The prospective purchase of 65 F-35 fighter aircraft for the Canadian Forces has become, perhaps unsurprisingly, a political football. What is little in evidence, however, is discussion of the role the aircraft are intended to fill in our national defence policy, and the reasons for making this specific purchase.
As background it is worth reminding ourselves that the Canadian CF-18 fleet, originally over 120 strong, has been reduced to some 60 operational aircraft by unit retirement and changing priorities. These last 60 aircraft are approaching the final decade of their design life, and they cannot be kept flying forever. Any replacement aircraft, however, will not appear in the budget until 2016 or so, and the price will be spread over a decade for their delivery. Maintenance costs, an enormous percentage of the total lifetime cost of these assets, would continue over their 25-40 year useful life. A fleet of fighter jets is a big-ticket item, with the current conversation of the F-35 purchase including $9 billion for the planes and $7 billion for the maintenance over their lifespan. This is a lot of money, but on a national scale over a period of decades it is also not really that large. Our government is looking at spending several billion dollars on additional prison buildings in the near future, not to mention what the operation and maintenance expenses of those buildings will turn out to be.
In considering the purchase, then, we have a national defence asset that provides a series of unique capabilities that we are losing in the near future to old age. Those capabilities include:
1 - Air superiority/combat air patrol
2 - Air strikes on surface targets
3 – Aerial Reconnaissance & surveillance
4 - A rapidly deployable force with enormous range
5 - A force element highly interoperable with our allies
The fundamental question underlying the purchase of any replacement fighter aircraft is whether or not we require these capabilities, and if so whether or not new aircraft are the only way to maintain them.
In the case of the original raison d’être of fighter aircraft, the ability to control airspace, they are still an unrivalled tool. Ground-based defences can protect specific sites, but Canada’s capabilities in that area are starkly limited and our airspace is vast. There are now drone aircraft, including the American Predator, with a limited anti-aircraft capability. Given their relatively slow speed, limited sensor capabilities and very limited armament these drones also do not approach the capacity offered by manned aircraft.
The story in terms of surface support is much the same. Army artillery can provide support only within its own range, as is the case with our Navy’s ships and submarines. The aircraft are able to provide support over great distances, and are also capable of using a vast array of munitions, from the most powerful to the most precise. Drones as yet carry only a very limited array of weapons, and are far less survivable to boot.
In terms of surveillance fighter aircraft are essentially never the first option. Dedicated long-range reconnaissance aircraft like the Orion or Nimrod are superior for maritime work and drones are better for tactical work. Where the fighter aircraft do offer a unique strength in this area is in their ability to actually engage a target if required, but for the scouting work itself they are a second option.
The range issue has already been mentioned. Canada is vast, our maritime frontiers even more so, and we have friends and potential commitments all over the world. In that respect this type of aircraft is an excellent asset for foreign deployments for two reasons. First, it is relatively easy to get the planes there. Second, so long as we maintain our tradition of NATO interoperability we can act with our allies without awkward and expensive barriers to overcome.
In my view these are capabilities we should have, both for our own protection and for the aid of our allies. It is also worth noting that these are not capabilities that can be recreated in less than a decade should we decide to eliminate them. To buy the planes, get them delivered, train pilots and re-create an infrastructure would be enormously expensive and time-consuming. To a large extent we shelter under the American aerial umbrella (they operate thousands of fighter aircraft), but their interests are not ours and there will be frictions around northern waters and sovereignty for example where their aid may not be forthcoming, or it may not be available even if they want to help.
This brings me to the question of whether or not the F-35 is the right aircraft for Canada’s needs. There are a variety of aircraft currently in production. Some, like China’s domestically-produced military aircraft are easily ruled out. I put Russian-made MIG aircraft in this category, both due to their inferior performance and more importantly the highly unsafe and unreliable supplier. Given our highly limited influence in Russia, and the difficulties around relying on contracts with Russian organization (i.e.: Shell’s experience with Gazprom) there are far too many red lights to make this practicable. What does that leave us with?
Essentially there are 5 aircraft being produced by Canada’s allies for us to choose from, including the F-35. In Europe the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Rafale also are in production, and thus likely available. In the United States there are the F-16, the F-15E and the F-18 E/F model (the linear descendant of Canada’s CF-18s, which are largely a variant of the F-18D). The Americans are also producing the F-22, but this aircraft is both more expensive than the F-35 and less well-rounded, being focused more on air-to-air combat. Currently it is also restricted from export sale by Congress, just in case anyone here still wanted it…
So why the F-35? The F-15, F-16 and F-18 models are old designs, with the advantages and drawbacks that implies. They are proven performers, but they lack some of the capabilities provided by the newer aircraft. The Eurofighter and Rafale are largely equivalent to their American counterparts, with the exception of the F-35, which stands out from the group as the only option from the very latest design generation; incorporating a variety of stealth characteristics and sensor and computer upgrades.
The question is what capabilities the plane is required to deliver, and the threats it is intended to meet. Fighter aircraft to replace the CF-18s seem like a reasonable defence purchase to me, given the variety and importance of the roles these aircraft perform. What is less clear to me is whether or not we need the F-35. Any of the models mentioned here is an upgrade over our current CF-18s, even if the latter were not at the very end of their useful life. An open tender based on clearly published requirements would seem like an obvious way to allow the field to price itself, and to comparison shop. I am disappointed that this approach was not taken by the government several years ago, but I am hoping that public interest drives a conversation about the topic now. I am also hoping that this conversation does not long delay a selection and a purchase, since such aircraft are an important part of our national defence framework and the timelines on acquisition is long.
While I am on the subject of said framework it is worth pointing out that a full white paper national defence review would seem to be called for as a way of adjudicating priorities on such issues.
Here are the Operational Requirements from the DND website: