CF-35 poster boy.

But then he opens his mouth...

I've given Flynn flak before for comparing wartime to playtime.  His comment that Canada "will not be allowed to play unless you have the same capability as everyone else" seriously upset me.  Not only does it equate NATO with some sort of snobby country club, but it also suggest that participating  in military action is privilege, not something done because there is little other choice.

Flynn has also been called out by his fellow fighter pilots for stating that the F-35's flight performance was superior to jets like the Typhoon.  Given the F-35's publicized performance downgrades, this statement was a little hard to swallow.

Billie Flynn is undoubtedly a capable and well educated pilot.  He is also a Lockheed Martin employee.  I would no more expect him to make a disparaging comment than I would Lockheed vice-president Steve O'Bryan, another former F/A-18 pilot.  Their first duty is to the shareholders of Lockheed Martin.



Loren Thompson

Loren Thompson does his best "Baghdad Bob" impersonation.

At first glance, Loren Thompson appears to be nothing more than the COO of a think tank known as the "Lexington Institute".  Pro-military and right leaning, the Lexington Institute offers plenty of advice on foreign policy and military procurement.  Mr. Thompson himself is quite the fan of the F-35, and often pens glowing praise for the the JSF program.  He often makes counter-points when bad news about the stealth fighter surfaces.  Fair enough.

The trouble is, Loren Thompson's Lexington Institute is hardly the unbiased "nonprofit" organization it states itself to be.  For one, it was founded by a former Congressman who turned Lockheed Martin lobbyist.  It has also been derided as "the defense industry's pay-to-play ad agency".  Mr. Thompson himself said the following.
I'm not going to work on a project unless somebody, somewhere, is willing to pay. This is a business.
Not only is Mr. Thompson a COO of the "not-for-profit" Lexington Institute, but he is also the CEO of the for-profit Source Associates defense consulting firm.  Neither organization lists its donors or clients, other than the fact that Boeing and Lockheed are know contributors to Lexington.  It's not hard to put 2 and 2 together on that one.

How shameless is Mr. Thompson's praise of Lockheed Martin?  It goes far behind plugging the F-35. It goes beyond writing breathless praise for LockMart's senior executive.  No, Loren Thompson goes so far as to suggest that Lockheed Martin should get as much credit as Seal Team Six for nabbing Osama Bin Laden.  Because making millions off of building war machines and risking your life to capture the world's most infamous terrorist is the same thing, apparently.

Let's switch from JSF supporters to JSF critics.  Have you ever read a brutal take-down of the F-35?  Chances are, it was either written by, or quotes from these guys:

Winslow Wheeler

Winslow Wheeler.  Apparently he likes books on war and tanks.
With articles like:  "The Jet That Ate the Pentagon" and "The New Era of Good F-35 Feelings", there is little doubt that Winslow Wheeler isn't a fan of the F-35.   

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO), the organization Mr. Wheeler works for, investigates government corruption and overspending.  It made a name for itself in the 80s when it brought to light gross overspending by the US military for mundane items such as toilet seats ($640), hammers ($436), and coffee makers ($7,400).

Wheeler is also the director of the Center for Defense Initiative (CDI) think tank's Strauss Military Reform Project.  CDI has been criticized for its left-leaning "pacifist" tendencies, often speaking out against any new weapon system.  CDI merged with POGO in 2012.

Prior to his career at POGO, Wheeler was on staff for the US Senate, where he worked for both Democrat and Republicans (the first and only staffer to do so).  He also worked for the Government Accountability Office.  Wheeler was the the very example of a "government insider".  He has since gone on to publish several books and essays about the muddled US military.

Pierre Sprey

Pierre Sprey, fighter mafioso.

The A-10.  The F-16.  Kanye West.  They all owe part of their success to Pierre Sprey.
Sprey was an aircraft designer who worked alongside legendary pilot and tactician John Boyd as part of the Pentagon's "Fighter Mafia".  The Fighter Mafia was adamant that the heavy, complicated, and clumsy jets of Vietnam were too ineffective, and that newer fighter jets should go back to basic dogfight tactics and be built simpler and lighter.  


Part of the Fighter Mafia's influence can be seen in the F-15, which was originally supposed to much heavier with a swing-wing, akin to the ill-fated F-111.  Their real influence can be seen in the much cheaper F-16 and A-10, however.  Two machines that were built with a single purpose (the F-16 has since gone from its intended air superiority day fighter role to a multi-role workhorse.)


Sprey has since left his job at the Pentagon, stating that : "it became increasingly obvious that the atmosphere at the Pentagon was such that it would be impossible to build another honest aircraft."  He now records jazz and gospel music with his "Mapleshade Records" label.  One of those recording "Walk With Me" by the ARC Choir, was sampled by Kanye West for his song "Jesus Walks".  Really.


Sprey still finds time to speak out about current military aviation.  He wasn't a huge fan of the F-22, stating it was too expensive (it was) and too vulnerable to risk.  His dislike for the F-35 Lightning II, however, is astounding.  He goes so far as to call it a "turkey"  and "exceptionally dumb".  


Bill Sweetman

Jane's and Aviation Week's Bill Sweetman.
As an defense and aerospace journalist for Aviation Week and Jane's, Bill Sweetman has over 40 years experience covering military aviation.  It was Bill Sweetman's job to cover the F-35.  I say "was" because at one point he was suspended from reporting on F-35 matters by Aviation Week's management.

Having followed the JSF program from the very beginning, Bill Sweetman has pretty much come up with the conclusion that the F-35 is a flop.  While a journalist merely reports the facts, Sweetman sees himself as more of an analyst and is giving his educated, informed thesis on the subject.

Sweetman continues to be vocal critic of the JSF program.

Bloggers, commenters, et al.

"Bark bark.  Yip yip.  Growl."
Of course the internet is filled with self-confessed experts.  Go to any web forum and you will be overwhelmed by the knowledge and opinion of people going by the names like "viperluvr69".  Many will state that they, or a close personal friend, has inside knowledge about a subject and that you will "just have to trust me on this".  Of course, beneath a veil of anonymity, that poster could be anything from Pentagon Chief of Staff to a bored 10 year old.

Then there are the bloggers, which are simply a more advanced form of commenter.  They've taken it upon themselves to voice their opinion online for all to see.  Some cite there sources, others don't.  There are some very good blogs out there.  I find myself visiting Eric Palmer's spot and Solomon's "SNAFU" quite frequently.  I don't always agree, but I find them entertaining.  There is also the (now retired) "Why the F-35" and the very pro-JSF "Elements of Power" blog.

Just remember that these bloggers (including myself) are simply posting their opinion based on the facts that they have gathered.  They have bias and prejudice just like anybody else.  They also have little accountability.  This can be good and bad.  They aren't subject to censorship, but they also don't have to back up their statements.

Me.


That mug is full of Macallan scotch.
So...  What makes me special?  Nothing.

I'm not employed by any aerospace industry, military, or media outlet.  My training consists of flunking out of engineering (calculus is hard) and journalism (personal problems, long story).  My "day job" is that of an Advanced Care Paramedic, which usually consists of a fancy taxi service interrupted by brief stints of delivering babies on the side of the road, restarting hearts, searching for amputated arms, and other, weirder stuff.

Being a "base brat" growing up near CFB Greenwood, with a father in the RCAF, I became interested in fighter jets at a young age, before my attention got diverted more towards fast cars and other teenage stuff.  I never really outgrew my interest in aircraft, though...  Must have been the Testor's model glue.

I started this blog, and another, as a sort of therapy to deal with some PTSD I was dealing with at around the same time as Canada's controversial F-35 purchase announcement.  I didn't expect much, since I am certainly no expert...  I'm just a guy with an iMac and a decent skill in Google-Fu...  But the damn thing took off anyway.

I make no money off this blog.  The only reward I have received have been the many commenters and members of these blogs and the  gripen4canada and bestfighter4canada Facebook groups.  That in and of itself has proven incredibly rewarding.

So why does my opinion matter?  Well...  It doesn't really.  What matters is that, hopefully, you follow the links provided or do your own research and come to your own conclusions.

Thanks for reading.



[NOTE:  I will post this in the "pages" section at the top and add to this list over time.]