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The Replacements Part 5: Is the F-35 “too good” for Canada?

Early Days

The F-35 started in 1983 as the Advanced Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing (ASTOVL) program, and was initiated by the United States Department of Defense and the UK’s Ministry of Defense – under the leadership of U.S. research agency DARPA – to replace the Harrier jets in service with both armed forces.

The first few years saw four engine designs, but none of them proved capable of generating the lift required to get the aircraft off the ground. With that setback, it was decided that the ASTOVL program should temporarily be put on hold. But that didn’t last long. A short time later, an early variant of the Pratt & Whitney F119 engine (under development for the F-22) came to the attention of DARPA.

The discovery of that engine resulted in the continuation of the program, and in short order two unique engine designs – each based on the F119 – were proposed. Both the “Gas Coupled Lift-Fan” and the “Shaft Powered Lift-Fan” were theoretically powerful enough to provide the lift that the ASTOVL program required, but then a new problem emerged: the lack of any advanced airframes that could accommodate the new designs.

At this point, in late 1986, the UK Ministry of Defense backed out of ASTOVL and DARPA continued in secret with the designation “STOVL Strike Fighter (SSF).” After consulting with Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works about the prospects of developing an airframe, DARPA learned that they had a few designs that could be matured in order to accommodate either of the new engines. A complete blackout on the SSF program was then issued, and it continued along in relative secrecy.

Budget Bloating

In 1993, it was suggested that the Multi-Role Fighter (MRF) program, then on-hold as a victim of post-Cold War cuts, should be rolled into the SSF program. This decision was based largely on the idea that the performance of the SSF would include many of the abilities built into the design of the future MRF. This bloated the SSF significantly, and as budgets became tighter, F-22 production was cut short while the lifecycles of the F/A-18 C/D, F-15 and F-16 were extended.

The design and purpose of the originally envisioned ASTOVL program was unequivocally compromised at this point, turning the focused strike fighter/close air support joint platform into an aircraft expected to replace the F-15, substitute the shortfalls of the F-22, take over for the Super Hornets and replace the F-16s, A-10s and Harriers as originally planned.


A high price to pay

The F-35’s fly-away costs have long been the subject of much debate. Many insist the F-35 comes in at a cheaper price tag than the Super Hornet. I still argue to the contrary as all of the issues and setbacks (which remain ongoing) have driven – and will continue to drive – up the costs.

The one area that people seem to ignore is maintenance costs. Everyone is fixated on sticker price, but it’s important to look at the whole picture.

A short time ago, there were two documents, one published by the US Navy and the other, the US Air Force, which I heavily relied upon for cost estimates (I scoured the internet; they have recently disappeared). The US Navy document claimed a per flight hour cost of $35,000 (C) and the USAF claimed $31,000 (A). That’s not hard to believe when you realize the amount of high-tech sensors that have been added to the F-35 along with its various coatings and the higher airframe maintenance requirements. It’s far-and-away the most expensive aircraft to maintain, and that alone drives its price up far beyond its flyaway cost.

Another thing that the Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon all offer is final assembly here in Canada, a few years of support costs, and in the case of the Typhoon and Rafale, full tech sharing and design and modification independence. This means any cancellations in the home country of either aircraft have no effect on us; we can continue to build them and keep parts.

The F-35 offers no final assembly in Canada and no tech sharing (US laws make it all-but impossible), and while we are a third-tier partner in the program, unless Lockheed Martin cancels all its F-35 contracts with Canadian manufacturers, we’ll still be part of the program regardless of what fighter this country decides on.

In my opinion, the economic incentives the other fighters offer – and in the Hornet’s case, the ease of transition and maintenance – would offset any losses associated with Canada cancelling the F-35 program.

Praise for performance

When the six external hardpoints are used in addition to the four internal ones, the F-35’s stealth capabilities go right out the window. Realistically, however, the aircraft’s main SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defences) and strike roles do not require a ton of ordinance, relying less on firepower and more on precision strike capability. This is where the F-35 will shine brightly.

The F-35’s sensors and ability to track a large number of targets while simultaneously relaying that info to support aircraft after taking out defense and radar systems is extremely valuable in the opening stages of a war. Think of it as a stealthy fighter variant of an AWACS which can identify and track air and ground threats in real-time at any point in a mission while carrying out precision attacks on high value targets, largely undetected.

Sounds amazing doesn’t it? Well, none of it means anything to us… the US and UK will have large fleets of F-35s in the event of war and our discretionary roles in any NATO (or other) conflicts dictate that we do not need anything that pricey nor that advanced with regards to strike capability.

Stay away from hungry enemies

Also of note is the F-35’s low thrust-to-weight ratio in air-to-air configuration with 100% fuel (sub 1.0): it’s inferior to both the F-16 and the Gripen, Typhoon and the Rafale (also sub 1.0). This makes energy management tougher and gives the F-35 an air-to-air capability similar to the Super Hornet, making it a quick meal for the SU-27, SU-35 and PAK-FA. Ergo, it isn’t an air superiority aircraft in any way and also lacks the speed to effectively “bug out” if required. But don’t hold that against it too much… Lockheed Martin insists the aircraft was never designed for air-to-air combat in the first place.

Too good for Canada?

The F-35 is an amazing strike fighter and it will truly be a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield within the scope of its primary roles. It’s also the completely wrong choice for Canada as we really have no use for an advanced strike fighter in this country. We simply aren’t in the same threat zone that the US, UK and Australia find themselves in, and we lack the support structure the F-35 would need to unleash the capabilities it boasts. The only way the F-35 makes sense is if we decide to go with a mixed fleet, and even then, we just simply don’t need that much.

We also have a Navy to think about, along with search and rescue. Canada is, in terms of population, a small country; we need to think like one and ensure we have the most effective tools for the job within the scope of the threats we will realistically face. Roughly 30 million taxpayers is a much smaller base to draw from than the over 300 million that the United States has.

Help us out, America

Russia is an ever-present threat in the Arctic, but the US is part of NORAD and would be part of a combined response if Canada faced any aggressive moves within that region. As such, we need an interceptor which can integrate effectively with the F-22s and F-16s currently filling a rapid response role in Alaska.

We also need an aircraft capable of daily Arctic patrols. The way I see it, all of this makes the F-35 almost completely irrelevant for Canada. It can do some of these roles no doubt, but why would we pay double for an aircraft that will never make use of its primary features? It’s like buying a Ferrari and never being able to take it to the racetrack.

Food for thought if nothing else.

Chris Black has been an avid aviation enthusiast his entire life and is a former Air Cadet with 618 Queen City based at HMCS York. His love for all things aviation coupled with missing out on becoming a fighter pilot led him to begin writing as a way to share thoughts and ideas with fellow enthusiasts. His blog, On Final, and it’s accompanying Facebook and Twitter accounts can be found here:  onfinalblog.com / facebook.com/onfinalblog / twitter.com/onfinalblog

Author: Chris Black

Chris Black has been an avid aviation enthusiast his entire life and is a former Air Cadet with 618 Queen City based at HMCS York. His love for all things aviation coupled with missing out on becoming a fighter pilot led him to begin writing as a way to share thoughts and ideas with fellow enthusiasts. His blog, On Final, and its accompanying Facebook and Twitter accounts can be found here: onfinalblog.com / facebook.com/onfinalblog / twitter.com/onfinalblog

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  1. I always feel that it is necessary to correct those who continue to say Canada has a small population and should “think that way” when making hard choices for its military hardware be it for the RCAF, RCN or the Army. Canada at the end of the day is a G8 nation and is economically fully capable of funding its military as well as any of the other G8 nation with the possible exception of the top 4, without affecting other areas of government fiscal responsibility.

    Post a Reply
    • @Butch Cassidy

      I have no issue with boosting our GDP expenditures on defense. Just as many think we spend enough at present (and are wrong) we need to boost our expenditures to at least 1.3-1.4% of GDP.

      My comment was meant more to reflect our need for properly suited tools for our expected roles as a small country relative to our far bigger permanent member of the UN Security Council to the south.

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  2. You have written excellent articles Mr Black. But I note that you like many other commentators assume that our CF-18s or any future aircraft actually “patrtol” the arctic
    or our coasts for that matter. I beg to differ. I don’t believe that even CP-140 Auroras
    patrol the north anymore other than for a specific mission. The CF-18s are used only in well defined training exercises, but never used to fly long patrols. They are simply a waste of time, fuel, (you would need to have air tanking available)and money and accomplish pretty much nothing other than maybe giving pilots extra flying hours. The idea of fighter patrols are a throwback to the first and second world wars , ie Dawn Patrol, before the advent of radar. We now have the North Warning system and RadarSat to cover the arctic.
    If anything long range threat is detected by either of these systems, then the approriate response will be made with fighters or whatever is necessary via NORAD.

    Post a Reply
    • @Butch Cassidy

      I have no issue with boosting our GDP expenditures on defense. Just as many think we spend enough at present (and are wrong) we need to boost our expenditures to at least 1.3-1.4% of GDP.

      My comment was meant more to reflect our need for properly suited tools for our expected roles as a small country relative to our far bigger permanent member of the UN Security Council to the south.

      Post a Reply
    • @Mike Nudds

      Appreciate the kind words.

      The fact that we patrol less has much more to do with the state of the Aurora’s and the CF-18’s than the lack of need for patrols. It’s indicative of our need for better suited and newer aircraft.

      That said, rapid response to say, an incoming TU-160 with a top speed of 2,400 km/h would dictate an aircraft of equal or greater speed that can be combat ready in a short period and in the event there is an escort of SU-27’s or SU-35’s would also need an aircraft with a thrust-to-weight ratio greater than 1.0 and a high sustained turning rate.

      Basically a Gripen NG has a stated top speed of 2,204 km/h and the Typhoon can move at 2,400 km/h. The Super Hornet and F-35 are both sub 2,000 km/h and both have T/W ratio’s below 1.0 and in the case of the Super Hornet a sustained turn rate of less than 9 g’s.

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  3. Given the relatively weak Canadian dollar currently, the F-35, whether you think it’s right for Canada or not, is essentially unaffordable; and the F-35 costs keep climbing and climbing. The Super Hornet is certainly the front runner, however I think we will see pitches from Dassault (Rafale), EAP (Typhoon) and possibly SAAB (Gripen NG). It will also be interesting to see if Boeing offers up the F/15 SE. A jet that likely check all of the boxes for Canadian defence needs other than the cost(unit and operating). I believe the Silent Eagle is around $100 Million per unit compared to the Super Hornet at $60 Million, however Boeing is desperate sign contracts for both planes. As with all defence Procurements, the government will look for ‘Industry benefits’ as well and in this department Dassault may be the most aggressive, reportedly offering to allow Canada to build the Rafle in Canada.

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  4. If the Canadian Government were serious about what Canada needs (Air Superiority)_ then no competition is even necessary as the only western fighter to fit the bill is the Eurofighter Typhoon.
    Air Superiority today requires High sustained turn rates. Mach 2+ speeds, knife fight in a box maneuverability, long range, an extremely high service ceiling, a high thrust to weight ratio and performance of all this while fully loaded with fuel and armaments.. coupled with the best electronics while fielding a very accurate gun system for dog fighting. Aside from price the typhoon is the only one that meets or exceeds these criteria while fully loaded especially with newest upgrades available LEX and Strakes by airbus for increased roll rate/ turn rate/ High Angle of Attack. Newest AESA radar that’s rotational for larger coverage and using Gallium nitrate for sensors allows for a much further detection range than US sensors currently have also the Pirate system is known to be the best IRST system in existence. Don’t forget BAE was making the secondary (now not needed) Helmet system for the F-35 that will be used on the Eurofighters in the future. It has a service ceiling of 65000 feet.. a thrust to weight of 1.1 or better.. sustained 9G turn and -3G dive rate with a system designed to recover while maneuvering should the G forces overcome the pilot.. Has proven to fly at least mach 1.8 fully loaded and still maintains high maneuverability as well. Also a bonus is its capability to super cruise while loaded for air to air role.. Not as cheap to operate as the Hornet but MUCH less than the F-35 and better in performance for what our requirements should be than both… Even the US air force admits it’s the best Air Superiority fighter out there next to the F-22 (which is not available to us). That’s my rant thanks.

    Post a Reply
    • Would be curious to see a source on that claim as most of the USAF and USMC pilots and brass love the F-35A and B. They had to actually tailor Red Flag to the F-35 this past year because the pilots didn’t find any of it challenging enough. That’s the most common complaint from F-35 pilots. There isn’t enough of a challenge from air or ground forces.

      I’ll also have to disagree on the dogfighting point. A combat loaded aircraft loses a substantial amount of sustained momentum when doing any kind of turning and the Russian SU-30, SU-35 and PAK-FA are all at least equal with regards to in-close dogfighting as in addition to having high power, high climb rates, high sustained turn rates among other things, they have post-stall maneuverability that not even the F-22 can match.

      Future threats are the likes of Russia, China and if we keep unfairly instigating and provoking them, Iran. None of these air forces are as amateur as the Iraqi’s or inferior as the North Koreans. These are highly trained, well equipped air forces with skilled pilots and equally advanced systems as far as 4 and 4.6 gen aircraft go.

      The dogfights of 2026 and beyond will be BVR (most engagements now are anyways) so that particular set of characteristics is not quite as in-demand. That said, the F-35 will be 9G capable by the mid-point of 2018 and with no external stores to cause excess drag and degrade turn and climb performance it will be more capable than the Typhoon with a realistic combat load. In a guns battle the Typhoon may well have the edge but the F-35 is far more capable than it’s given credit for. Like the F-22, it will take time be accepted but when it is, people will realize just how good a platform it really is.

      To demonstrate combat load degradation, here are two clips. One of the Typhoon at a roughly 9,000 lb load and the F-35 with an identical load at Paris and still software limited to 7.5G’s. That amazing climb, turn and takeoff to vertical capability all but disappeared for the Typhoon. The F-35 on the other hand took off in an equally short distance but went straight vertical, looped and recovered quickly. Speaks to just how powerful the aircraft is at realistic combat loading and how an internal weapon and fuel load changes things drastically.

      Fully Loaded Typhoon

      ^^ Still impressive but compare that to a clean or almost clean Typhoon performance. That’s what happens to 4 and 4.5 gen aircraft at combat loads.

      F-35 Paris

      ^^Just imagine when the G restriction is removed and the engine upgrade arrives later in the early 2020’s?

      Post a Reply

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