Exactly as I have predicted for years (please read the over 150 position pieces and commentary updates on the F-35 boondoggle posted on this site for consistent proof), Canada looks like it is going to shop for the best jet to suit their needs and budget in a competitive manner. The days of forcing the F-35 down Canadians throats are over for the Harper Administration. The news is emerging from up north that Canada’s F-35 “plan” will cost up to five times more to execute than originally touted, once again exactly as I have said for years.
A looming comprehensive report on Canada’s version of the F-35 boondoggle is said to put the actual figure of the program’s total cost at well over $40B and potentially up to $60B. The Harper Government originally stated that the program would cost $9B and then revised it to about $17B once bean counters and concerned politicians started to look under the heavy shroud cast over the fishy selection made hastily by Mr. Harper and company some years ago. Now, Canada’s own unique F-35 fiasco, most likely born out of political posturing and budgetary curiosity, has morphed into one of total and widespread sticker shock, and many say it stinks of corruption on an epic scale as well.
Canada, of all countries, has many relevant fighter aircraft procurement options alongside the F-35. The F/A-18 Super Hornet, especially in the International Road Map Configuration, makes the most sense for Canada as they can leverage their decades of “legacy” F/A-18 Hornet experience in its operation, while at the same time receiving an aircraft with well balanced survivability, technological edge, range, flexibility and economic rationality. With the International Road Map Super Hornet, Canada gets many capabilities that closely rival those of the F-35, including enhanced situational awareness (EO/FLIR/ESM/RADAR/IRST/Datalink/HMS etc) and sensor fusion, forward hemisphere low observability and a next generation cockpit as well as others competitive features. At the same time, the IRM F/A-18 Super Hornet offers vastly more economical operating costs (potentially one third of the F-35s) at about half the acquisition price, if not less. Additionally, the Super Hornet is an incredibly well proven aircraft, one that has fought overseas for more than a decade, and that already features class leading systems integration and a very mature AESA radar set. Furthermore, with the IRM Super Hornet Canada will get an aircraft that is capable of buddy tanking, operating from austere airfields, and even the potential to convert airframes over to the finest electronic attack weapon the world has ever seen, the E/A-18G Growler.
What the IRM Super Hornet lacks in all aspect stealth treatment, although it will have a vastly reduced frontal radar cross section, can be largely offset by investing into standoff weaponry such as the JASSM and SLAM-ER, which would most likely be employed anyway during the opening days of battle during a peer state conflict even by low observable manned aircraft such as the F-35. Also, the IRM Super Hornet is re-configurable from low-observable first day of war configuration, with a “clean wing” and large stealthy weapons canoe, to a bomb truck bristling with weapons once air dominance is achieved. With this adaptable configuration capability, the Super Hornet will be able to “scale” its configuration to the mission at hand whereas the F-35 has a single, hugely expensive to maintain configuration regardless of the mission.
With the savings obtained by abandoning the F-35, Canada can look towards procuring an off the shelf UCAV capable of autonomous deep strike and reconnaissance in the mid 2020s. Such a force would give Canada a potent mix of manned mutli-role fighter capability and unmanned multi-role attack and surveillance capability. Eventually these two platforms can even work together, with Super Hornets controlling the UCAVs as they push forward into enemy airspace to take out integrated air defense nodes before the more vulnerable Super Hornets push towards their respective targets. Alternatively, Canada could invest its savings gained by purchasing Super Hornets over Joint Strike Fighters (or portion of it) into procuring more than the current bare-bones 65 aircraft requirement. Canada could push its buy up close to 100 aircraft, which would allow for a much more flexible and employable fighter force, while also hedging against attrition, which is a very real fact of fighter aircraft operations. I do not believe that Harper’s F-35 plan addresses attrition at all.
Another alternative is to not buy anything at all, but instead lease Super Hornets for around ten years. This would take near term (relatively) pressure off the aging CF-18 fleet, allowing it to fly longer than presently planned. A lease of late block Super Hornets would give Canada a proven fighter that has proven itself to inter-operate incredibly well with their “legacy” Hornet cousins and has robust OEM support with contracted training fully available. Also, Canada would have a fleet of high-end jets that will provide them with a strong expeditionary capability for the decade, and most importantly a lease deal like this buys Canada something incredibly scarce in western air arms right now: time. A decade to watch the F-35 progress (or survive for that matter) and time to evaluate its true utility versus other platforms and unmanned systems on the horizon. If at the end of the ten year term Canada decides to purchase the Super Hornets outright then it can do so with confidence in their decision. This concept is a low risk solution for Canada’s looming “fighter gap,” but in order to work Boeing would have to offer Canada acceptable lease terms and really help define such an arrangement’s overall value and convenience. I do not see this as being a problem as Boeing would be ecstatic to keep the Super Hornet line open as long as possible under the current uncertain circumstances surrounding the F-35 and US defense spending.
Other potential contenders include (from most likely to least likely in my opinion):
- The Boeing F-15SA or F-15SE: A late model Strike Eagle would in many ways provide the most potent force for Canada’s air arm, with the Silent Eagle model providing scalable stealth capability similar, if not superior, to the IRM Super Hornet. The Eagle is an expensive machine to buy and operate though and the fantastic synergy gained from transitioning from “legacy” F/A-18 to the Super Hornet operations would be fore fitted if it were chosen over the Super Hornet. Furthermore, the Eagle does not offer the ability for to buddy tank or a kit to turn the jet into a proven electronic attack platform as does the Super Hornet. None-the-less, if Canada was willing to purchase the Eagle, especially in Silent Eagle configuration, they would have one of the finest and most proven air combat machines on the planet in their arsenal. The F-15 is a proven and feared machine with a massive combat radius, weapons load and blistering speed. The Silent Eagle modification adds a respectable degree of stealth to this mix and when paired with the most powerful AESA radar on the planet this machine should give even the latest “5th generation” fighters a serious run for its money. I must note that South Korea’s choice for the FX-3 competition may impact the F-15SE’s eligibility though as Korea will have to pay for much of the Silent Eagle’s development if it is chosen. If this comes to pass Canada could step in and order an aircraft that is highly advanced, in production and who’s development is complete. If South Korea passed on the Silent Eagle than its chances to be fielded by the Canadian Air Force are limited as the costs per aircraft may begin to approach that of the F-35.
- The SAAB Gripen NG: Also a relevant and tough aircraft that could economically fulfill the vast majority of Canada’s air combat needs, although there is still some uncertainty when it comes to the jet’s unit cost. Even if the Gripen NG was more expensive than what seems logical, its efficient cost of operation and small logistical footprint would save billions over the life of their operation when compared to other choices. Additionally, SAAB builds jets to fly reliably from austere locations with comparatively tiny manpower requirements. For Canada this makes great sense.
- The Dassault Rafale: Also a proven platform that has seen an epic resurgence in respect after its phenomenal performance in Libya and its winning of India’s hard fought MMRCA fighter contest. The Rafale is also a tough machine, having a version of it designed to fly off carriers, and it features a potent mix of advanced avionics and a cutting edge pilot interface. It is also more capable in the realm of air to ground mission sets than the EF-2000 at this time, although the Eurofighter is rapidly catching up. Similar to the EF-2000, the Rafale lacks a more elaborate upgrade path, although like the EF-2000, additions like conformal fuel tanks and enhanced radar systems are in the upgrade pipeline at this time.
- The Eurofighter 2000: This aircraft has blistering speed and breathtaking maneuverability, incredible sensor fusion and an intuitive pilot interface all of which continue to evolve as the years go by. Although, the downside to the EF-2000 is that it continues to lack in the air to ground weapons integration arena when compared to the Super Hornet or even the Rafale. Additionally, the aircraft is very expensive, both to purchase and to operate, and like the Rafale, it does not currently have an upgrade path that includes greatly reduced radar signature and F-35 class avionics.
As I posited long ago, the unavoidable coming to terms with the F-35′s true cost, has the potential to send shock-waves through the international Joint Strike Fighter program as whole. Nobody really knows how much an F-35 will cost, and the manufacturer’s estimates have been totally worthless if not intentional misleading up until recently. Many of the problems that arise from independently evaluating the F-35′s true costs stems from the sheer size of the JSF program overall. Evaluating the Joint Strike Fighter program (the biggest defense acquisition program in history) as a whole, or even just America’s portion, is a massive feat with many “gray area” interpretations needed to deal with the avalanche of variables that remain unknown to this day, either by design or by consequence. Canada, who is looking to buy about six dozen jets in total is a tiny “sample” of the program overall, one that is very similar to the vast majority of international customers and program “partner” nations. Canada’s independent numbers, and their horrific reality, may finally “lift the curtain” on what has been a shadowy and frankly dishonest campaign of clearly unattainable goals and less than trustworthy information conveyance by the JSF program over the years.
The “domino theory” is a very real threat to the F-35 as a weapon system as a whole. The house of cards that is the program’s economic viability rests on maintaining order levels where they are now and even increasing them over time. Seeing as the US Federal Government is broke and European nations are struggling badly with their own economic issues, I highly doubt that the current number of “orders” will ever even get near to becoming a reality should the program progress. At first the jets will be delivered as requested, but once these nations, and the US for that matter, really realizes the cash drain induced by operating an all 5th generation force, one where relatively rudimentary tasks such as air sovereignty are flown by an aircraft two to four times more expensive to operate than the F-16 it replaces, the inability to sustain such a luxurious force will become clear. Orders will plummet and thus the unit cost will explode. This is known as a “death spiral” in the building with five sides, and at this point I see such a situation occurring as more of a probability than a possibility. Remember, the unit price, no matter how appalling it is, is just the “cover charge” to get you into the metaphorical JSF club and is a cost that only occurs once per jet. The cost of the drinks (that F-35s sustainment and operational costs) is what will kill your wallet over the evening, or in the F-35s case its forty year operational life.
It will be interesting to see what other nations around the world will do now that it seems that Canada is going to set a precedent and tell the F-35 to get in line with the rest of the competitors. I have a feeling that defense officials across the free world who have foolishly put all their eggs in a basket they have never even seen carry an egg before, will now really think to themselves, “maybe we can wait and see too?” I have never understood the rush to get involved with the F-35 on the ground level by foreign customers, why not buy the system once you know how well it works and how much it truly costs. Especially now that the US is desperate for orders, I doubt that one’s “place in line” really matters as it once was sold to have. If indeed a “rush” on the F-35 “bank” does occur then the whole program will collapse in upon itself, unless the US wants to buy their F-35s at a cost that would make the F-22 Raptor blush…
Oh and in other news, it is 2013 and an F-35 dropped its first GBU-12 test weapon last week, what an incredible accomplishment we should all be encouraged by….
For more info on the International Road Map Hornet, although it has developed a bit further in concept since this video was shot: