Monday, 28 July 2014

Saab bails out of Denmark.

Not going to happen.
Saab has declined to enter a bid in Denmark's recently announced fighter competition to replace its aging F-16 fleet.
"We are grateful for the invitation to tender, but as on all occasions like this, we have undertaken an analysis of the situation and choose not to respond to the invitation," 
Like Canada, Denmark hit the "reset button" on its F-35 purchase after concerns about the JSF's price, performance, and reliability.  It is now comparing the Eurofighter Typhoon, Boeing Super Hornet, and F-35.  Dassault's Rafale was apparently left out.

Saab's exact reasons for declining Denmark's request for binding information (RBI) are unclear, but seems pretty safe to assume that it believes the competition is heavily weighted in the F-35's favor.  Like Canada, Denmark is a "Level 3" industrial partner in the JSF program.

It could be more complicated than that, however.  Recent success in Brazil, combined with disappointment in Switzerland may have encouraged Saab to be more selective in its prospective client base.  Denmark would be a smaller order (around 30 aircraft), and it just might not be worth the effort to compete against industry giants like Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, and the Eurofighter consortium.  Both Boeing and Eurofighter are desperate to keep their assembly lines running, while Lockheed-Martin is adamant on keeping JSF orders up in order to keep costs down.  Fresh off its victory in Brazil, it would seem Saab has the luxury of sitting this one out.

Denmark was an early partner in the F-16 program, joining Norway, the Netherlands, and Belgium.  History may be serving as momentum here, as Norway and the Netherlands have already committed to the F-35.  Belgium may not be far behind.

"Danish Special" Saab 35 Draken
What does this mean for Canada?

Probably nothing much.  Saab declined Canada's "request for information" seeing it as political smokescreen.  It has mentioned that it would reconsider a Canadian bid if Canada announced a full and open competition.  With a new fighter purchase delayed well until 2020, it is still too soon to predict whether or not this will happen.

[UPDATE:  Thanks Kjell!]  Boeing was told to limit its bid exclusively to the two-seat F/A-18F.  Two-seat variants are known to be more expensive and heavier.  This could very well be stacking the deck in favor of the single-seat-only F-35.

A similar issue happened in S. Korea, when Eurofighter's bid was disqualified when it 60 aircraft offer did not include enough two-seater Typhoons.  South Korea then went on to purchase 40 single-seat F-35s.

It makes you wonder if Eurofighter received stipulations for Denmark as well...

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Saab to LockMart: "U MAD BRO?"

It would seem as though Saab AB is taking advantage of the JSF's no-show appearance at RIAT and Farnborough.

While engine reliability issues grounded the F-35, Saab AB wasted no time reminding everybody about the Gripen's history of trouble-free service combined with lower costs.

While most of these statements did not mention the F-35 by name, it should be very clear what they are referring to...

Then again, some of it was not exactly subtle:

Check out the last lines in each column.  Two very different uses of the work "Unbelievable".  

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

While the F-35's in omnishambles, others step up.

The F-35's fiberglass stunt double.  (Image credit:  Erik Gustavsson)

It's official.  The F-35 Lightning II will not be making its international debut over Farnborough this week.

This was supposed to be a big month for the Lightning II.  Costs are said to be coming down, with further discounts on the way.  There is even the possibility of the Canadian government making its long-delayed announcement on whether or not to sole-source the stealth fighter.  All this would be met with great fanfare as the JSF made its international debut with its only "Level 1" partner, the United Kingdom.  A flyover at HMS Queen Elizabeth's naming ceremony, followed by an aerial display at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT), and then an appearance at the Farnborough International Air Show.

Despite best laid plans, July of 2014 will be remembered as the month nothing seemed to go right for the JSF.  In fact, its UK debut has can be described as in omnishambles.

Hot off an oil leak last month, the F-35 had just resumed flying after a brief grounding only to have a F-35A burst into flames as it was taxiing down the runway on June 23rd.  Despite this dramatic turn of events, an official grounding was not ordered until July 3rd...  Right before the Independence Day long weekend.

While the JSF has been cleared for flight, it does so under strict flight restrictions.  One of those restrictions mandates that the F-35's engine be inspected after every three hours of flight.  Not an easy thing to do while you are flying over the Atlantic Ocean.  Even if these checks could be avoided, the forecast for possible thunderstorms would keep the JSF away because getting hit by lightning could make it explode also.

"Excessive Rubbing" causing headaches?
At least they believe they might have found the cause of the fire.  "Excessive Rubbing" of the turbine blade against its housing caused extra friction followed by extra heat.  Needless to say, this is not a great thing to have in a high precision jet engine surrounded by $100 million dollars (at least) worth of aircraft and jet fuel.

All of this has not helped the JSF beleaguered public image.  It is certainly conspicuous by its absence in the U.K.  It was supposed to be the main attraction, so people notice when it does not show up.  Not only do they notice, but they start to ask questions.
"Why isn't it here?"
"It's grounded?  Why?"
"How much is this thing gonna cost, anyway?"
"WHAT?  It's the most expensive weapon ever?"
"It's already overbudget and eight years late?
"OUR GOVERNMENT WANTS TO BUY THESE THINGS TOO???" (storms off to grab a pitchfork)
Farnborough and RIAT are big events where government officials hobnob with defense contractor executives.  High profile events like these are often where deals are announced and impressions are made.  While Lockheed Martin's public relations people are sure to downplay the seriousness of the F-35's non-appearance, government officials will likely be treading far more carefully.

Any nation, including Canada, who is "on the fence" about a JSF purchase will no doubt put off any purchase announcements until this has blown over.  Announcing a multi-billion dollar fighter buy right after that fighter misses its own international debut due to an engine fire would be akin to hanging an albatross around their neck.

Oddly enough, Phillip Hammond, UK Minister of Defense, is no longer Minister of Defense, as of today.  Read of that what you will, but there could be a trend.

Meanwhile, other manufacturers are out trying to get attention.

See?  They made it.
Despite starting its development a mere 23 months ago, the Textron Scorpion managed to do what the 8-year-old F-35 could not...  Show up.  While the Scorpion certainly is not in the same class as the F-35, it has the handicap of not being publicly funded.  It is also an aircraft many of the world's cash-strapped air forces could actually afford.

Spiffy Tiffie.
Then there is the Eurofighter Typhoon, Britain's current pride and joy.  Not only did the Typhoon show up in a commemorative D-Day paint scheme, but it also received a commitment to develop the CAPTOR-E AESA radar.

The "show-stealer" award goes to Saab, however.  Saab presented an update on its Gripen E, confirming its AESA radar, and MBDA Meteor capability.  Saab also revealed that its latest customer, Brazil, would be undertaking much of the design work on the two-seat Gripen F, as well as building most of that country's Gripen Es.  This comes at a time when many F-35 customers are questioning their offset benefits.

But the icing on the cake has to be this gem:

The Troll from Trollhättan?

While Lockheed-Martin is busy touting its absent and flight restricted F-35 as the most advanced fighter available on the market, Saab is fighting back by promising a "PRODUCT THAT ACTUALLY WORKS."


Monday, 14 July 2014

What would it take to "Canadianize" the various fighters?

"It's gonna need a built-in beer cooler before it can take off...  Eh?"
While it is fun to discuss a fighter's speed, payload, and agility; there are other more mundane issues that need to be looked at.

Before Canada decides on any fighter, it needs to address issues with how that aircraft can fit into the RCAF's current infrastructure, as well as meeting any operational challenges incurred by Canada's harsh climate and vast geography.  While it certainly is easier and cheaper to buy "off the shelf", that may not be feasible in some cases.  One way or another, there is a pretty good chance any selection will need to be "Canadianized" in order to make the most of the selection.

The CF-18's marker light.
Even the F/A-18 Hornet was not immune.  In its transition in becoming the CF-188 (Its official Canadian designation), the Hornet gained a distinctive false canopy paint scheme and an identification light on the forward port fuselage.  Over the years, the differences have become more profound as the CF-188 has taken a slightly different upgrade path than the USN's F/A-18 fleet.

So what would it take to "Canadianize" Canada's next fighter?  It depends on how "Canadian" you want to get.  For the sake of this discussion, let us determine what is "need to have" and what is "nice to have" for each fighter.  For "need to have", we will require each fighter to match the current capability of the CF-18.  That means operating from the same bases, with the same RCAF resources already in place.  For "nice to have", we will look at a few items that are currently not in use, but would help realize the potential of that particular airframe's strengths.

F-35A Lightning II:

Need to have:

Despite being the current federal government's favored choice, the F-35A would need some substantial changes made to either the aircraft itself, or the there RCAF's current infrastructure.  Probably both.  Much has been mentioned about the F-35's compatibility with the RCAF's current aerial refueling fleet, so there is little need to revisit the details now.  Canada would either require a new aerial refueling fleet, or it would need to equip a "CF-35" with the refueling probe found on the F-35B and F-35C models.  Neither of these is a cheap proposition.  It might actually more sensible in the long run to acquire two or three new (or lightly used) aerial tankers to replace Canada's current aging CC-150 Polaris fleet.

Once the fueling issue is dealt with, the suitability of the F-35 to operate from icy runways or the RCAF's forward operating locations.  These are typically northern civilian airfields where the current CF-18 can be temporarily stationed.  Being based on a naval airframe, the CF-18 has no problem here.  The F-35A, which is intended to operate from the USAF's pristine runways, could be a different story.  It does not have dedicated air brakes, a tail hook, or a drag chute.  In order to be viable for Canadian operations, the F-35A would require an add-on drag chute.  Another option would be to order the carrier capable F-35C instead...  But that has its own set of issues.

Nice to have: 

If Canada decides on the F-35, it will do well to do one of two things:  Adopt a second, cheaper fighter to help bolster numbers and control costs.  Or, alternatively, go "all in" with the F-35 platform.    This would mean not only acquiring the F-35A, but possibly acquiring a few F-35Bs to operate from a small helicopter carrier, much like what the Aussies are considering.  At the very least, it would mean adopting every future capability upgrade.

New tankers, possibly a new amphibious assault carrier, and a devotion to future technology?  Whatever Canada's future is with the F-35 is, it is likely to be expensive.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet:

Need to have:

If any fighter platform could be considered "plug-and-play" with the RCAF's current CF-18 infrastructure, it is the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.  It was designed from the outset to fly alongside (but not necessarily replace) the legacy F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornet.  Burned by the disastrous A-12 Avenger II program, the US Navy played it as safe as possible with the Super Hornet.  This kept is safe from the budgetary axe during the post-Cold War, pre-9/11 fiscal years.

All this means is that the Super Hornet has most of the features and capabilities of the CF-18.  Probe and drogue refueling, the same runway requirements, and similar weapon capabilities.  Some parts (but not many) are even interchangeable.

There would be some changes needed, of course.  These would be minor.  New training for air and ground crews, parts inventories, and other intricacies that would be needed no matter what the fighter.    The Super Hornet has a slightly larger footprint (earning it the "Rhino" nickname), although it is likely not that much bigger that it would require larger hangers or the like.

Nice to have:  

While the Super Hornet may be the easiest fighter for the RCAF to transition to, it also has some performance issues when compared against some of the other fighters, and even its older sibling.  To be blunt, the Rhino is underpowered for a F-15 sized aircraft.  While its F-414 engines produce 25% more power than the legacy Hornet's F-404s, they have their work cut out for them powering an aircraft that is about 50% heavier and 25% bulkier.  This is compounded further by the Super Hornet's need for 3° outward canted pylons to help with ordinance separation.  The Super Hornet is also the only fighter aircraft being considered by Canada to not have a built in IRST.  These issues can all be fixed by opting for Boeing's proposed "Advanced Super Hornet".  The Advanced Super Hornet (or ASH) adds conformal fuel tanks, enclosed weapon pods, and more advanced sensors.  The ASH concept also proposes upgrading the engine to F-414EPE, for a 20% increase in power.  The extra power, combined with less drag and lower radar signature offered by the CFTs and EWPs, would greatly improve the Super Hornet's performance.

Of course, no discussion about the Super Hornet can go without the mention of its A/V club sibling, the EA-18G Growler.  When ordering the Super Hornet as an "interim" solution while waiting for the F-35A, the RAAF decided to take advantage of the platform's electronic warfare potential as well.  This should be considered a "no-brainer" for any Rhino customer deemed worthy of Pentagon clearance.

Eurofighter Typhoon (Tranche 3) 

Need to have:  

While the Super Hornet may be the most "plug and play" option, other fighters could be amalgamated into the RCAF without much more difficulty.  With roughly the same numbers as the Super Hornet, but in use by more nations, the Typhoon is actually closer to the NATO fighter standard.  One would be hard pressed to find a guided munition currently used on the CF-18 that could not be used on the Eurofighter.  The Typhoon equips a modern HMD and a LITENING targeting pod similar to the CF-18's Sniper ATP (advanced targeting pod).

Less-than-optimal runways should not pose much of a problem either.  Initially intended to have STOL capabilities (these requirements were relaxed), the Typhoon has a massive air-brake and drag-chute.  While there are no carrier compatible variants of the Typhoon, its runway performance should be considered adequate.  The Eurofighter also utilized the "probe-and-drogue" method of aerial refueling.

In order to be cleared for use in the RCAF, the most the Typhoon might require is some additional cold-weather testing, satellite communication capability, and other logistical considerations.

Nice to have:

It should be noted that Tranche 3 Typhoons have the capability to mount AESA radars and CFTs, but these items do not come standard.  The RCAF would be slightly behind the times if it did not opt for an AESA equipped Typhoon.  The new "CAPTOR-E" AESA radar might be one of the best radars available in a fighter aircraft when it becomes available.  As for CFT capability, extra range is always a good thing, especially if weapon hard points remain free in the bargain.

One of the biggest advantages of selecting the Typhoon would be the ability to pick and choose whatever weapon systems work best.  This includes utilizing the IRIS-T or ASRAAM instead of the AIM-9 Sidewinder.  The Typhoon also gives the option of selecting the ramjet powered MBDA Meteor BVR missile with, or instead of, the ubiquitous AIM-120 AMRAAM.

Dassault Rafale

Need to have:

I have brought up the Rafale's need to be "Canadianized" before.  The good news is, that is exactly what Dassault would like to sell us.  While some might see the Rafale as "too French", Dassault's offer to give Canada full intellectual property rights, including source code would mean that Canada could alter the Rafale as it sees fit.  

The most likely change would be to the Rafale's weapons.  Any Canadian Rafale would likely sport AMRAAMs and Sidewinders, for logistic purposes if no other reason.  Currently, France does not operate the Rafale with any HMD, despite one being tested.  This would be considered mandatory for Canadian service as the RCAF's CF-18 currently utilize HMD capability.  

As France's soon-to-be only fighter type that includes a carrier-based variant, the Rafale is the very definition of a do-it-all fighter.  Modifying it for Canadian use would likely be a fairly simple endeavor.  

Nice to have:  

Like the Typhoon, the Rafale has the capability of mounting CFT's.  While there have been no customers for this capability yet, Canada would be a great place to start.  The Rafale will also gain Meteor missile capability soon as well.

Perhaps the biggest "nice to have" for the Rafale would be more commercial than technical.  With Dassault willing to share so much, Canada could become a vested partner in the Rafale platform and help market it to other nations.  "Canadianized" Rafale sporting HMDs, CFTs, and proven NATO standard weapon capability could possibly net a few more sales, with a portion of that going to Canada, of course.  

Saab JAS 39E/F Gripen

Need to have:

The Gripen would likely slot in somewhere between the Super Hornet and Typhoon for ease of transition into the RCAF.  Saab has intentionally made all Gripens past the "C" model export-friendly,  with plentiful weapon options, a refueling probe, and NATO standard communications gear.  Part of the design's focus is that of easy maintenance, using plenty of widely available parts.  The engine (RM12 in the A-D variants, GE-414 in the E/F) is based on the GE-404 currently used by Canada's CF-18.  Like the Typhoon and Super Hornet, the Gripen can handle just about any weapon currently in use by the RCAF Hornets.  Sidewinders, AMRAAMs, Paveway laser guided bombs, even the venerable AGM-65 Maverick.  The Gripen also equips a modern HMD and LITENING targeting pod.  

As far as cold weather or runway performance is concerned, the Gripen has nothing to worry about.  Sweden operates a Gripen base north of the arctic circle, so no concerns there.  Not only that, but the Gripen does not even need a proper runway to take-off and land, just 600 meters of public highway.  Needless to say, landing at Canada's Forward Operating Locations should be a snap.  Despite concerns to the contrary, the Swedish Gripen has proven itself capable of participating in NATO coalitions.

One thing the RCAF would not need is extra funding.  The Gripen is said to be one of the most affordable fighter aircraft in the world to fly, with costs approaching that of a private jet.

Nice to have:

Not only will the Gripen share the Typhoon's and Rafale's MBDA Meteor integration,  it is was the first fighter to be cleared for its use.  As with the others, it would be foolish to not take advantage of this possibly game-changing missile.  The Gripen's wide weapon selection also allows the opportunity for the RCAF to consider a different BVR, WVR, and A2G missiles in the future.  More choice is always a good thing.

While the Gripen NG (E/F) is said to have superior range than the current CF-18 Hornet, additional range is never a bad thing.  While there will be external fuel tank options, CFT's do not appear on the horizon.  This could be seen as a possible way for Canada to contribute to the Gripen program.  

F-15SE Silent Eagle

Need to have:

Like the F-35A, one of the biggest issues surrounding the F-15SE for Canada would be its lack of a refueling probe.  The F-15 relies instead on the flying boom method preferred by the USAF.  This may not be as much of an issue with the F-15SE, however, since it does boast a longer range as well as external tanks.  Israel is also rumored to have worked on retrofitting probes to its F-15I fleet. 

Weapon integration would be a cinch.  The F-15E Strike Eagle, from which the Silent Eagle is based, can handle just about any air-to-air or air-to-ground in the US arsenal, as well as many others.  It even shares its M61 Vulcan cannon with the CF-18.  

The F-15's suitability for Canada's less pristine runways might be an issue.  The F-15 requires 2.3 kilometers of runway.  Its landing gear is built for big USAF bases, not aircraft carriers or frozen public roads like the many of the others.  While the F-15 does have a large air brake and a tail-hook for emergency use, it may require some additional work.  Then again, its increased range may nullify the need for forward operating bases altogether.  Cold weather should not be an issue, as F-15s were based out of Alaska for years.  

Nice to have:  

With impressive range, payload, and other capabilities, the F-15SE should be pretty much good to go "right out of the box" as long as its aerial refueling compatibility issue is addressed.  Despite the design's age, the F-15 is not going anywhere for years to come, with newer versions like the F-15E, F-15K, and F-15SA expecting upgrades well into the 2030 timeframe.  When the US decided that the F-22 would not be approved for foreign sales, it assured that the F-15 would remain as the top-level fighter for many of the world's air forces.  

The one "nice to have" for the RCAF if it selects the F-15SE would be a higher operating budget.  The F-15 is expensive to fly.  It is a big aircraft with two gas-guzzling jet engines.  There is no way around that.  Its cost per flying hour could very well likely exceed even the F-35, an aircraft who's CPFH (cost per flight hour) is increasingly hard to determine.

"Canadianizing" an aircraft could potentially result in some hard choices that would need to be made.  Do we alter the way our fighter fleet currently operates, or do we spend millions modifying an airframe to our needs?

Perhaps we need a "Stompin' Tom" scale to determine just how "Canadian" we want our next fighter to be.  Stompin' Tom being a "10" and Justin Beiber rating in at "1".  

How "Canadian" do we need our next fighter to be?

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Excuses... Excuses...

My house is under the "15:00 Sat/sam." dot.

Sorry for being away for the weekend.  Hurricane "Post tropical storm" Arthur paid my family, neighbors, and I a little visit on Saturday, knocking trees and power lines out of the ground, leaving me and my trusty iMac without power for about three-and-a-half days.  Thankfully, there was no damage to my house other freezer full of groceries.

The weekend went slowly.  Mobile device power was at a premium and wireless internet service was spotty at best.  While I like to envision myself as well prepared for a zombie apocalypse, I am not sure if I could live in a world without hot, fresh coffee every morning.

Even without power and spotty internet access, I managed to read (if not reply or moderate) all of your comments.  Thanks to you all for keeping the conversation rolling and keeping the tone civil and mostly on topic.  (So what if the Super Hornet was brought up in the Silent Eagle vs. Gripen FJFC...  As long as its about fighter jets, it's all good!)

I was also happy to enjoy an e-mail correspondence with none other than Air Power Australia's Peter Goon.  Those of you unfamiliar with the APA's website should do yourselves a favor and go there now.  There is an absolute plethora of information, commentary, and research located over there.  Far more than you will ever see at this meagre blogsite.

Yeah...  Yeah...  Whatever.  An entire weekend goes by and I cannot contribute due to a little hurricane post-tropical storm?  Excuses...  Excuses...

Speaking of excuses...

Still some problems here...
It is looking more and more that the JSF will need to be excused from its upcoming appearance at the RIAT (Royal International Air Tattoo) and the Farnborough Air Show next week.  While the decision is still very much up in the air, the Unitied Kingdom's F-35B likely won't be.

JSF supporters, including those in the US Senate, do not see this as a big deal.  They offer the usual platitudes that the aircraft is still very much in development, and mishaps like this do happen.  But should they really?

"The F-35 is still early in it's development...  This stuff happens!"

The JSF certainly is still in development, but it is far from the early stages.  The first flight of the F-35 (not the X-35 demonstrator)  occurred in December 2006.  It has been in production for more than eight years and over 100 copies have been either built or currently being assembled.  Its ever-increasingly optimistic IOC (initial operational capability) is scheduled for very late next year for the F-35B, 2016 for the F-35A, and 2019 for the F-35C.  With just slightly over a year before the JSF is intended to operational, unknown engine fires should not receiving headlines.  

Things start looking worse when comparing the F-35 with other fighter development cycles.  The F-15 Eagle went from its first flight to being operational within four years.  The F-16 took four years, as did the F/A-18 Hornet.  

Those were older, simpler aircraft, of course.  Let us look at some newer ones.  The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet?  Four years.  Maybe it should not count since it is based on the older F/A-18?  

Eurofighter Typhoon:  The very model of a bad procurement.
Alright, let us look at one of the most protracted, politically charged, and controversial fighters that is not built in the U.S.A, the Eurofighter Typhoon.  The Typhoon is a good example of something that "sounded good at the time".  The European aerospace community, concerned that they were being outdone by big-budget American defense contractors, decided to convince their government to go all-in on a European air-superiority fighter for the year 2000 and beyond.  Hence, the "EF2000".

Britain, Germany, Spain, and Italy all collaborated on EF2000.  What was to be the Eurofighter Typhoon was beset with difficulties right from the start, as development was assigned rather arbitrarily and each nation demanded on a different set of priorities.  Ever try to get 4 people to agree on a restaurant?  Imagine that, only with billions of dollars and thousands of jobs at stake.  

What those involved with the Eurofighter did not envision was a sudden end to the Cold War and sudden questioning of the need for expensive fighter jets when there was no enemy.  One participant, Germany, tried to leave the program altogether (the penalties were too great).  

In the end, the Eurofighter Typhoon has grown to be a respected platform, even though it does still revive criticism for its costs.  It first went operational in 2003, nine years after its first flight.  

The Eurofighter is not a "5th Generation" fighter, however.  

"5th Generation" enough for ya?
There is no arguing that the F-22 is the "5th Generation" archetype.  Like other fighters, its development was beset with the usual technical problems.  Like the Eurofighter Typhoon, the sudden end of the Cold War left its funding (and future) in doubt.  

Despite this, and despite the F-22 Raptor being one of the most expensive aircraft ever made, its time from first flight to operations was eight years.  

With all of the above examples, testing was done on a mere handful of early production models before full-scale production took place.  By contrast, there are now more F-35s than there are CF-18 Hornets in the RCAF.  Current JSF production rates are enough to make Boeing, Eurofighter, and Dassault jealous.  

After eight years and almost 100 airframes, the F-35 is anything but "early in development".  

"Aircraft get grounded all the time!  It's not that big of a deal!"

All aircraft, cutting edge military fighter aircraft in particular, are complicated machines, and not all problems are found in the early stages.  Safety concerns can sometimes lead to the grounding of a particular airframe type, even the iconic F-15 is not immune.

No flying for you today.
So what happens when an military aircraft gets grounded?  Other assets need to be used to fill the gap.  In the case of the F-15 grounding, F-16s took over the duties.  

What happens when the majority of the western world use the same aircraft?

It then becomes a VERY big deal.  Once the USA replaces most of its F-16s, F/A-18s, A-10s, and AV-8s with a predominantly F-35 fleet, an inopportune grounding would leave it with a mere handful of F-22s, F-15Es, and Super Hornets to pick up the slack.  Europe would need to rely on its Typhoons and Rafales, and the RAAF would have a mere smattering of Super Hornets.  Single-fighter type nations like Canada and The Netherlands would have to simply make do without.  

If the JSF were to be grounded in the 2025 to 2035 timeframe, western airpower as we know it today would temporarily not exist.  

What makes this especially unnerving about the F-35 is that the aircraft is jam-packed with all-new technology that it relies on.  The HMD needs to work flawlessly, because there is no HUD.  The DAS system needs to work, because visibility is limited.  Those AMRAAMs should never miss, since it will usually only carry two.  

The JSF is looking more and more like a single-point-of-failure concept that is constructed out of single-point-of-failure technology.  

"The F-35 is still the most technically advanced aircraft.  The others just don't compare!"

Maybe so.  Technical advances do little to woo potential buyers when the aircraft itself cannot get off the ground, however.  RIAT and Farnborough are big, international events with real international buyers' attention.  Canceling an appearance due to an exploding engine will not exactly inspire confidence in the program, nor will it encourage new sales.  

Could the Scorpion steal the Lightning's thunder?
Then again, there is always the chance of a dark horse showing up and getting everybody's attention.  Saab will be there to give updates on its Gripen E, an aircraft it would not mind stealing some of the JSF's sales.

Also present will be the scrappy little Textron Scorpion.  An aircraft intended to be an affordable "good enough" option for air forces with lower budgets.  In contrast to the F-35, which has been in testing for 8 years and still might not make it, the Scorpion's first flight was a mere eight months ago...  Yet has already made the trans-atlantic flight.  

No excuses needed there.  

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Range anxiety.

Artist's rendering of F-35Bs operating from HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Remember that F-35B flyby hoped for the HMS Queen Elizabeth's naming ceremony?  It is not going to happen.  You can thank the JSF's recent history of spontaneous combustion, combined with a 36-hour turnaround time for that.  Appearances at the Royal International Air Tattoo and Farnborough Air Show are still scheduled.  First, the F-35Bs will have to contend with a mandatory inspection before being given U.K. flight clearance.  There is also the matter of tropical storm Arthur possibly mucking things up as well.

With all the anxiety and hand-wringing involved in the JSF's upcoming transatlantic trip, I thought it would be a good time to examine the F-35's range.

"Dang it!"
Range anxiety.  Most of us have felt it.  That feeling you get when you hear a "ding" emanate from your car's dashboard, accompanied by lit up gas pump icon.  This feeling can range from minor annoyance when your driving around town, to sheer panic when you are traveling an unknown highway with no idea where the next gas station might be.  Or maybe you are just broke.  Either way, the worst case scenario is that your car sputters to a halt, and you have to either call roadside assistance or start walking.

In an aircraft, running out of fuel is more than an inconvenience.  Without fuel, even the most advanced jet fighter becomes a simple glider...  And then possibly a crater.

Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to extend an aircraft's fuel capacity and range.

P-51D Mustang drop tank
First used in the Spanish Civil War, the idea of an additional, expendable fuel tank mounted to an aircraft became mainstream in during WWII.  Drop tanks were indeed crucial in enabling the legendary P-51 Mustang to escort bombers deep into enemy territory.  Since then, external fuel tanks have been mounted to fighter aircraft just as often as missiles and bombs.

External fuel tanks can add a great deal of range to a multirole fighter.  This enables it to increase its combat radius or prolong its loiter time.  The extra fuel can also help offset the extra juice needed to carry a large bomb load.  Less glamorously, sometimes extra fuel is needed simply increase the aircraft's ferry range, enabling it to reach a far away station without the need for refueling.

All this extra range comes at a price.  External fuel tanks add a great deal of weight and drag to an aircraft, decreasing the aircraft's performance while increasing that aircraft's fuel demands.  They also take up room on an aircraft's weapons pylons, reducing the amount of missile and bombs able to be carried.  Some external tanks cannot even go supersonic.

CF-18 with three external tanks.
Under some conditions, external tanks are pretty much a necessity.  Given Canada's geographic size and how dispersed its military bases are, external tanks are pretty much mandatory equipment of the CF-18 Hornet.  If you have seen a CF-18 in the wild, there is a pretty good chance it had at least one drop tank.  If not, it was probably a demonstrator at an air show.

The F/A-18, of which the CF-18 is a variant, was never meant to be a long range fighter.  In its natural habitat, the USN, the Hornet was a light "jack of all trades" serving alongside two more specialized designs.  Long range interception duties were meant to be handled by the USN's F-14 Tomcat, and Long range strike missions were carried out by the A-6 Prowler.

Thankfully, all of the potential CF-18 replacements have substantially superior ranges to the Hornet.  No matter which aircraft Canada eventually selects, it is certain that it will fly further than our current fleet without external tanks.

But what if we need to fly further?

For that, external tanks are still an option for all the jets...  With one exception.

All models of the F-35 have a large space just aft of the cockpit.  For the STOVL F-35B, this space is reserved for the lift-fan.  With no need for a lift-fan, the CTOL F-35A and CATOBAR F-35C are able to utilize this space for fuel.  As you can see in the illustration above, this accounts for over 4,000lb of extra fuel for the F-35A compared to the F-35B.  Because of this, literature for the F-35A often touts the fact that the JSF can match the range of legacy fighters like the F-16 and F/A-18 even when the latter have external tanks.

If a clean F-35A can match the range of a tanked up CF-18, then a F-35A with external tanks must be able to go substantially further, right?

About that...

Early F-35 information portrayed the JSF as capable of carrying up to two bowling pin shaped 426-gallon wing tanks.  The F-35's inboard wing pylons are "wet", so it only makes sense that external fuel tanks would be available.  The odd shape was adopted as traditional spindle shaped tanks were found to have "separation issues" (i.e. crashed into the plane when jettisoned).

Wind tunnel testing revealed that changing shape of the tanks did not fix the problem completely however.

As of now, there are no definite plans to add external fuel tanks to the F-35.  There are rumors that Israel may choose to design and build some, but no F-35 customer currently requires them (i.e. nobody wants to pay for their development).

Where the JSF is currently suffering from a lack of external fuel options, the other fighter aircraft available may soon have a wealth of options.

Eurofighter Typhoon
Dassault Rafale
F/A-18 Super Hornet
Already capable of mounting external fuel tanks, other fighter manufacturers have tried to do themselves one better by studying the feasibility of adding conformal fuel tanks (CFTs).  These tanks, looking like blisters on the upper fuselage, enable plenty of extra fuel storage while adding only minimal drag and radar cross section.  They also free up the pylons for weapons storage.  If need be, CFTs can be utilized with traditional drop tanks, enabling even further extended range.

While the Gripen NG has not seen any CFTs yet, they will be possibly looked at in the future.  There is not really a rush however; changes made to the Gripen NG's fuselage and wing enable a 40% greater fuel capacity than the legacy Gripen models.  Saab is also working on larger, 450 gallon tanks to extend the Gripen's range even further.  These developments squash one of the Gripen's main criticisms, its lack of range.

F-15E with unmounted CFTs, formerly known as "FAST packs".
As for the F-15SE, additional fuel storage is made possible by utilizing space in its conformal weapon bays, as well as the traditional CFTs used by the F-15E Strike Eagle.

It could be argued that an aircraft's maximum range with external tanks is not relevant when aerial refueling is available.  In a perfect world, maybe, but aerial refueling brings its own challenges and limitations.  Not the least of which is:  What type?

F-35A refueling via a "flying boom" method.
Much has been said about the F-35A's incompatibility with Canada's current aerial refueling infrastructure, the CC-150(T) Polaris.  The F-35A uses the "flying boom" method of aerial refueling, while Canada's Polaris and CF-18s use a "probe and drogue" method.  Solutions to this seem simple enough:

  1. "Canadianize" the F-35A to utilize probe-and-drogue.
  2. Purchase either the F-35B or F-35C instead (both use probe-and-drogue).
  3. Make do without a sovereign aerial refueling capability until time comes for a CC-150 replacement.  
Unfortunately, each and every one of these options would add both cost and complexity to a fighter program already notoriously over budget and behind schedule.  
  1. A "Canadianized" F-35A (CF-35CA?) would require additional cost and testing.  It would also reduce the commonality benefits a CF-35 would have with the rest of the global F-35 fleet.  
  2. Both the F-35B and F-35C are significantly more expensive than the F-35A.  They also have reduced performance due to higher weight.
  3. Likely the most attractive option, Canada can rely on USAF tanker assets or private firms to provide aerial refueling.  When the time comes, we simply replace our current CC-150 fleet with a tanker capable of supporting boom-style refueling.  This would likely be either the Boeing KC-46 Pegasus or Airbus A330 MRTT.

Airbus A330 MRTT (notice the flying boom and the drogues)
New tankers would increase our current capability.  Both the KC-46 and the A330 MRTT are available with both flying boom and probe and drogue compatibility.  This gives them the flexibility to refuel just about any aircraft in our inventory, current and future.  Currently, Canada lacks the ability to perform aerial refueling for its CC-17 Globemaster IIIs and C-130 Hercules.  Purchasing new tankers would also give Canada another resource to contribute towards coalition actions as well.

Then again, purchasing new aerial tankers could be problematic given Canada's recent defense procurement history.  The KC-46 has a unit cost of almost $300 million, and its selection by the USAF over the A330 MRTT was controversial.

The question that needs to be asked is fairly simple:  How badly does Canada need a "boom" style tanker?

CC-150 refueling pod.
Both the CC-150 Polaris (based on the Airbus A310) and its predecessor, the CC-137 (based on the Boeing 707) were straight-forward conversions of existing commercial airliners.  By comparison, specialized tankers like the KC-46 require a "ground up" build to accommodate the large and heavy boom.

There is an interesting proposal, found here, to incorporate Bombardier's new C-Series passenger jet as the basis for a new MRTT (multi-role tanker transport) as well as the basis for a CP-140 Aurora replacement.  This proposal could be extremely promising, not to mention politically rewarding.

CC-137 and CF-18
Probe and drogue style has its benefits.  It is a smaller and simpler system.  As such, it is much easier to incorporate into existing aircraft.  It allows for "buddy" refueling systems, allowing multirole fighters to become aerial refueling assets themselves.  Refueling pods can be added or removed as needed adding flexibility.

CC-130H(T) ready to refuel CF-18s.
With the addition of probe-and-drogue refueling pods, even Canada's fleet of CC-130 Hercules can become an aerial tanker resource.

So with all the flexibility and simplicity of probe-and-drogue refueling, why do aircraft manufacturers bother with the flying boom system?

B-52 Stratofortress refuels
The single biggest benefit to flying boom style refueling is speed.  Able to pump over 1,000 gallons per minute, the flying boom pretty much a necessity for larger, long range aircraft like heavy transports and strategic bombers.  This is why it is the USAF's preferred method.  With heavyweights like the B-52 and C-5, probe-and-drogue style refueling would take a LOT longer.  Smaller aircraft, like fighters, cannot take advantage of this however, and fuel must be transferred slower.

Would the addition of a boom-style aerial tanker really help the RCAF?  It would, but the difference would be negligible.  While both the CC-17 and CC-130 are compatible, both are already long-range aircraft (5,000kms for the CC-130J, up to 10,000km for the C-17) making in-flight refueling of little use for most flights.  The the CC-17 also makes up a rather small fleet of only 4.

By contrast, fighter aircraft would likely be the biggest users of aerial refueling.  With shorter ranges along with the need to deploy just about anywhere in the world as part of a coalition, the ability to carry lots of fuel and be refueled is imperative.

In a country as big as Canada, with a NATO commitment that sees the majority of our fighter deployments overseas, range is not just a luxury for Canada's next fighter, it is a necessity.  A combat aircraft is of little use if it cannot get to where it needs to be.

With no current provisions for external tanks and an incompatibility with Canada's aerial tankers, one has to wonder if the F-35 is up for the task.

Monday, 30 June 2014


Take close look at the following:

What you are looking at is 4 F-35Bs, 2 KC-10 Extenders, 1 C-17 Globemaster III, and 1 KC-130 Hercules.  All together, you are looking at approximately $1 billion worth of hardware.  (Give or take, but I'm being generous here.)

These aircraft you see above will gather soon for a purpose.  That purpose:  So that the JSF can make its international debut in the United Kingdom.  The F-35B is scheduled to perform a flight demonstration at the Royal International Air Tattoo in Fairford, followed by another aerial demonstration in Farnborough.  There is also hope that the F-35B will perform a flyby during the HMS Queen Elizabeth's naming ceremony in Scotland.

Four fighters, two tankers, one heavy transport, one medium transport and around 80 personnel.  That is what is needed in order for the F-35 to perform two air shows and a fly by.  There may be a static display at the Air Tattoo, but the aircraft won't even be landing in Farnborough.  There will be no vertical take off or landing, nor will there be any aerobatics.
“This won’t be a Typhoon display, we are showing the unique aspects of the airplane, but it is not going to be doing 50 Alphas [angle of attack maneuvers] and [pulling] 9gs, because we don’t have that flight clearance,” Nichols says.
“We are not going to do a vertical landing, because the surfaces that we need to have on the deck to conduct such a landing do not exist at Fairford or at Farnborough. Hovering is possible, however, so the role demo will include some maneuvers that show off the potential of the aircraft, along with some high-speed passes.”
It should be noted that while the AV-8 Harrier was capable of landing just about anywhere a helicopter could, the F-35B's exhaust is so hot that vertical landings require as special landing pad.

Despite this measured approach to the F-35's international debut, tensions are high with the JSF program office right now.  Flights were recently grounded due to an oil leak and flights have been suspended after an engine fire last week.
Orlando Carvalho, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, which manufactures the F-35, says reliable operations will be the most challenging part of the deployment to the U.K. “I know we can do it,” he says, noting that two F-35Bs operated ship-based trials consistently during in 2011 and 2013. But, he acknowledges, keeping the planes flying continuously for both events will be demanding. 
Reliability is “behind where it needs to be” today, Lorraine Martin, F-35 executive vice president, confirms. But as retrofits are infused into new jets on the line—and eventually added to the earlier ones produced—constancy is increasing. The Navy’s small fleet has been far more reliable, she says, because they are among the most recent to roll off the line and include retrofits to faults identified early in the flight-test program.
The pressure behind this transatlantic trip cannot be understated.  There is growing doubt in Europe  over the F-35 program, with Italy possibly cutting its orders further, Spain deciding to keep its AV-8Bs, and growing criticism in Britain.  Being seen at Farnborough, one of the largest aerospace trade shows in the world, was likely considered a "do or die" scenario.  Not only is it important for Lockheed-Martin and the Pentagon, but it is also important for Britain's Defense Secretary Philip Hammond, who would rather not have a photo-op taken with a cardboard cutout.
Hammond is keen to have the aircraft flying at the ceremony to show he is not buying a paper aircraft, and wants to avoid a repetition of events at which other defense ministers posed in front of – or inside – full-scale models when announcing their orders. 
Sound familiar?

Yup...  Never gets old.
Four fighters, two tankers, one heavy transport, one medium transport, and 80 personnel.  Those are the resources required for the F-35 to perform at two air shows and maybe a flyby.  These fighters are not going to some remote part of the world, either.  For their stay in the United Kingdom, the F-35Bs will be stationed out of RAF Fairford, an air force base capable of housing the B-2 bomber.  Not exactly a Forward Operating Location.

Just to put a finer point to this, pay attention to the aircraft below:

For those of you that lost count while scrolling down, that is 10 Saab JAS-39 Gripens and followed by a single C-130 Hercules.  All the equipment and spares needed to support those 10 Gripens for a 4-week expeditionary deployment can be stored in that single Herc...  With room to spare.

Four F-35s, 2 KC-10s, 1 C-17, 1 C-130...  For a couple of air shows out of a major air base.

Ten Gripens and a C-130...  For a 4-week deployment.

Just let that sink in.