Thursday, 9 January 2014

Why Canada should adopt a mixed fighter fleet.

Mixing it up.  RAF Tornado and Typhoon.
Canada's only jet fighter at the moment is the Boeing (formerly McDonnell Douglas) CF-188 "Hornet".  As far as jet fighters go, the CF-18 is pretty versatile, its equally adapt at both air-superiority missions and ground attack.  While it isn't the best in any one category, it can handle most duties given to it.

Canada hasn't always used a "one size fits all" fighter strategy, however.  In fact, it's a relatively new development.

Up until 1995, the CF-18 flew alongside the venerable CF-116 (CF-5) Freedom Fighter.  The CF-5 was smaller, cheaper and more economical.  The CF-5 was far from an advanced fighter, however.  It's original raison d'ĂȘtre was as a cheap, almost disposable fighter for third world countries.  With a crude radar, small payload, and limited capability, many argued that the CF-5 had no place in the RCAF in the first place.  The CF-5 was able to fulfill a small role as a light attack platform.  It also served as a lead-in trainer for the more complex CF-18 as well as serving as an "aggressor" role in dissimilar combat training.

Canada's past:  The CF-101 Voodoo and CF-104 Starfighter.
Before the days of the CF-18, the RCAF flew the CF-5, the CF-101 Voodoo, and the CF-104 Starfighter.  Not exactly the pinnacle of fighter aircraft technology at the time, but the Voodoo and Starfighter had defined roles.  Interception for the Voodoo, ground strike for the F-104 (despite the F-104 being a high-altitude interceptor by design).

Should Canada go back to a mixed fighter fleet?  Absolutely.



The USAF's future "high-low mix".  The F-35 and F-22.
The USA has long employed a "high-low mix" fighter strategy.  The best example can be illustrated from the 80s, when both the USAF and the USN flew a mixture of high end air-superiority fighters (F-15 and F-14) while also flying a smaller, cheaper, "workhorse" fighter (F-16 and F-18).  In the future, this trend will continue, with the USAF flying the F-22 and F-35.  The USN on the other hand, will fly the F-35 alongside the cheaper F-18E/F Super Hornet, as well as its derivative EA-18G Growler.  The USMC, on the other hand will fly a mixture of STOVL capable F-35B fighters and carrier based F-35Cs.  

The USA isn't the greatest example of why Canada should operated a mixed fighter fleet, however.  The USA spends 30 times that of Canada's military budget (over 3x by GDP alone).  So let's look at some other countries, shall we?

United Kingdom:  Currently flying the Eurofighter Typhoon, and the Panavia Tornado.  Soon, the F-35B will be operating from British carriers.  The UK also flies the Saab Gripen and BAE Hawk for training purposes.

France:  Currently flying the Dassault Mirage 2000, Mirage F1, and the Rafale.  Current plans are for the Rafale to be France's only fighter for both Air Force and Navy.  Recent experience has shown that the older, simpler, cheaper Mirage models worked just fine for certain missions.

Spain:  Eurofighter Typhoon and F-18 Hornet.

Italy:  Typhoon, Tornado, and the AMX light fighter/attack/trainer aircraft.  Plans are in place for a mix of F-35As and Bs.

Germany:  Eurofighter Typhoon and Panavia Tornado. The Tornado will slowly be phased out as the Typhoon gains more of a ground attack capability.

Brazil:  F-5 Freedom Fighters to be replaced by Saab Gripens.  Also the AMX as well as A-4 Skyhawks flying from Brazil's Sao Paulo aircraft carrier.

South Korea:  F-15K "Slam Eagles", F-16s, F-4s, F-5s, and FA-50 "Golden Eagles".  40 F-35's will be purchased to replace aging F-4s and F-5s, with 20 of some other fighter type to be determined at a later date.

Australia:  Currently, F/A-18 Hornets, with F-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers entering service.  Soon, the RAAF's F/A-18s will be replaced with F-35As, with the mix of Super Hornets and Growlers making up essentially a three fighter fleet.

Turkey:  Turkey is awaiting delivery of the F-35, which it will fly alongside newly acquired F-16 Block 50+ Fighting Falcons.

It should be noted that Canada spends slightly less than Australia on military spending, while spending slightly more than Turkey.  Turkey plans on purchasing 100 F-35s to fly alongside its 227 (with 19 more on order) F-16s.  Australia plans on 100 F-35s to go with 24 Super Hornets it currently has being delivered and the possible 12 more Super Hornets and 12 EA-18 Growlers it has the option of buying in the future.

Looking at these examples, three things jump out at us.
  1. Canada fields an comparatively small amount of jet fighters.
  2. Canada is one of the few countries considering flying the F-35 exclusively, the others, such as The Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark; spend far less than Canada on defense and have much smaller land masses to defend.
  3. Only Germany and France seem poised to adopt a single fighter type.  Both countries are HEAVILY invested in those fighters however, so this is understandable.  Both the Typhoon and Rafale were designed specifically for Germany's and France's foreseeable fighter needs.
Certainly there must be a reason why all these other countries field multiple fighter types.

"They were out of limos...  But they rented us this sweet forklift instead honey!"


Multiple fighter types allow for greater choice, allowing a battlefield commander to pick which platform would be best for a situation.  Need speed?  Pick the faster jet.  Need range?  Pick the one with the better range.  Need payload?  Pick the one that carries the most.

Imagine if your family had two big SUVs in the driveway.  Both vehicles would be able to do most tasks, but neither is likely to be the best choice.  Now imagine you have a pick-up truck and a sporty station wagon.  The truck handles the "big jobs" much easier, while the sport wagon zips around town easier and is more economical to run.

When all you have is a hammer/hatchet/pliers/swiss-army-knife thingy...


Fighters would be tasked with doing the job they do best, and letting the other fighter type do what it does best.  Pilots would similarly be trained with an emphasis on certain missions.  As time goes by, future upgrades could be focused on the aircraft where they will do the most good, rather than outfitting the entire fleet.  In a two fighter fleet, one can be designated the "air-superiority" model and be first in line for any relevant upgrades in air-to-air combat ability, such as improved detection, better air-to-air missiles, etc.  Meanwhile, the more strike focused aircraft would be upgraded with better precision bombing capabilities and the like.

A mixed fighter fleet would also give more options as to what we need.  Some fighter jets, like the F-35 do not have a two-seat version.  Others, like the Super Hornet, are available in a electronic warfare variant (the EA-18G).  The Gripen has the ability to operate from roads.  Mixing the fighter fleet up allows us extra options for future operational requirements.

It never hurts to have a Plan B.


Let's say a serious fault comes to light, threatening to restrict or possibly ground an entire aircraft type.  With a single fighter force, this could be disastrous, either leaving the country without a valid fighter force or taking risks with a possibly compromised aircraft.

With a mixed fighter fleet, the solution is to merely fly the other fighter exclusively until the problem is fixed.  

"THREE 1 GALLON JARS"...  Hope you like mayonnaise.


Buying in bulk can save you money, I get that, I got a Costco membership.  But how many of us can get through 3 gallons of mayonnaise before it expires?

In 1980, the Canadian government ordered a total of 138 McDonnell Douglas CF-18 Hornets.  Those aircraft were delivered from 1982 to 1988.  Now, over 30 years from the first delivery, Canada once again finds itself ready to order a single "bulk" order of new fighters.  Fighters that, like the CF-18, will require several costly cycles of updates, refurbishments, and life extension programs.  The current CF-18 fleet has managed to stay fairly current as far as technology is concerned, but the airframes are old and tired.  

Instead of deciding on a fighter, flying it for 40 years, then replacing the entire fleet with a newer model for another 40, why not aim for two fighters, each with a 40 year lifespan...  But stagger the buys by 20 years?  This would mean our newest "batch" of fighters would never be more than an average of 10 years old.  As one fleet ages, the other, newer fleet could be brought in to pick up the slack.  This would also ensure that a good portion of our fighters are up to date technology wise, without having to resort to costly modernization programs.

A staggered buy could also allow us some flexibility in when we order our new fighters.  Instead of being "forced" into a buy due to lack of options and need for equipment, we have some flexibility to delay or the process as needed.  Obviously, buying expensive fighters during a period of economic downturn could be controversial, which leads into the next reason...



Yeah.  I said the dirty word.  Politics is a huge factor in fighter procurement, though, so it should be addressed.

The Canadian F-35 purchase has been controversial.  Numbers like "$9 billion" and "$46 billion" make great headlines, especially when combined with other issues surrounding the aircraft in question.  So great was the F-35 controversy, it became a major election issue for the 2011 federal election, and will likely be an issue as well for the 2015 election.

What if the ruling party was able to reduce those numbers substantially by cutting the order in half?  That would make great press, but it would lead to a severe fighter shortage.  The minimum number of fighters needed for Canada has been stated to be no less than 65.  Those numbers would have to be made up for by ordering a second fighter.  

This wouldn't be without precedent, as that is roughly what South Korea is doing with its F-35 order.  Unable to procure 60 aircraft within the $7.2 billion procurement budget, South Korea has instead decided to purchase 40 F-35s, and purchase another 20 aircraft of a type to be determined later.    

Politics, by its nature, is a study in compromises.  Splitting a fighter buy would, at the very least, give the appearance of a compromise.  It would also have the effect of reducing the "sticker shock".  A "$5 billion" fighter program sounds more reasonable than a $9 billion one...  Even if it is for half the number of jets.

Best of all, with a staggered buy, there's a very good chance your political party will have its day to criticize a future government on their fighter purchase.

So why doesn't Canada currently operate a mixed fighter force, anyway?

Try as I might, I've never found one of these in my wallet.


"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."

It all comes down to the almighty dollar, doesn't it?

A mixed fighter fleet means buying in smaller numbers.  Smaller numbers usually mean a higher unit cost per unit.  It also means that infrastructure must be put in place not for one, but two different aircraft.  Runways, hangers, and the like would have to be approved for both.  Ground crews would have to be trained on two different aircraft.  Different sets of tools and other equipment would be needed.  Separate supply chains would have to be set up and maintained.  

Once you start adding costs up, a single jet does start making a lot more sense.  If one jet can be deemed "good enough" for the tasks we will put to it, then why go through all the extra costs and complexity of a two fighter fleet?

Because those extra costs may not be as bad as originally thought.

Mr. Hawn's quote above is from December 7, 2010.  That's well over 3 years ago.  Things have changed substantially since then, both for the F-35 as well as the rest of the fighter market.  It turns out the F-35 will be far more expensive than originally reported.  Costs may go even higher still.  The math that makes a fleet of single-type expensive aircraft cheaper than a mixed fleet gets increasingly fuzzier as costs go up for that expensive fighter.

The F-35 is not yet in service, nor has it finished development.  Cost estimates for long term maintenance are still very much in the air.  The only thing we know for sure is that it's going to be more expensive than originally thought.  All those fancy, cutting edge features and stealth capabilities means there's a lot more expensive stuff to break down and need fixing.  

Jane's cost per flight hour, estimated and adjusted.

2012 study by IHS Jane's Aerospace and Defense Consulting shows just how far apart competing aircraft can be when it comes to sustainment budget.  A F-35A flying with the RAAF is estimated to cost $21,000 per flying hour.  By contrast, the Saab Gripen costs a mere $4,700 per flight hour.  Now, those costs are estimates, and will ultimately vary depending on a countless set of variables.  The important thing to take away is the simple ratio of flight cost.  The Gripen is less than a quarter of the of the cost of the F-35.  With that much disparity between the two, one has to wonder how a single type F-35 fleet could be more affordable than a mixed (say 50:50) fleet of F-35s and Gripens.

The cost argument certainly needs to be addressed for a mixed fleet.  Closer scrutiny might reveal that a mixed fleet could be far cheaper in the long term.  Given the extra costs associated with service life extensions, modernization programs and the like, a single platform fleet could see the bulk of its costs arising during the near end of its lifetime, costs that would prove difficult to estimate 30 years beforehand.  On the other hand, a mixed fleet gives the flexibility to "opt out" of future upgrades and life extension programs if the newer fighter still meets our needs.  


Let's look at two possible future scenarios, shall we?

[NOTE:  I use the F-35 and Gripen as examples because they occupy different ends of the cost spectrum]

Scenario #1

The current federal government announces that they will go ahead with the F-35 Lightning II purchase as planned.  The move is met with criticism by the opposition parties and the Canadian press has a field day, lambasting the government for spending money on such a troubled and expensive program.  Once again, the F-35 becomes a major election issue, possibly helping another party get elected on a promise to scuttle the program.  If that happens, the entire process happens all over again, and the CF-18 replacement program begins to echo the Sea King replacement.

For sake of argument, let's assume the procurement takes place.  Unfortunately, budget cuts in the USA has forced a small delay in F-35 production and development.  Canada is forced with making the difficult choice of extending the life of the CF-18 even further, or taking delivery of F-35s that are not yet in the peak production "sweet spot".  That means they are more expensive, and do not yet have full combat capability.  

Great controversy erupts in the year 2026 as a CF-35 encounters a problem with its flight control software (FCS) and crashes.  The pilot ejects safely, but the entire fleet is grounded until the issue is discovered and steps are taken to prevent its reoccurrence.  Canada is forced to add another F-35 to its initial order of 65 to make up for the lost airframe.  

The year is 2030, and Canada now has its entire fleet of combat capable F-35s.  Years of use have revealed that cold weather is rather harsh on the F-35's stealth skin, and it requires extra maintenance after extended cold weather operations.  Costs per flight hour greatly exceed that of original estimates.

In 2033, a software problem is found that makes the F-35's systems vulnerable to cyber-warfare attacks, allowing enemy hackers to take control of certain systems.  Use of the aircraft is restricted until this issue is fixed.

In 2040, Canada's F-35 fleet is starting to show its age, and its once cutting edge equipment is laughable compared to more modern aircraft.  It's stealth is no longer viable, as modern radar systems have left it far behind.  Canada is left with the difficult decision of upgrading  and refurbishing its fleet of CF-35As to the more modern "F/A-35J" standard.

It is now 2045, and Canada has begun the initial steps in replacing its fleet of CF-35s.  It's controversial replacement, the sixth generation QF-53, looks promising, but problems with the AI becoming self-aware and aggressive towards humans is leading to delays in the program.  

Scenario #2

Unable to select a single fighter type after a competition, the federal government has decided to compromise and order a mixed fleet of F-35s and Saab Gripen NGs.  The Gripen order will be weighted so that it will make up the bulk of the early deliveries, while the F-35 will make up the bulk of the later deliveries.  The ultimate ratio will be 36 F-35s and 48 Gripens, with 12 of those being the two-seat F model.  Total procurement costs approach $11 billion in total, but the government explains that the extra jets (84 vs 65) and extra versatility are worth the extra price.  Procurement costs will also be spread out more, with final F-35 delivery happening 5 years later than originally planned.

Opinion on the move is mixed, with some criticizing the choice of jets and the extra costs, but many say the decision is justified, given the costs and uncertainty of the F-35.  The move also allows Canada to take full advantage of the industrial aspects of both fighter jets, with final Gripen assembly happening in Canada.

In 2020, the RCAF's 431 Demonstration Team unveils the CF-39 in the familiar red, white, and blue color scheme of the Snowbirds.

In 2024, the USAF declares the Saab/Boeing T-39 "Hippogriff" as the winner of its T-X trainer program.  Based on the Gripen platform, the T-39 will prepare pilots for the F-22, F-35, and future aircraft.  While most of the production will happen in Boeing's St. Louis factory (which formerly assembled the Super Hornet), early models will be produced alongside the CF-39 Gripen in Montreal.  

In 2026, the F-35 crash forces the RCAF to temporarily ground its CF-35 fleet.  The CF-39 fleet manages the extra workload.

In 2027, Canada has taken delivery of its last Gripen.  F-35 deliveries are scheduled to end in 2032.

It's 2030, and cold weather is found to harder on the F-35's stealth coating than originally expected.  This isn't a huge concern, as the CF-39 Gripen's simpler maintenance and rough-airfield compatibility mean it is predominantly used for arctic duties, anyway.  

2031 brings the widespread introduction of the Russian PAK FA and Chinese J-20 and J-31.  The PAK FA and J-20 have slight success in foreign sales, but the cheaper J-31 has become a huge favorite due to its "near F-35" capabilities for a substantially lower cost.  

2033's software issue with the F-35 is solved, with Canada's Gripen fleet again filling the gap.  Questions are being asked about the Gripen's effectiveness against modern Russian and Chinese designs however.

In 2035, Canada opts out of a modernization program for its Gripen fleet.  Instead, it will begin to steps to secure a replacement.  

In 2037, Canada announces that it will procure the Saab/Boeing F-40 "Chimera".  Billed as a "Generation 5 ½" fighter jet, the F-40 evolved from the T-39 as a stealthy, single engine fighter that offers some 6th generation features at a far lower cost compared to the F-51 "Mustang II" scheduled to replace the F-22 Raptor.  24 manned F-40As are ordered alongside 24 F-40Q UCAV versions.

In 2038, CF-39 Gripens begin transition to training duties.  Weapon systems are removed, and the CF-39 becomes the "CT-39".

In 2040, Canada's F-35s are looking dated, but their airframes are still in relatively good shape thanks to the CF-39 Gripen performing the majority of the "workhorse" fighter duties.  A modest modernization program is performed, but not much is needed as far as life extension goes.

In 2045, Canada is faced with the decision of either upgrading its F-35 fleet or purchasing a replacement.  With new F-40s still coming in, a still healthy F-35 fleet, and the QF-51 program having troubles, Canada decides to simply take a "wait and see" approach.  


Do we continue the same model as we have for the CF-18?  Bulk purchase followed by countless refurbishments, followed by a panic to buy new fighters?  

Or do we split our fighter force, stagger our buys, and buy less fighters more often?

Fighter jets aren't the type of thing you can simply just "make do" on.  Their very nature requires them to be superior to whatever threats they may encounter.  Flying a 30 year old aircraft against something with far more technology and far less airframe fatigue is not something we should be asking our pilots to do.  By spitting our fighter fleet up, we can upgrade our forces more often, and splitting duties up so that they are being performed by the better qualified aircraft.

Which would you choose?


  1. I have always been a person that would like to have more than one type of system. in this case fighters. Having a high end system and a low end system is what I would like to see. It has to be mentioned that forces that have 2 different systems tend to survive better and require less high speed purchases when trouble breaks out. Even recent war-like events have proven that having a high-low mix makes for the same or better results. I am up for a 2 fighter split buy, especially it it leads to more fighters being bought (65 fighters is not enough). By the way the Canadian Army did a split but with the MSVS purchase. Yes, the tactical version has not been decided but MILCOTS MSVS did allow part of the fleet to retire and free up more MLVW for front line use or as spare parts for the remainder of the fleet. If the Army can do it, why can't the RCAF?

  2. If the powers that by decide to split the purchase, I hope they pick the Gripen as the low end fighter.

  3. I think Gripen would be an excellent choise for Canada. Gripen was developt to suit a small, neutral, countries needs (sweden has about 9 million inhabitants). If Sweden would be able to have the smallest chance of defending itself from the entire Soviet air force, which would be the likely foe when Gripen was developt, it needed all of its fighters in the air at the same time. Bigger countries could withstand an attack having a high percentage of the fighters in maintenance on the ground. Therefore Gripen was designed to need a minimun amount of maintenance giving it a very low operating cost. Also, gripen is designed to be able to take off from short runways such as roads since it would be likely that massive soviet bomber attacks against Swedish air force bases would render them useless. Since Canada is a huge country it would be Ideal with small road bases at strategic positions from which Gripen could operate or just refuel. Gripen is a good multiroll fighter that could handle all "every day" tasks. The F35 could be used for more "high end" purposes such as high profile UN operations, all out war situations or just for a deterrent purpuse. Go for a mixture!

  4. Good comparison, but why spilt with F35? Why not Gripens and Rafales? :p The JSF objective for an economic multirole fighter failed pretty much as soon as they picked the F35 over the F32. (( F32x made by Boeing who had respected the budget restraints during the JSF competition, mean while LM had not for their F35x)) I think we Canadians need to stay away from the costly F35 and hopefully wake the Americans up to the costly leeches sucking tax payer funding and draining resources from USA national defense budget. Also, the technology already exists to detect the F35 (&F22) while the F35 has sacrificed significant speed, payload & maneuvering. There is no reason we should accept a flying turkey from our politicians even for 1/2 of our fleet. Our defiance can help our southern allies wake up to the real world where dollars matter, and spending smart saves lives. Let's have a zero tolerance policy for the F35.

  5. I've never been a fan of buying any expensive warjet and i don't give a crap about stealth technology or multirole nonsense that a superpower or a carrier navy needs.
    i don't recall any battle our forces engaged in where an F18 or any other twin jet fighter/bomber was required to do the job that a far cheaper and simpler plane couldn't.
    the claims that "single engined fighters are not reliable enough for over ocean operations" are bullshit. the u.s. navy carrier stats on engine failure caused crashes in the A4 and A6 attack jets aren't significantly higher than twin jets.
    i've heard grippens being mentioned, which like the other euro fighters are pricey and give little or no manufacturing work to canadians.
    during the early eighties we had a golden opportunity to acquire the entire northrop F2O tigershark program(including sole production rights) for peanuts, which would have had the planes built at Canadair on the old lines that made the F5 freedom fighters (which the F20 airframe is based on.)
    the fly away prices would have been about $9 million each -(all in the pockets of our own workers) with at least a half dozen small nations lined up to buy dozens more as well.
    there isn't a fighter pilot alive who would dispute this tiny plane's top rank position as the deadliest scramble interceptor devised.
    regarding a ground attack/bombing role-there is nothing more feared by battlefield adversaries than the A10 Thunderbolt, which was priced at about $11 million each during the early '90s. these warthogs are the easiest planes to maintain and repair since the days of the prop fighters and are designed for primitive landing strips.
    with a couple F20's alternating top cover over an attacking A10 just above the trees, you can't get a cheaper or simpler combination with that level of effectiveness.that beats the shit out of an F18 (or an F35) any day

  6. I was unaware that Canada had the opportunity to acquire the rights to the F-20 Tigershark! If that is the case, we truly missed a golden opportunity, as you say.

    It almost makes you wonder what a modernized F-20 could have been like...

  7. Hgh-low mix is not a rule. Oftentimes, cheap weapons outperform more expensive ones - F-16 was a better air superiority fighter than the F-15 before getting loaded with air-to-ground crap, and Gripen/Rafale outperform far more expensive F-35 by quite a margin. A-10 is the best air-to-ground platform there is. Mix should be based on roles, say, acquiring Gripen/Rafale for air-to-air work and A-10 for air-to-ground work.