The F-35 project has attracted more media attention than any other Canadian procurement in recent history. Claims of poor government communication, misleading cost estimates, and defence procurement incompetence have dominated the headlines for some time now. Through all this, we have lost sight of the fact that Canada needs a new fighter to replace the current CF-18 fleet circa 2020.

It is time to pause for a moment, put aside the media hype, and reflect on the fundamental rationale for what has been known as the Next Generation Fighter Capability project.

Most Canadians will acknowledge that Canada should have a capability to defend sovereign airspace and to effectively deploy for international operations when required. While our airspace is not under any imminent threat, the size and geographic importance of Canada make it unwise not to have the ability to patrol our boundaries, with armed force if necessary. This is the foundation of our NORAD partnership with the United States and the same capabilities are fundamental to our responsibilities to the NATO alliance.

Someday, unmanned aerial vehicles may be able to replace manned fighters, but a few more generations of development will be required before that can even be considered.

The RCAF has identified what are known as the high level mandatory requirements for a new fighter. There are three of these which are critical to successful operations in the future: survivability, interoperability, and comprehensive situational awareness using sensors and data fusion.

The first of these has received the most attention; everyone has an image of what stealth really means. Whatever that interpretation, stealth is critical to survivability. Also important is sensor capability and their integration with a sophisticated self-defence suite.

Interoperability is often assumed to be the exploitation of common spares and ordnance. In fact, it is much more than that; it includes secure, high-capacity networks to communicate with allies and share data in a secure environment. Moreover, a common in-service support network, with common aircraft configurations, will vastly enhance interoperability.

The third mandatory requirement, relating to situational awareness, is perhaps the least understood. Combat operations have evolved in complexity and time criticality. Targets can be assigned when fighters are already airborne; real-time intelligence can be communicated to joint forces in a theatre; and sensor information from multiple sources can be fused into a common operating picture for all to access. The capability of a fighter pilot to be aware of the environment and threats around him is critical to the completion of the mission, the effective use of friendly resources, and the survivability of the fighter from ground and air attack.

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