|"It's gonna need a built-in beer cooler before it can take off... Eh?"|
Before Canada decides on any fighter, it needs to address issues with how that aircraft can fit into the RCAF's current infrastructure, as well as meeting any operational challenges incurred by Canada's harsh climate and vast geography. While it certainly is easier and cheaper to buy "off the shelf", that may not be feasible in some cases. One way or another, there is a pretty good chance any selection will need to be "Canadianized" in order to make the most of the selection.
|The CF-18's marker light.|
So what would it take to "Canadianize" Canada's next fighter? It depends on how "Canadian" you want to get. For the sake of this discussion, let us determine what is "need to have" and what is "nice to have" for each fighter. For "need to have", we will require each fighter to match the current capability of the CF-18. That means operating from the same bases, with the same RCAF resources already in place. For "nice to have", we will look at a few items that are currently not in use, but would help realize the potential of that particular airframe's strengths.
F-35A Lightning II:
Despite being the current federal government's favored choice, the F-35A would need some substantial changes made to either the aircraft itself, or the there RCAF's current infrastructure. Probably both. Much has been mentioned about the F-35's compatibility with the RCAF's current aerial refueling fleet, so there is little need to revisit the details now. Canada would either require a new aerial refueling fleet, or it would need to equip a "CF-35" with the refueling probe found on the F-35B and F-35C models. Neither of these is a cheap proposition. It might actually more sensible in the long run to acquire two or three new (or lightly used) aerial tankers to replace Canada's current aging CC-150 Polaris fleet.
Once the fueling issue is dealt with, the suitability of the F-35 to operate from icy runways or the RCAF's forward operating locations. These are typically northern civilian airfields where the current CF-18 can be temporarily stationed. Being based on a naval airframe, the CF-18 has no problem here. The F-35A, which is intended to operate from the USAF's pristine runways, could be a different story. It does not have dedicated air brakes, a tail hook, or a drag chute. In order to be viable for Canadian operations, the F-35A would require an add-on drag chute. Another option would be to order the carrier capable F-35C instead... But that has its own set of issues.
Nice to have:
If Canada decides on the F-35, it will do well to do one of two things: Adopt a second, cheaper fighter to help bolster numbers and control costs. Or, alternatively, go "all in" with the F-35 platform. This would mean not only acquiring the F-35A, but possibly acquiring a few F-35Bs to operate from a small helicopter carrier, much like what the Aussies are considering. At the very least, it would mean adopting every future capability upgrade.
New tankers, possibly a new amphibious assault carrier, and a devotion to future technology? Whatever Canada's future is with the F-35 is, it is likely to be expensive.
F/A-18E/F Super Hornet:
If any fighter platform could be considered "plug-and-play" with the RCAF's current CF-18 infrastructure, it is the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. It was designed from the outset to fly alongside (but not necessarily replace) the legacy F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornet. Burned by the disastrous A-12 Avenger II program, the US Navy played it as safe as possible with the Super Hornet. This kept is safe from the budgetary axe during the post-Cold War, pre-9/11 fiscal years.
All this means is that the Super Hornet has most of the features and capabilities of the CF-18. Probe and drogue refueling, the same runway requirements, and similar weapon capabilities. Some parts (but not many) are even interchangeable.
There would be some changes needed, of course. These would be minor. New training for air and ground crews, parts inventories, and other intricacies that would be needed no matter what the fighter. The Super Hornet has a slightly larger footprint (earning it the "Rhino" nickname), although it is likely not that much bigger that it would require larger hangers or the like.
Nice to have:
While the Super Hornet may be the easiest fighter for the RCAF to transition to, it also has some performance issues when compared against some of the other fighters, and even its older sibling. To be blunt, the Rhino is underpowered for a F-15 sized aircraft. While its F-414 engines produce 25% more power than the legacy Hornet's F-404s, they have their work cut out for them powering an aircraft that is about 50% heavier and 25% bulkier. This is compounded further by the Super Hornet's need for 3° outward canted pylons to help with ordinance separation. The Super Hornet is also the only fighter aircraft being considered by Canada to not have a built in IRST. These issues can all be fixed by opting for Boeing's proposed "Advanced Super Hornet". The Advanced Super Hornet (or ASH) adds conformal fuel tanks, enclosed weapon pods, and more advanced sensors. The ASH concept also proposes upgrading the engine to F-414EPE, for a 20% increase in power. The extra power, combined with less drag and lower radar signature offered by the CFTs and EWPs, would greatly improve the Super Hornet's performance.
Of course, no discussion about the Super Hornet can go without the mention of its A/V club sibling, the EA-18G Growler. When ordering the Super Hornet as an "interim" solution while waiting for the F-35A, the RAAF decided to take advantage of the platform's electronic warfare potential as well. This should be considered a "no-brainer" for any Rhino customer deemed worthy of Pentagon clearance.
Eurofighter Typhoon (Tranche 3)
While the Super Hornet may be the most "plug and play" option, other fighters could be amalgamated into the RCAF without much more difficulty. With roughly the same numbers as the Super Hornet, but in use by more nations, the Typhoon is actually closer to the NATO fighter standard. One would be hard pressed to find a guided munition currently used on the CF-18 that could not be used on the Eurofighter. The Typhoon equips a modern HMD and a LITENING targeting pod similar to the CF-18's Sniper ATP (advanced targeting pod).
Less-than-optimal runways should not pose much of a problem either. Initially intended to have STOL capabilities (these requirements were relaxed), the Typhoon has a massive air-brake and drag-chute. While there are no carrier compatible variants of the Typhoon, its runway performance should be considered adequate. The Eurofighter also utilized the "probe-and-drogue" method of aerial refueling.
In order to be cleared for use in the RCAF, the most the Typhoon might require is some additional cold-weather testing, satellite communication capability, and other logistical considerations.
Nice to have:
It should be noted that Tranche 3 Typhoons have the capability to mount AESA radars and CFTs, but these items do not come standard. The RCAF would be slightly behind the times if it did not opt for an AESA equipped Typhoon. The new "CAPTOR-E" AESA radar might be one of the best radars available in a fighter aircraft when it becomes available. As for CFT capability, extra range is always a good thing, especially if weapon hard points remain free in the bargain.
One of the biggest advantages of selecting the Typhoon would be the ability to pick and choose whatever weapon systems work best. This includes utilizing the IRIS-T or ASRAAM instead of the AIM-9 Sidewinder. The Typhoon also gives the option of selecting the ramjet powered MBDA Meteor BVR missile with, or instead of, the ubiquitous AIM-120 AMRAAM.
Need to have:
I have brought up the Rafale's need to be "Canadianized" before. The good news is, that is exactly what Dassault would like to sell us. While some might see the Rafale as "too French", Dassault's offer to give Canada full intellectual property rights, including source code would mean that Canada could alter the Rafale as it sees fit.
The most likely change would be to the Rafale's weapons. Any Canadian Rafale would likely sport AMRAAMs and Sidewinders, for logistic purposes if no other reason. Currently, France does not operate the Rafale with any HMD, despite one being tested. This would be considered mandatory for Canadian service as the RCAF's CF-18 currently utilize HMD capability.
As France's soon-to-be only fighter type that includes a carrier-based variant, the Rafale is the very definition of a do-it-all fighter. Modifying it for Canadian use would likely be a fairly simple endeavor.
Nice to have:
Like the Typhoon, the Rafale has the capability of mounting CFT's. While there have been no customers for this capability yet, Canada would be a great place to start. The Rafale will also gain Meteor missile capability soon as well.
Perhaps the biggest "nice to have" for the Rafale would be more commercial than technical. With Dassault willing to share so much, Canada could become a vested partner in the Rafale platform and help market it to other nations. "Canadianized" Rafale sporting HMDs, CFTs, and proven NATO standard weapon capability could possibly net a few more sales, with a portion of that going to Canada, of course.
Saab JAS 39E/F Gripen
Need to have:
The Gripen would likely slot in somewhere between the Super Hornet and Typhoon for ease of transition into the RCAF. Saab has intentionally made all Gripens past the "C" model export-friendly, with plentiful weapon options, a refueling probe, and NATO standard communications gear. Part of the design's focus is that of easy maintenance, using plenty of widely available parts. The engine (RM12 in the A-D variants, GE-414 in the E/F) is based on the GE-404 currently used by Canada's CF-18. Like the Typhoon and Super Hornet, the Gripen can handle just about any weapon currently in use by the RCAF Hornets. Sidewinders, AMRAAMs, Paveway laser guided bombs, even the venerable AGM-65 Maverick. The Gripen also equips a modern HMD and LITENING targeting pod.
As far as cold weather or runway performance is concerned, the Gripen has nothing to worry about. Sweden operates a Gripen base north of the arctic circle, so no concerns there. Not only that, but the Gripen does not even need a proper runway to take-off and land, just 600 meters of public highway. Needless to say, landing at Canada's Forward Operating Locations should be a snap. Despite concerns to the contrary, the Swedish Gripen has proven itself capable of participating in NATO coalitions.
One thing the RCAF would not need is extra funding. The Gripen is said to be one of the most affordable fighter aircraft in the world to fly, with costs approaching that of a private jet.
Nice to have:
Not only will the Gripen share the Typhoon's and Rafale's MBDA Meteor integration, it is was the first fighter to be cleared for its use. As with the others, it would be foolish to not take advantage of this possibly game-changing missile. The Gripen's wide weapon selection also allows the opportunity for the RCAF to consider a different BVR, WVR, and A2G missiles in the future. More choice is always a good thing.
While the Gripen NG (E/F) is said to have superior range than the current CF-18 Hornet, additional range is never a bad thing. While there will be external fuel tank options, CFT's do not appear on the horizon. This could be seen as a possible way for Canada to contribute to the Gripen program.
F-15SE Silent Eagle
Need to have:
Like the F-35A, one of the biggest issues surrounding the F-15SE for Canada would be its lack of a refueling probe. The F-15 relies instead on the flying boom method preferred by the USAF. This may not be as much of an issue with the F-15SE, however, since it does boast a longer range as well as external tanks. Israel is also rumored to have worked on retrofitting probes to its F-15I fleet.
Weapon integration would be a cinch. The F-15E Strike Eagle, from which the Silent Eagle is based, can handle just about any air-to-air or air-to-ground in the US arsenal, as well as many others. It even shares its M61 Vulcan cannon with the CF-18.
The F-15's suitability for Canada's less pristine runways might be an issue. The F-15 requires 2.3 kilometers of runway. Its landing gear is built for big USAF bases, not aircraft carriers or frozen public roads like the many of the others. While the F-15 does have a large air brake and a tail-hook for emergency use, it may require some additional work. Then again, its increased range may nullify the need for forward operating bases altogether. Cold weather should not be an issue, as F-15s were based out of Alaska for years.
Nice to have:
With impressive range, payload, and other capabilities, the F-15SE should be pretty much good to go "right out of the box" as long as its aerial refueling compatibility issue is addressed. Despite the design's age, the F-15 is not going anywhere for years to come, with newer versions like the F-15E, F-15K, and F-15SA expecting upgrades well into the 2030 timeframe. When the US decided that the F-22 would not be approved for foreign sales, it assured that the F-15 would remain as the top-level fighter for many of the world's air forces.
The one "nice to have" for the RCAF if it selects the F-15SE would be a higher operating budget. The F-15 is expensive to fly. It is a big aircraft with two gas-guzzling jet engines. There is no way around that. Its cost per flying hour could very well likely exceed even the F-35, an aircraft who's CPFH (cost per flight hour) is increasingly hard to determine.
"Canadianizing" an aircraft could potentially result in some hard choices that would need to be made. Do we alter the way our fighter fleet currently operates, or do we spend millions modifying an airframe to our needs?
Perhaps we need a "Stompin' Tom" scale to determine just how "Canadian" we want our next fighter to be. Stompin' Tom being a "10" and Justin Beiber rating in at "1".
How "Canadian" do we need our next fighter to be?