Election 42: F-35 Fighter Jets

One thing is clear: the current crop of F/A-18 airplanes are rapidly approaching the end of their useful service lives. The time to get moving on replacing them is long since past.

Before we can consider the specifics of their replacement, we have to consider the specific missions that these airplanes would be called upon to perform.

Canada's air force has traditionally carried out the following missions.  First, there is border sovereignty operations, most usually long range interceptions of foreign aircraft approaching Canada over the ocean.

Operationally, Canada's involvement in international affairs has usually been limited to a ground attack role, where our aircraft deliver bombs or missiles against enemy positions. This is, in fact, what Canadian aircraft are doing today in our action against ISIS.

Now we consider the specific replacement currently in the pipeline: the F-35.

Recent leaks in the media suggest that there are specific problems with the F-35 as a close-range dogfighter. The F-35's supporters counter that the F-35 is supposed to be a beyond-visual-range killer, where missiles are launched against enemy aircraft before they have a chance to detect the F-35. However, this supposed strength, and apparent weakness, make the aircraft unsuitable for long-range interceptions where the fighter is required to close with the target for interception purposes. An F-35 performing an interception could be drawn into a close-range engagement using straight-forward deceptive maneuvers.

Secondly, there should be concerns about the F-35's single engine configuration. Much of Canada is uninhabited and there are vast tracts of airspace which will require crossing in order to intercept incoming aircraft. In a single-engine aircraft, an engine problem will more likely lead to the loss of the entire aircraft. Multi-engined aircraft possess a greater ability to limp home, preserving the aircraft for future use.

With regard to the operational missions undertaken by Canada, the nature of a low-observable aircraft is that in order to maintain such a low-observable profile, stores are generally required to be carried internally. This places strong limits on both the nature and quantities of stores that can be carried, either reducing the aircraft's effectiveness as a ground-attack platform, or forces the carrying of external stores which diminish or defeat the purposes of buying a low-observable aircraft.

Finally there is the question of operational quantities. Canada is proposing to buy at most 65 aircraft, and given the history of government procurement we can assume that as unit costs rise this number will only be reduced. This number is half the number of F/A-18 initially purchased, a number which has been reduced by attrition over the following decades.

The F-35 does have a number of (planned) features which are highly desirable. However the aircraft is also burdened with features which both present no operational value to Canada, and present higher technical and mechanical complexity which will lead to increased failure rates when compared to simpler aircraft. A specific example is the VTOL configuration which is baked in to the basic configuration of the aircraft. This increased, unnecessary complexity could well lead to increased vulnerability in combat situations.

Other so-called benefits, such as equipment homogeneity with our traditional allies, are not worth paying extra for. If Canada's force is required in an international operation, our allies will accept our help even if our aircraft are different.

To conclude the examination of the F-35, the proposed aircraft is not suitable to Canada's traditional usage for such aircraft, has unnecessary complexity, and is expensive.

Canada should withdraw from the F-35 program. Although such a withdrawal will be expensive, it will be cheaper than continuing through and buying an aircraft that does not suit Canada's needs.

Instead, Canada should construct a realistic program designed to meet today's needs and roles. Canada does not have a need for a stealth aircraft, as our aircraft are extremely unlikely to be deployed into a seriously hostile theater. Canada will continue to fulfill ground support and attack roles in theaters where air superiority is held by our (probably US) allies, and where serious ground-to-air defenses are dealt with by US assets, such as the F-117.

Based on this, one could seriously argue that Canada has no need for a fifth-generation aircraft. Canada should instead be looking at twin-engined, fourth- or fourth-and-a-half-generation aircraft such as the F/A-18 Super Hornet. This particular aircraft would fit in Canada's air force well, as Canada has extensive experience with our current F/A-18s. And the purchase price is extremely attractive when compared to the price of the F-35.