Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Is the F-35 right for Canada?

An F-35 mock-up in Canadian colors.
We will disregard the rather controversial Canadian purchase of the F-35.  As with any big budget project, there are plenty of opportunities for partisan finger-pointing and bickering of petty details.  What really matters is:  Does the F-35 meet Canada's needs?  Is it truly right aircraft for Canada?  Is it the best equipment for our men and women in uniform?  Does it represent value to the overburdened Canadian taxpayer?

The answer, to all these questions, to put it simply is "No."

Built and designed by Canada, for Canada, the Avro Arrow.

As stated in a previous post, Canada needs a fighter to display the "Four Fs".

  • Fast.  For interception duties.
  • Fierce.  Able to detect and engage any potential target.
  • Flexible.  For deployment, within Canada and abroad.
  • Frugal.  Canadian taxpayers demand value for their money.

Is the F-35 Fast?  

Not by jet fighter standards.  With maximum speed of mach 1.6, the F-35 is slower than the Canada's current CF-18 (mach 1.8), which itself was not as fast as its contemporaries, the F-16 (mach 2), F-15 (mach 2.5), and F-14 (mach 2.3).  The F-35 is also slower than potential adversaries based on the Russian Fulcrum (Mach 2.25) and Flanker (mach 2.35) designs, or the Chinese J-10 (mach 2.2).

The Chengdu J-10, capable of mach 2.2.
Top speed isn't everything of course.  What good is a blistering fast top speed if it can only be maintained for a short period before running out of fuel?  For long distance intercepts, a fast cruising speed is much more useful than supersonic dash.  Here again, the F-35 falls short.  A recent (and often touted as a "fifth generation") development in fighter aircraft is the ability to achieve supersonic speeds without the need of afterburner.  As engine technology improves, the number of fighters able to do this increases.  Sadly, the F-35 was never intended to achieve supercruise, despite the fact that many 4.5th generation do.

The Su-35, capable of supercruise, super-maneuver, and equipped with cutting edge avionics.
Without the benefit of supercruise, the F-35 may have issues intercepting invading threats before it is too late.  Hitting the afterburner will severely shorten its range, while making it easier to detect to enemy infrared.  Without a high top-speed dash, the F-35 may have troubles engaging or disengaging faster enemy fighters.  If the F-35 pilot gets in trouble, turning tail and running simply won't be much of an option.

Is It Fierce?

Sort of.

With a AESA radar, 360 degree infrared sensor, data-link capability, and massive computing power, the F-35 has one of the best sensor suites available on a jet fighter.  It is highly unlikely that enemy aircraft will get the jump on the F-35 pilot.  The F-35 is not alone in this department however, as many other fighters, like the Super Hornet, Typhoon, and Flanker, can be equipped with similar setups.

The F-35's most hyped feature, of course, is its stealth.  Stealth promises to allow the F-35 to engage enemy forces before even showing up on their screens.  The F-35 pilot then merely fires missiles or drops bombs from a safe distance, then casually flies away without incident.  On paper, anyway.

Wreckage of a F-117 stealth fighter shot down by a 60s era missile over Bosnia.
The truth is, stealth is fallible.  It requires meticulous care of the aircraft's outer skin, it only works against certain radar wavelengths, and the simple act of maneuvering can change render the aircraft visible.  It also does not render the aircraft undetectable by other means, such as infrared or the "mark I eyeball".    

Stealth also requires the internal storage of any weapons, which further limits the F-35's ferocity.  It can only carry four missiles.  Or, two missiles and two bombs while on a ground attack mission.  The F-35 can carry more munitions on optional wing pylons, but doing so compromises it's stealth to the point that it is no longer a "stealth fighter".

Two missiles, two bombs, internal weapon storage of an F-35.
Thankfully, Canada's version of the F-35, the F-35A, will also carry an additional weapon in the form of a 25mm rapid fire cannon.  Of course, if the F-35 is close enough that the cannon is a factor, something has probably gone incredibly wrong.

Graphic showing the Sukhoi Su-35's fourteen (count 'em) missile hardpoints.
Compare the F-35's four internally mounted weapons to the potential enemy, a Russian made Su-35.  Capable of mounting of total of fourteen air-to-air missiles, the Su-35 has firepower to spare.  The Su-35 pilot has the luxury of firing volleys of missiles, mixing radar guided and infrared guided tracking systems.

Stealth or firepower, but not both.  Graphic showing the F-35s external weapon stores.
To be fair, the F-35 does have the potential of storing up to ten munitions using internal and external pylons, but again, doing so removes the F-35's stealth advantage.  Even fully loaded, the F-35 cannot match the firepower of jets like the Su-35.

Is It Flexible?

Before delivery, Canada's F-35As will require some changes to current design.  Not engineered for landing on short, icy, or less than optimum runways; the Canadian F-35 will need to be outfitted with a drag chute to reduce stopping distance.  This is nothing new, similar systems were needed for older jet fighters like the CF-101 Voodoo and CF-104.  The CF-18, since it was designed to land on a carrier deck, needed no such system.

Custom equipment:  Refueling probe and a drag chute.
Canadian F-35As will also require a "probe-and-drogue" type mid-air refueling system, since Canada uses that system instead of the USAF's "boom" type.  [Update:  The recently released KPMG report on Canada's F-35 procurement would instead rely on outsourcing air-to-air refuelling, relying on USAF and private tanker assets to keep the jets in the air.]

Previous stealth fighter designs have been notoriously maintenance dependent.  The F-117's stealth coating wasn't supposed to get wet, the B-2 required storage in special, climate-controlled hangers between flights.  The F-22 is said to require much less intensive measures, but still requires time consuming inspection of its outer skin between flights.  Any imperfection requires a special glue to repair that takes up to a day to dry.  Marketing for the F-35 promises that it will require even less maintenance than the F-22, but it would be naive to believe that an F-35 would have better combat readiness than a simpler, Gen 4.5 design.  During a high speed test, an F-35 had significant issues with it radar absorbent skin peeling off.  How the F-35 will fare in Canada's cold north has yet to be seen, as the F-35 has yet to undergo cold weather testing.

Any Canadian fighter better get used to the snow.
Remember those internal weapons bays needed for stealth?  They impose a rather stiff penalty when in comes to mounting potential future ordinance.  Designed around the current AMRAAM medium range missile and 2000lb JDAM guided bomb, those weapon bays only have so much space inside.  Weapons like the anti-ship Harpoon missile (currently carried by the CF-18), Storm Shadow cruise missile, and formidable Meteor air-to-air missile simply don't fit inside.  These would have to be externally mounted.

It is important to note that the F-35's Pratt & WhitneyF135 engine is still considered under development.  Developed from the F-22's F119 engine, the F135 is still an unknown as far as real world reliability is concerned.  There are no plans to add thrust vectoring or supercruise at this time. 

Being that the F-35 program is the largest military acquisition program in history, training, spare parts and support would undoubtedly be plentiful.  This would, of course, be at the convenience of the F-35's largest backer, the U.S.A.  As currently planned, all Canadian F-35s will be built in America.  Canadian F-35 pilots will receive their training in America, by Americans.  So much for sovereignty.

Is it frugal?

The numbers for the F-35 acquisition are more controversial than anything else.  Simply put, we don't know how much the F-35 program is going to cost.  Numbers ranging from $9 billion to $25 billion for 65 fighters have been stated, with nobody really getting a straight answer as to the real "sticker price".

When it comes down to it, the F-35 is still a work in progress.  Since it is still being developed, there is no way to know exactly what the final price tag will be.  The JSF project driving force was to keep costs down, but, as with any military procurement process, specifications are changed, deadlines are missed, and budgets are blown.  As it stands now, the F-35 program as a whole is estimated to be 10 years behind schedule and a half-a-trillion dollars over budget.  Canada has already spent hundreds of millions towards the project, not in exchange for jets, but simply for the opportunity of allowing Canadian firms to bid on manufacturing contracts involved with the program.

During the 2011 Federal election, it was stated that the estimated cost for each Canadian F-35 would be about $75 million.  By American estimates, their cost for an F-35A between $92 million and $135 million.  It is unlikely that Canada would receive the F-35 at such a discount.  The intended strategy would be to purchase the F-35s during "peak production" when economies of scale would be the most beneficial.  The problem is however, as F-35 development lags, so does the "peak production" timeframe, which is currently thought to be in the year 2019-2020, when Canada's CF-18s will be dangerously close to their expiration date.  

As the F-35 continues to experience development delays, many other countries involved in its procurement, including the U.S. and Great Britain, have decided to delay or reduce its orders.  This has the effect of increasing costs further.  Canada may soon have no other choice but to reconsider its position on the F-35.  It will have to choose either to buy the F-35s potentially unfinished and at a much higher cost, delay procurement forcing it to make do with antiquated CF-18s (like the similar geriatric Sea Kings), or start considering other fighter designs.


Given the F-35's lackluster specs...  Maybe its time to consider something different?

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