Friday, 21 December 2012

A Canadian Gripen, supported by UAVs and cruise missiles: Doing more for less.

A Gripen standing over two UAV prototypes.
According to the recently released KPMG report, a Canadian operated F-35A would have to make do by getting its air-to-air refuelling provided by either an allied or private aerial tanker as there are no plans to add a probe-and-drogue system as used by Canada's current fleet of CF-18s and CC-150 Polaris aerial tankers.  Also, in order to keep the program within budget, the ammunition budget for a RCAF F-35 program have been cut to $52 million, down from $270 million.  Basically, we wouldn't be able to keep them in the air without someone else's (The USAF) support, and we can't afford to actually arm them.  As stereotypically Canadian it would be to fly an expensive plane into the air, ask our neighbour if we can borrow some gas, and then politely ask an invader to exit our airspace; from a defence standpoint it kind of needs work.

The Gripen fuels via a "probe-and-drogue" as currently used in Canada.
How about the Saab Gripen?  First of all, it refuels from a "probe-and-drogue" system just fine.  Although the older Sweden only A and B models had no inflight refuelling, the newer C and D models along with the "Next Generation" E and F models use the system.  They should have no problems refuelling mid-air from a RCAF CC-150 Polaris or even a CC-130 Hercules equipped with refuelling pods.  Just like the current CF-18 currently does.

Canada could use its many "Hercs" as aerial tankers.
As stated previously in this blog, the Gripen would be the among the cheapest to procure and the cheapest to operate among Canada's possible choices for a new multi-role fighter.  So...  What do we do with all the money left over?  Let's assume for the moment that the money would remain in the RCAF budget rather than being used for other projects.  I would like to suggest that money be used in three ways:

  1. Training.  Give our military personal the instruction and practice required to be the very best.  Keeping a well staffed, well trained roster is of the utmost importance.
  2. Better weapons.  Arm the RCAF Gripen with cutting edge missiles that offer the greatest accuracy and range.
  3. UAVs.  Purchase UAVs to supplement RCAF fleet.

The training part is a self-explanatory.  Part of the reason for America's air dominance over Iraq, Vietnam, and Korea was simply due to its pilots being better trained than their enemy.  Canada has a proud history of fine pilots starting with Billy Bishop and Wilfred "Wop" May.  Let's keep that tradition going.

The MBDA Meteor currently being tested on the Gripen.

I have already mentioned the MBDA Meteor on this blog.  Currently finishing development, it promises to be a leap forward compared to the AIM-120 AMRAAM currently used on the CF-18 and F-35.  What makes the Meteor different is its use of a ramjet rather than a conventional rocket motor.  This allows it to alter its speed giving it better accuracy and range.  It uses a 2-way data link between it and its launching fighter to locate its target.  The Meteor will then alter its speed so that it ideally runs out of fuel just as it it hits its target.  Older missiles such as the AMRAAM use a rocket motor that propels them at fixed speed.  Any manoeuvres made cause it to lose energy and accuracy.  Once the rocket fuel is burned out, the missile quickly slows and becomes ineffective.

The Meteor was originally planned for the F-35, but in its current form, can't fit in the F-35's weapon bay.  A modified version is being considered, but so far there are no concrete plans.

But what about ground targets?  The F-35's weapon bay seems better suited for either short-range Brimstone missiles or precision guided bombs.  These require the fighter to get deep into enemy territory to neutralize its intended target, violating enemy airspace and slipping through defences.  Wouldn't it be easier just to shoot from a safe distance?  Sounds like a job for a Stand-off munition, also known as a Air Launched Cruise Missile, or ALCM.

The Gripen armed with test versions of the Taurus KEPD 350 cruise missile.
Canada doesn't currently field any form of cruise missile.  Possibly due to budget reasons, possibly due to their reputation as possible nuclear weapons.  Costing up to and over a million dollars a piece, they seem like a rather expensive proposition.  Indeed, guided bombs are quite cheap in comparison.  One must ask however, in a high threat scenario, is it better to use up a $1 million dollar cruise missile, or risk a $100 million dollar jet (and the pilot inside) to neutralize a well defended target?  An ALCM equipped Gripen could launch its payload from 200, 300, even 500km away depending on the missile, taking out priority targets or softening defences enough other fighters to fly in with shorter range weapons.

Canada wouldn't need to seriously break the bank to field ALCMs.  Spain ordered a total of 43 Taurus KEPD 350 ALCM at a cost of €60 million, or roughly $80 million, about the original estimated cost of a single F-35.  With a range of 500km, missiles like these could really keep our fighters a safe distance from enemy defences, performing a role of "aerial sniper".

Cruise missiles are basically a form of UAV, a "kamikaze" UAV, but a UAV nonetheless.  So let's expand on this.

Canada is a big country with lots of wide, open space to monitor.  In order to maintain its sovereignty, Canada must maintain some sort of presence and keep a watchful eye over its land.  Flying high over miles of frozen tundra doesn't seem like best use of an expensive fighter aircraft does it?  Instead, let's give that job to a UAV.
The proposed "Polar Hawk" UAV.
 Northrop Grumman has proposed a variant of its RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV, dubbed the "Polar Hawk" to Canada as a HALE (High Altitude, Long Endurance) surveillance aircraft, capable of monitoring large areas efficiently.  Oddly enough, the U.S. has recently cancelled orders for the Global Hawk, as the U-2 spyplane is actually cheaper to operate.  This may lead to some bargain pricing on the Polar Hawk as Northrop tries to recover costs.  The U-2, a manned, single engined relic dating back from Cuban Missile Crisis, is certainly NOT suited for arctic patrols.

An marine patrol variant of the Global Hawk, the MQ-4C Triton.
Along with the Polar Hawk, Canada would be wise to also field the MQ-4C Triton, another variant of the Global Hawk built for maritime patrol.  The common platform would help offset some of the costs, which would be considerable at approximately $35 million per unit.  Of course, $35 million is a relative bargain compared to a jet fighter that would cost nearly $100 million.  It is an even bigger bargain compared to the aging CP-140 Aurora's logical successor, the P-8 Poseidon at nearly $200 million per copy.  

A hypothetical replacement for the CP-140 Aurora, the "Argus II".

NOTE:  So far, little attention has been paid to the CP-140 Aurora and its need for a replacement sooner rather than later.  Although the Boeing P-8 Poseidon is the most likely choice, the Canadian American Strategic Review website, has some rather interesting Canadian made proposals one based on the Bombardier Global Express, and another "Argus II" based on the Bombardier C-Series passenger jet.  Both of these are fascinating proposals that I would support.  (I'm not a huge fan of their proposal to scrap the F-35 purchase in favour of buying F-18G "Growlers" however.)

The future of stealthy strike aircraft, the X-47B UCAV.
In the near future, UAVs will continue to become armed UCAVs.  Although they are not yet, and may never fully replace manned aircraft, they are now part of the airpower landscape.  Canada needs to keep its options open.  UCAV's promise to be cheaper, more stealthy, and have a much quicker development cycle, bringing cutting edge technology to the battlefield sooner.  They are also a much more logical choice to send into high risk areas.  Canada had better leave some money in the coffers to procure UCAVs in the future, or risk getting left behind.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent research, Doug. More compelling arguments to get out of this F-35 mess.