A Perfect Storm: Trust and capability in Canadian fighter procurement
In the near future, the RCAF will release the recommendations of the commission established to revisit Canada’s Next Generation Fighter project. It is impossible to say with certainty what the findings of this will be, although it will not be surprising if the F-35 remains the preferred option for the air force. This will be a welcome outcome for the RCAF, but it won’t resolve the twin crises facing it: the collapse of political trust and the rising costs of modern air warfare.
The troubled project has attracted the attention of two respected Canadian political science journals, the prestigious International Journal and Canadian Foreign Policy, both of which published special editions on the fighter in the past year. IJ examined the status of the project in the U.K., Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, Turkey, Norway, Denmark, Japan, as well as Canada, whereas CFP concentrated on the implications for Canada.
The two editions make for an interesting comparison. Internationally, every F-35 partner is pursuing the same strategy of improved interoperability with the U.S. with the objective of remaining a key partner in any future operation. Despite these plans, every nation is reevaluating their orders given the rising sticker price of the aircraft in relation to its strategic aims. The goal of maintaining a cutting edge air force competes with the need to preserve sufficient capacity in order to make worthwhile contributions to future coalition and alliance contingencies.
In the Canadian case, the government reduced the anticipated size of the order from 80 to 65 aircraft based on a price figure that has since been widely called into question in not only the papers in these two volumes, but also by sources in the industry as well.
Presently, the U.S. benefits from the development of a global military operational community that has emerged in the last two decades of operations in both the Balkans and the Middle East. The operation in Libya showed both the progress and the limits of that community. Unlike operations of the 1990s, which were heavily reliant on American participation, Operation Unified Protector demonstrated that NATO could stand on its own to a certain degree: there were sufficient striker aircraft that the stand-down of American contributions 14 days into the event did not hamstring the mission.
As the USAF also faces a significant cut in the numbers of airframes in the coming decade, the capability of its military partners will be increasingly important to the execution of future missions: the U.S. will no longer be doing all the heavy lifting.
The F-35’s stealth capabilities have been a focus for Canadian criticism, as an unnecessary frill that comes with the “fifth generation” price tag. Few critics, however, have addressed the fundamental nature of fifth generation aircraft, which is not entirely in their stealthiness, but in their ability to use and manage information.
The electronic warfare and sensor systems of the F-35 will fuse the information they collect with that shared by off-board sensors from other aircraft and control centres. The resulting situational awareness will permit F-35 pilots to route around danger and position their aircraft best to achieve victory before the enemy is even aware of their presence. This, rather than the putative advantages of stealth – important as they are – is what every major Western air force is seeking from the F-35. No other available fighter will deliver this level of situational awareness.
As such, it will be surprising if the outcome of the ongoing studies delivers a radically different verdict. Fifth generation capabilities will be operationally necessary long after the “front door has been kicked in.” While Super Hornets and Eurofighters will remain capable aircraft for the coming years, only the F-35 is positioned to deal with the challenges that Moore’s law will raise for air warfare in the coming decades. The challenge will not be dog fights, but rather the battle to understand threats maneuvering in the airspace and mobile surface-to-air missile systems hiding in the ground clutter.
In CFP’s coverage, few analysts unequivocally recommended acquiring F-35s. Predictably, only Manitoba’s Jim Fergusson and Calgary’s Rob Huebert were onside. However, future capabilities are being placed at risk just as much in allied nations as in Canada. Most analysts in CFP focused on the botched job of justifying the complex procurement to Canadians and their collapse of trust in the process. This is also true in other nations where questions have been raised as to need for the fighter. Australia’s Adam Lockyer argued, “The government needs to do something no government has done in this entire process, and that is to make a serious judgment about what it wants air power to do in the period from 2020-2040,” a conclusion that would not appear out of place in Canada either.
Even if every partner ultimately procures F-35s, every air force will become much smaller in the coming years given the rising costs of advanced air warfare. Commenting on the Dutch air force, IJ observed “the ambition to maintain the RNAF as part of the NATO A-Team currently looks unsustainable,” a conclusion that was mirrored in other assessments of the Italian, Australian, Norwegian and Danish air forces in that publication.
Modern air forces face a double bind: select the only air frame which guarantees the ability to operate in an environment dominated by the proliferation of information technology (and accept that you will not have enough of it to make any sort of contribution) or preserve a sufficiently robust force structure at the cost of being a reliable “full spectrum” partner in future expeditionary operations.
Summing up, Fergusson writes, “the decision to maintain strike capabilities through the acquisition of a multi-role replacement platform to replace the CF-18 ensures that political, rather than capability, considerations determine Canadian decision-making with regard to the nation’s role on the international stage.” However, the expenses of preserving capability may have finally reached an apogee given the exponential growth of costs associated with modern air combat.
The decisions that emerge from this side of the capability equation are unavoidably political and come at time when the government is under intense scrutiny regarding its own integrity. The Senate scandal will combine with pre-existing Canadian suspicions that the RCAF rigged the procurement process in the first place. In effect, the air force is now staring down the barrel of repeating the maritime helicopter procurement fiasco with its holiest of holies in terms of capability.
Paul T. Mitchell is Professor with the Department of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Canadian Forces College or the Department of National Defence.