What we might be up against

The Su-35 "Flanker"

So what will Canada's future fighter be up against, anyway?  That's hard to say.  Gone are the days when all we had to do is look at what the communist bloc was flying and concentrate our fleet on countering that threat.  Communism is (mostly) gone, and former Cold War enemies like China are now responsible for making our iPhones and other must-have gadgets.  Instead of referring to Russia as an "Evil Empire", we are now depending on them to send our astronauts into space.

This doesn't mean there is no longer a threat.  Global politics have become much more unpredictable.  Former allies are now sworn enemies, old threats have reemerged, and political upheaval has resulted in an uncertain future.  Tensions between Japan and China aren't exactly comforting, and some countries, like Pakistan, seem merely a regime change away from becoming the next Iraq.

Instead of digging too deep into global politics, I will merely showcase the most probable high level threats than a modern Canadian fighter may have to face.  In truth, any current fighter in service or in development could turn out to be a threat.  I will concentrate on Russian and Chinese designs, not because war is likely with either of them, but because these are the designs that are more likely to be sold to countries with more of a "Anti-American" slant.

Sukhoi Su-35 "Flanker"

The "Big Bad" Su-35.

Big.  Powerful.  Bristling with missiles.  The Flanker certainly is intimidating.  Originally intended to be the equal to, if not superior than, American F-14 and F-15s, the Su-27 is truly a jet to be reckoned with.  As the design got older, the Su-27 has been continuously updated with new technology, slowly evolving into the latest variation known as the Su-35.  The Su-35 equips cutting edge radar and avionic technology, powerful vectored thrust engines, and lightweight materials.  It is now considered to be a "4++ generation" with only its lack of stealth keeping it from being considered an equal to the F-22.  With its long range, supercruise, super-maneuverability, and super sensors; the Su-35 can certainly hold its own against anything else in the air.  Designed for service over Siberia, the Flanker is no stranger to cold weather or rough runways.  At an estimated $65 million per copy, it offers an incredible bargain and will undoubtedly be a sales hit with some potentially hostile countries.

Currently, the Su-35 is the "one to beat".  Planned improvements to the Typhoon, along with the NG variant of the Gripen are meant to keep up with the benchmark set by the Flanker.  Older, slower designs like the Super Hornet could be seriously outmatched.  As it stands currently, the slower and less heavily armed F-35 better hope its stealth and detection ability allow it to beat a Su-35 before a merge.  Otherwise, it runs the risk of getting "clubbed like a baby seal".

Chengdu J-10 "Vigorous Dragon"

Made in China:  The Chengdu J-10A
There was a time when the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) could be dismissed as flying either knock-off Russian fighters or outdated Chinese domestic designs.  That time is over and China is quickly developing modern aircraft with its deep pool of financial resources. The single-engine J-10 is proof that China has become a force to be reckoned with in the jet fighter business.  Although much about the J-10 is still unknown, it should be considered to be at least equal to the fourth generation F-16.

The updated J-10B

China has been very aggressive with developing it further, with an upcoming version said to integrate more modern features like AESA radar, upgraded engine, IRST, and stealth enhancements.  The J-10B could offer very similar performance to the Gripen NG, with a similar power to weight ratio and wing configuration.  It is safe to assume that the J-10 will see widespread use both in China and abroad.  Estimated at a cost of $30 million per unit, the J-10 will prove to be very affordable, and China will likely market it quite heavily once it's own needs are met.  With Pakistan scheduled to receive 36 J-10Bs later this year (for free!), it is safe to assume that the J-10 may soon find its way into service around the world, making it another potential adversary.

Sukhoi PAK FA

The real "Firefox" the PAK FA.
Much like the F-22, the PAK FA saw its development start at the tail end of the Cold War, with budget cuts and lack of pressing need seeing the project being delayed.  Development continued at a slow pace however, and the PAK FA is now flying as a prototype and could possibly see deployment around the year 2020 as a replacement to older MiG-29s and Su-27s.

Without a doubt, the PAK FA will challenge the F-22's current air superiority crown.  Big, fast, stealthy, and manoeuvrable the PAK FA will be hard to beat.  It will be a true "5th generation" fighter capable of super cruise, extreme agility thanks to 3-dimensional thrust vectoring engines (as opposed to the F-22's "2D"), as well as AESA radar, IRST, and other sensors.

Unlike the F-22, the PAK FA will be available for foreign export, and indeed, India is partnering with Sukhoi to develop a variant suited for it's needs.  Widespread use of the PAK FA isn't expected until nearly 2030 however, around the time when 6th generation fighters should be hopefully available.

Chengdu J-20 "Mighty Dragon"

The Chinese J-20

China set the aviation world on its ear when it not-so-subtly introduced the J-20 to the world during a visit from then U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates.  So far, very little is known about the J-20 other than its obvious design features.  It is a very big, stealthy design, meant for long range interception or strike duties.  It will carry a missile load similar to the F-22, and will likely also be capable of bombing missions similar to the FB-111.

Needless to say, the J-20 has defence analysts in neighbouring countries nervous.  Whether or not it will be made available for export sales is unknown, but likely.  Fortunately, the J-20 is still very early in its development and likely won't be seen in serious numbers for quite some time.

Shenyang J-31 "Falcon Eagle"

The J-31, easily mistaken for an F-22 or F-35.
Much like the J-20, the Chinese J-31 is still very much an unknown.  Its overall design appears to be a "middle sibling" between the larger F-22 and smaller F-35.  It has two engines and a stealthy design, but like the J-20, its performance specs are unknown and the aircraft is still quite early in its development.  Some believe that the J-31 is actually a competitor to the J-20, but the J-31's smaller size and twin weapons bays (similar to the F-35) suggest it is meant to complement the J-20 and possibly be utilized for carrier duties.  

Again, whether or not the J-31 will see export sale is unknown, but like the J-20 we likely won't see it in widespread use for quite some time.

Grumman F-14 Tomcat

Still flying:  Iranian F-14.
I mention the F-14 to illustrate a certain "post-Cold War" possibility.  In the early 1970s, Iran (U.S. friendly at the time) procured 44 F-14s.  Of course, the U.S. would go on to regret its decision to sell top-of-the-line fighters to Iran was the Iranian government was overthrown in 1979.  America has obviously withdrawn any and all support for the F-14s since, and their current condition is unknown.  A rumoured 20-25 are still flying however, an Iran has stated that they have "reversed engineered" the aircraft enough to build replacement parts.

Since the end of the Cold War, the world as entered an era of transition.  Formerly stable governments have been toppled in favour of new regimes.  The truth is, former allies can become enemies and attack us with hardware sold to them by us or our allies.  There may be a day when we need to defend ourselves from American F-15s, French Mirages, or maybe even F-35s.

S-300/S-400 Surface-to-air missile

The S-400 Surface-to-air (SAM) missile system.
The most prevalent argument for stealth fighters like the F-35 is the ability to remain undetected by enemy surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems.  Ideally, stealthy strike aircraft would fly in on the "first day of war" to knock out known airfields, SAM sites and other enemy defences.  After enemy defences have been neutered, allied aircraft could fly through the airspace with impunity, knocking out other strategic targets and providing air-support for invading ground troops.  That's the idea, anyway.

Currently, the Russian S-300 is one of the most successful SAM system being sold.  It is widely regarded as being one of the potent systems available.  It is also seeing widespread sales, with variants possibly being used by North Korea and Iran.  It continues to see incremental improvements, with a more modern S-400  entering Russian service in 2007 and a newer "S-500" version planed for the future.

The S-300 uses a variety of missile types and radar detection methods to engage targets up to 250km away.  The S-400 improves on this with more sophisticated systems and longer range missiles capable of 400km intercepts.  

A much older version of the S-300, the S-125, successfully tracked and brought down a F-117 stealth fighter.  Considering the upgrades made since then, one wonders exactly how successful aircraft like the F-35 will truly be.  Perhaps engaging modern era SAM sites is better left to unmanned UCAVs and stealthy cruise missiles.  Perhaps Canada should really question whether it needs to enter another sovereign country's airspace in the first place.


  1. Air war is weakest when it is defensive. If attacked, Canadian air force must take the war to the enemy territory. But how much is stealth worth? Speed,altitude, range, agility and weapons load is necessary and can´t be exchanged with x-band stealth.
    The closest you get a target in a SAM-space is the point of no escape in the case of missile firing and that point is closer the the target the faster you can escape.

  2. We are unlikely to enter any war without the US being there, so we will probably not show up until air superiority is assured by our more powerful allies (US and EU). On our own, the opponents will likely be TU-95, TU-22 and TU-160. TU-22 and TU-160 would be exteremely difficult to intercept given their dash capability. I could see a case for the VTOL variant of the F-35 for Canada as it could be forward based in small locations as forward intercept bases...

  3. "Perhaps Canada should really question whether it needs to enter another sovereign country's airspace in the first place." That is the sanest most intelligent thing anyone has said on this website.

  4. I think Canada should but the SU-35 as its next jet.

  5. SU-35 takes a relatively long time to get in the air and while it is an outstanding aircraft I have heard on a couple of occations that it has poor transonic acceleration due to its engines design.

  6. Ignoring the current situation in Ukraine for a moment, what would the consequences be if the Canadian Government were to purchase Russian aircraft? The modern version of the Flanker could be a serious contender alongside the Gripen, Typhoon, Super Hornet, etc.