Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Should Canada adopt a mixed force?

Despite the fact that most modern fighters are marketed as "multirole", the realities of physics and economics assures that there is no such thing a fighter that can fulfil every role perfectly.  Even the ridiculously expensive F-22 has its weaknesses, both in the ground attack role and in WVR combat. It's abilities as a long range BVR fighter more than make up for this however.

F-35 and F-22.
As controversial as the F-35 has been, it still promises to be a rather good ground attack aircraft. It's largest customer, the USAF, has no intention on fielding it by itself however. It will be supported by the F-22 for air-superiority and the F-15E (possibly followed by the next generation bomber) in the "deep strike" role. 

The USN doesn't plan on operating the F-35 by itself either.  The F-35C will share carrier deck with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18 Growler. In the future, the Super Hornet will be replaced by the F/A-XX.

The USN and RAAF's future fighters.

Australia's RAAF will be fielding a similar force as the USN, combining F-35As with Super Hornets and Growlers. 
Japanese F-15J

The pattern continues with many of the F-35's potential customers. Both Britain and Italy will combine F-35s with Eurofighter Typhoons. Japan, Singapore, Isreal and others will continue to operate F-15s. 

Looking at the F-35's prospective buyers list, services that will fly the F-35 exclusively are certainly the minority.  Oddly enough, these are the countries (Denmark, The Netherlands, and Canada) that seem most likely to "reset" their F-35 purchase to more closely study alternatives. 

So why not go with a mixed force of two or more type of jets?  Economics is the simplest answer. Multiple platforms require multiple supply lines, different support infrastructures, and additional training requirements.  Canadian Member of Parliament Laurie Hawn has stated:  "When we bought the F-18, we looked at the mixed fleet option and discovered that we could buy more of the most expensive aircraft cheaper than we could buy a mixed fleet made up of the two least expensive aircraft. The experts managing our next-generation fighter project did a similar study and came to a similar conclusion."

These economic concerns only go so far however.  Otherwise, the USAF would likely be flying an all F-22 fleet. Many air forces have adopted a "high-low" procurement strategy, purchasing a smaller amount of dominant fighters (like the F-22 and F-15) with a larger amount of cheaper "work horse" fighters (like the F-16) for less demanding duties. 
Mixing fighter types has other advantages. In some cases, one fighter may simply be more adept at a particular role. This is the case with the USAF's combination of F-22 and F-35A. The F-22 will be tasked with providing air superiority, while the F-35 provides a ground attack role. There is a small amount of overlap here, as the F-22 does have a limited ground attack ability and the F-35 will be capable of an air-to-air role. 

Sometimes, a mixed force isn't so much a luxury as it is a necessity. Australia's RAAF required a "interim fighter" to fill a gap left by the retirement of the F-111. Delays in the F-35 led Canberra to purchase the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet to help strengthen its force until the F-35 is delivered, at which point the two fighters will work alongside each other. 

If Canada did decide to adopt a two fighter force, what would be the best option?  It could be easy to follow Australia's lead, and go with a mix of Super Hornets and F-35s.  Those two jets are fairly similar in their design focus however, concentrating on the ground attack role.  The case could also be made for a mixed Gripen and Super Hornet fleet, as both jets use basically the same engine and promise lower costs to help make up for the additional difficulties of of fielding two different fighters.  The Rhino helps make up for the Gripen's small size limitations and the possibility of a Canadian Growler only sweetens the deal.

Could a mixed force work for Canada?

Regular readers may be surprised by this, but my preference would be for a mixed Gripen E/F and F-35 fleet. Actual numbers should favour the Gripen, say in a 2:1 or even 3:1 ratio.  The Gripen could provide the majority of the work, tasked with air defence, light strike, and possibly a training element. Meanwhile, the more expensive to operate F-35 could be tasked with heavy strike (ie. "bomb truck") missions or for operations with a particularly high threat level.  The weapon systems are more or less compatible, with both models compatible with AMRAAMs, Sidewinders, JDAMs, etc.  Best of all, both jets are likely to be continually upgraded for the next 20-30 years.

Politically, a combined force of F-35s and Gripens may prove to be an attractive choice. The Canadian government would score points with its efforts to save money, while at the same time continuing to support the JSF program and reaping the promised benefits of that program.  It could also be seen as "hedging its bets" and reducing the amount of damage done by delays or complications in either program, if any.  The idea certainly deserves consideration, and an in depth cost analysis may be in order to see if a mixed F-35/Gripen fleet would be financially worth it. 

Even Saab Vice-President Antony Ogilvy suggested that a mixed Gripen/F-35 fleet may be the answer when he spoke to the House of Commons in 2010, before the F-35 was selected (and then reset).
We also recognize that Canada is very closely involved as an export customer in the JSF program. Now, we obviously wish to enter a full and open competition to meet 100% of the requirement for the future Canadian air force, i.e., for all 65 aircraft. Should this prove too complex, we would offer for consideration a fighter fleet of JSF and Gripen, as an option. I can assure all those who balk at this proposal that Gripen has an extremely low support footprint, which would require minimal change to existing Hornet facilities. Further, the Gripen can integrate fully with the F-35.
Of course, adapting a mixed fleet with F-35s only makes sense if its financially feasible. Even then, a F-35 purchase should only occur when (and if) the bugs are worked out and the JSF has matured into a viable platform. In the meantime, the F/A-XX program should be closely watched to ensure it wouldn't be a more suitable solution.   

Keep in mind, the adaptation of two different fighter platforms is unlikely, unless an "interim" solution is required. Even if this is the case, there is a good chance that the interim solution may become the one, and only Canadian fighter for the near future.  Ultimately, I believe that the best solution is to adopt the Gripen E/F, supported by a stealthy UCAV like the Predator C Avenger.  Canada is in the process of procuring a UAV for ISR purposes anyway, so why not a multi-role UAV to go along with a multi-role fighter?

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