Saturday, 18 May 2013

The F-35 will be a great strike fighter... But that's not what Canada needs.

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


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.


  1. The points you raise are perfectly valid for an effectively island nations like Canada. Your only neighbour is not going to attack you, and if they do they will have numerical superiority anyway. To have the predominant need for a strike fighter, you would have to have unfriendly neighbours, ie Israel, South Korea, Taiwan etc. That is not the case for Canada or Australia for that matter. Though some European countries may face this problem.

    Though for close air support the F35 is too fast, not agile enough and the endurance sucks. Though Canada will never need this role on home soil unless air superiority is compromised.

    Air superiority is the key for large isolated countries like Canada and Australia. The size of the land mass dictates that larger numbers of very good aircraft are needed, not smaller numbers of perfect aircraft. After all, a plane can only be in one place at one time. The lack of reliability reduces their numbers as does the fatigue of the pilots. So realistically the F35 could only field 25% of the force at any one time for a protracted 2-5 day air battle. For the numbers that Canada is looking at this means 16 aircraft in the air. With 2 AMRAAMs and a Kill Probability (Pk) of 0.5 (at best), one F35 can bring down one opposing aircraft. This means and invading force of 20 fighters could threaten Canada, the F35 on the ground could easily be wiped out by cruise missiles.

    This is not a very comforting thought.

    1. lol, that could be a problem indeed!

      But I'm also worrying for UK and Italy configuration. Typhoon and F-35 are two troubled program.

      Theoretically a Typhoon-F35 mix seems the closest thing to the F22-F35 mix in US. But Italy and UK face shrinking defense budgets and maintaining two so much high-end fighters could be difficult.

      In an industrial point of view this acquisition could kill the introduction of air-to-ground capabilities to Typhoon : with a new strike fighter in inventory, Italy and UK could choose to not fund air-to-ground upgrades on the Typhoon, leaving Germany and Spain (and Saudi Arabia?) alone to pay.

    2. "The size of the land mass dictates that larger numbers of very good aircraft are needed, not smaller numbers of perfect aircraft. After all, a plane can only be in one place at one time."

      Good point. I wonder how a comparison of aircraft would look in a realistic war scenario. When spare parts and fuel can quickly become dire and airplanes are needed in the air around the clock. Factors like how long it takes to change the engine becomes very important as aircraft are limited and every one is sorely needed in a real war. It's a radically different scenario than f.e. a UN intervention in foreign territory.

      Aircraft availability is key. How many planes an airforce can have in the air has as much to do with maintenance as how many units the airforce has. Changing the engine in an F-16 takes 10 hours. Changing the engine in a Gripen takes 1 hour. So the F-16 fleet needs more planes to be able to keep the same number in the air as the Gripen fleet.

      Shallow example, I know, but only trying to illustrate a point: if you have an aircraft that requires a lot of hours on the ground you need a higher quantity to make up for it. But there aren't many F-22's out there and most countries seem to be cutting their F-35 numbers. This does not add up at all.

      The economy of European air defense is worrying, as Silver Dart points out. Typhoon and F-35 are expensive stuff. They should just skip the F-35 and put all the funds towards the Typhoon and something cheaper and smaller for the British carriers - like the Sea Gripen.

      That would never ever happen though. I am unfamiliar with Canadian politics but Canada jumping the F-35 seems extremely unlikely. The Danes are quite candid with that all they care about is being a complying NATO member and being able to count on the assistance of the mighty US military. This means they would buy the plane even if it had propellers and a machine gun.

      On the other hand.. The Canadian Army did buy the Swedish CV90 instead of the inferior but US made Bradley. So you never know.


      Check out the Norwegians pitting the Bradley against the CV90 at 1:15 in this vid.

    3. I agree, some NATO countries seem more concerned about U.S mood about them than true quality of the purchased hardware...

      In the UK case, I think after several questionable choices, they're now trapped:
      - on one side, a nearly 'pure interceptor' with little air-to-ground capabilities which needs upgrade to replace some of the Tornado tasks in the future;
      - on the other side, a navy which insists on STOVL carrier. But there is only one STOVL aircraft on the market: F35B.

      At a time, a switch to F35C was considered, but it was too late: redesign needed for the aircraft carrier already under construction was considered too high (£1 billion was quoted in newspaper...). Even if a STOBAR or CATOBAR carrier could have been built, I think there were no easy solution : between yet non-navalized fighter (Gripen or Typhoon), a not very less complex Rafale and finally Super Hornet, I think only the latter could have been a ‘cheap’ solution.
      With the cost of F35 and Typhoon program, many other capabilities will suffer, and I’m a bit pessimistic about the evolution of British armed forces in the future.

      About Canada, despite the selection of non-american hardware in some cases, I remain doubtful about an emblematic weapon such as combat aircraft. I could be wrong, but the value of the deal and the USA weight in Canada seems just too much. Even for a partly-American Gripen…

    4. As you write their navy solution is problematic. It is difficult to understand the insistence on the F-35B as it has much inferior range compared to the F-35C. Maintenance of the STOVL-fan and all the related parts is expensive.

      I can't recall the numbers, but the Gripen landing gear is already robust enough to withstand a carrier landing meaning that a complete restructuring would not be required.

      The real costs are in the life cycle costs and the F-35 B makes the Rafale look incredibly economic in this regard.

      Do you know of any good blog, like this one, where one can follow the developments of the British purchase?

    5. If anything, I think the F-35B is the version that makes the most sense. As troubled as it is, there is simply nothing else like it on the market, so to speak. The Harrier is beyond past its prime, and the STOVL concept makes a certain amount of sense for operations off of small carriers, like amphibious assault vessels.

      As far as the UK is concerned, I do think the decision to go with STOVL only when they clearly had a carrier big enough for the carrier version was misguided. If worse came to worse, they could always ditch the F-35 for the Super Hornet, Rafale, or Sea Gripen. Now they are stuck with the only STOVL on the market.

    6. Oh yeah! I was maybe too quick. So, are you ready for a piece of history?

      STOVL fighter aircrafts: after some experiments in late WW2, STOVL capability became critical with more recent events. For example, when Israel performs strikes against air bases of Arab countries, with the instant prize of air superiority. NATO countries realized that similar strategy used by USSR could let their air forces totally powerless. A NATO contest was launched and several European countries answered. For example, Dassault Aviation proposed a Mirage variant, but that wasn’t the best. When all other contenders chose more or less vertical propulsion based on rockets, Harrier was the only one using deviation of the powerplant air flow. This solution proved to be far superior and British design won the contest.

      But budget pressure, especially in UK, prevents funding of the whole program, whose aim was induction of an air superiority fighter. Then navies were involved and saved the development of a more affordable fighter for amphibious assault vessels. Harrier was born. Notable customers were UK, US Marines Corps, Italy and Spain (to be verified…).

      I think you already know most of the story, but it explains a lot. UK was pioneer in STOVL aircrafts and probably developed many tactics around STOVL capability. F35B preference is then a matter of continuity, not for F35 itself but for STOVL in a general way. In addition, this approach was linked to the use of small carriers. However, this compatibility wasn’t a reason this time: UK had, in my opinion, the huge opportunity to make a U-Turn because of coincident timing between F35 and new carrier. But they made the choice to not have the choice. That’s why I said they’re now trapped. On the other hand, Rolls-Royce is responsible of most of the STOVL fan components… Other F35B customers are only USMC and Italy (Harrier operators, same situation!), which means that UK order is significant for the Rolls-Royce workshare in the program!

      So, F35B is finally the Harrier successor for navies trapped in STOVL concept. Interestingly, other countries didn’t even field STOVL fighters but imagined their own solution to fight the initial problem. Sweden is pretty popular on this blog, so take it as an example: short take-off and landing aircraft, able to take-off from a runway. France came later on this point with Rafale, thanks to canards and “navy DNA”.

      Unfortunately, I gathered this information from UK newspaper websites, documentaries and aerospace magazines. I don’t know of any good website, like this one, focusing on the British purchase.

      I know the claims about Sea Gripen and even Sea Typhoon. The fact is, I may be wrong, I don’t have any example of an aircraft which evolved to become a naval aircraft in occident. Russia did that, but with redesign and significant mass and performance penalties. Gripen landing gear could withstand a carrier landing? Maybe. I will not contest Saab claim but… take a look at Rafale M and Rafale C front landing gear: not the same… at all! Additionally, that’s not only about airframe resistance. An aircraft carrier is a totally new environment for all of the plane systems: electromagnetic compatibility, vibration resistance, (huge) landing stress, corrosion resistance, etc. All equipments (external and internal) should be cleared for carrier operations. For example, why US Navy and USAF don’t use the same laser designation pod? Because the Sniper pod (Lockheed) used by USAF isn’t cleared for carrier operations, so USN use instead the Litening one (by an Israeli company with, if I remember well, Northrop Grumman “cooperation”).

      Sorry for the long post, I hope that was not too boring…

    7. Not at all!

      The BAE/McDonnell Douglas entry for the JSF program washed out of the program before prototype stage. Too bad, if you ask me.

      I know Russia played around with the STOVL concept for a while, with the Yak-38 (Forger) and Yak-141 (Freestyle). In fact, Yakovlev actually helped in the X-35B's development.

      I've always liked the Swedish aircraft design philosophy of being able to operate from a stretch of public road. This not only makes airbases less vital, but it has the added benefit of making foreign deployments less of a headache.

    8. Thanks for interesting text on STOVL history.

      Swedish fighters are designed to withstand rough landings on road bases. They are STOL aircraft. Realising the Sea Gripen is far easier and cheaper than to do the same with f. e. the F-16 or the Typhoon.
      Both Viggen and Gripen have strengthened landing gears withstand falling speeds of circa 5 meters per second. That is theoretically enough to do a carrier landing but you want some headroom to allow for other factors, like the ship simultaneously rising upwards on a wave, hence the Sea Gripen would handle 6,5 m/s falling speed. The Gripen is also reinforced to allow for the somewhat uncommon break on the front wheel.
      The origin of the Gripen engine was designed to launch from carriers from the start, the F-18, so no problems there. The Gripen has been tested to cope a lot of water:

      Finally, for those interested in road bases, enjoy this wonderful information film from 1980. It's called "A Swedish Road". It's not a commercial but an information film, probably aired on the national television (there was no other television in the 80's). It's about the Flygvapnet in general and the title refers to how the air force is part of the everyday life. Made during the cold war, the speaker says "a Swedish road - for people to travel on, for airplanes to land on" and this illustrates the concept of the film.

      In it we see the mighty Viggen in it's camouflage scheme to help hide it while on the ground on a road base. Note the unusual Viggen landing gear. We see Swedish conscripts talking about the abstractness of war, a speaker notes that these younglings had never been close to an airplane a couple of months before and proudly says that now they can arm and refuel the Viggen out in the bush, in short time, with the help of one technician. We also see a hidden radar station emerge from the ground - all part of the strategy of Swedens tactics at the time: a state defense inspired by guerilla warfare, to have units and command chains that could all work independently and make life very sour for a much larger occupying force. A guerilla army often has small means and needs to fight "smart". Just like a lot of government funds these days.

    9. Yeah, I agree realising Sea Gripen is easier than Sea Typhoon (probably the best JOKE ever :D) or another medium to heavy aircraft.

      All I'm saying is that it comes with a cost : Saab could not have over-designed the Gripen from the beginning to prepare the Sea Gripen because Sweden did not care for these margins and price would have been higher because of useless anticipation!

      Interesting values about Gripen falling speed. I haven't this information about Rafale or another fighter...
      And thanks for videos, I was thinking links weren't allowed in comments...

      Just in case, the video about STOVL from which I learned history of STOVL aircrafts, unfortunately in french :

  2. Your argument about how the Gripen would be better for Canada given the evidence you gave isn't actually very compelling.

    1. Care to elaborate?

      I'm questioning why Canada needs a fighter focused more on ground attack during foreign incursions, instead of airspace defense.