Canada’s effort to choose a new fighter aircraft to replace its aging CF-18 fleet, one of the largest procurement programs in the nation’s history, is coming to a climax.
Industry insiders with knowledge of the competition believe a final answer is coming by March.
The competition pits Lockheed Martin’s 5th Generation Stealth fighter jet, the F-35 Lightning II, believed to still be the favoured choice of the Canadian Air Force against Boeing’s F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet, the next generation of Canada’s existing fleet and the Swedish Saab JAS39 Gripen, the underdog in the competition.
Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II is the only true “5th Generation” aircraft in the race, with Stealth Technology, which makes it nearly invisible to hostile radar until it comes very close, as well having advanced radars, helmet displays and other cutting edge systems that would make it a formidable opponent for any foe it is likely to confront.
The real problem is cost.
While the Canadian government is budgeting between C$18 billion and C$19 billion to acquire 88 jets, the true lifetime cost will almost certainly be much, much higher.
SAAB JAS 39E/F Gripen – USD$60 million
F/A-18 Block lll Super Hornet – USD$67 million
F-35 Lightning ll – USD$120 million each plane
Choosing the F-35 would be “throwing good money after bad.”
Canada made the annual payment to the U.S. military in the spring this year, spending US$71.7 million to remain a partner country in the F-35 project.
Each partner is required to cover a portion of the plane’s multibillion-dollar development costs to stay at the table.
While the new payment brings Canada’s total investment in the F-35 to US$613 million since 1997, Ottawa says Canadian companies could get millions in work related to the stealth fighter.
The F-35 program is expected to cost U.S. taxpayers a total of $1.7 trillion across its lifecycle, according to the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office’s 2020 estimate.
Costs for the US Defense Department’s upgrade to the F-35 Joint Fighter’s critical software system have gone nearly $2 billion over estimates during the last two years, according to a new congressional watchdog report.
In 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government had announced that it intended to procure 65 F-35s to replace the existing 80 McDonnell Douglas CF-18s.
In 2015, the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau won a majority in part on a campaign promise to not purchase the F-35, but instead “one of the lower-priced options that better match Canada’s defence needs”.
There are political consequences for the Liberals, should the F-35 be selected.
A coalition of activists, including Neil Young and environmentalist David Suzuki, have launched a campaign demanding Trudeau “say no” to new fighter jets.
The activists oppose any new plane, but single out the more expensive F-35, arguing Canada should instead spend the money on “healthcare, education, housing and clean water.”
The NDP has expressed support for a new fighter purchase although it is no fan of the F-35, while the Greens are opposed to any purchase at all.
There are four major purposes for which Canada needs a fighter:
1) protecting its airspace, notably the Arctic, from a foreign aggressor, (i.e. Russia) either in a genuine war or just deterring it from peacetime intrusions
2) participating in NATO’s traditional deterrence mission, again against Russia, as, for example through Canada’s participation in Baltic and Black Sea air patrols
3) participating in coalitions against smaller states, such as its actions in Serbia, Libya and Iraq/Syria
4) joining with the US in protecting North America against 9/11-type terrorism.
Does Canada pick the jet it planned to buy six years ago, raising questions over all the time and money spent seemingly for naught?
Does it go with the more affordable model that doesn’t offer the same raft of capabilities?
Or does it opt for the budget option?
The Saab JAS39 Gripen would be the cheapest option, and it would result in the most domestic industry for Canada.
The agile Saab Gripen is the most cost-effective fighter jet on the market, coming in a shade lower than the F/A-18.
Its maintenance costs are generally considered to be the lowest of the three.
The newest version of the Gripen is said to have the longest range of the three competitors, meaning it can loiter over distant airspace, such as the high Arctic, for longer periods.
Designed to meet Sweden’s own conditions, the Gripen can be based at relatively small, rugged airfields with smaller support teams.
Will the lower priced Swedish Gripen get the nod, as the right pick for Canada’s unique needs despite its non-NATO origin?
There is an argument to be made for the F/A-18 Block lll Super Hornet.
The F/A-18 Block lll Super Hornet would be a cheaper and perfectly viable alternative that would hugely simplify operational transformation from the existing, ageing CF-18 and at the same time make a substantial cost savings to allow funding to be reallocated towards other much needed defence assets such as patrol aircraft, tankers and drones.
The twin-engine F/A-18 has a 30% better combat radius and better payload than the F-35.
Unlike its competitors, it is a two-engine aircraft, which means it would be safer to operate in the distant reaches of the Arctic, where it would be hard to return to base quickly in the event of trouble.
It is not stealthy, but stealth is not crucial in air policing missions
Its roots are in the original Hornet, which Canada currently flies, making for some useful overlap in terms of pilot skills and aircraft maintenance.
Both the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are planning to buy a significant number of the Block III Super Hornets (they already have a large number of older models in service).
Australia is planning to acquire the new F/A-18s as well.
The Boeing F/A-18 costs about half as much as the F-35 — or less — both in upfront cost and cost-per-flight-hour.
The F-35 is eye-wateringly expensive.
According to the Air Force’s aircraft procurement justification book for fiscal year 2021, the US$90.9 million sticker price for the 2020 model F-35A jumps to US$120.3 million per aircraft when all aspects of the program are added together.
And this figure will rise in the coming years as aircraft purchased now receive significant upgrades.
The Swiss are considering purchasing 40 F-35s for approximately $6.58 billion, or US$164.5 million apiece.
This figure accounts for the spare parts, missiles, bombs, and bullets necessary for a fully functional weapon system.
On top of that it is too expensive to fly and maintain.
Flying an F-35A cost about US $48,000 per hour on average — more than double the cost of operating the CF-18.
Trudeau used cost to justify axing the initial F-35 contract.
Since then, the F-35 has only become more expensive.
In 2011, Canada projected it would pay around C$5 million per plane per year in maintenance costs.
A July, 2021 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the U.S. military will be paying north of C$10 million per plane every year in ongoing maintenance costs.
“The F-35 program’s record has been both a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule and performance,” the late Senator John McCain reported to Congress in 2016.
The F-35 was never designed as an air-supremacy fighter.
That role is much better served by the F-16, the F-15 and the F-22.
The F-35’s forte is not air-to-air combat, but rather as a Stealth Fighter-Bomber.
In a damning report in 2015, the F-35 was defeated in aerial combat by the 1970s vintage F-16, which it is supposed to replace.
An F-35 costs 7-10 times as much as an F-16.
Stealth is a formidable force multiplier giving forces equipped with it parity with other 5th generation fighters and air superiority over forces equipped with 4th generation materials or older.
Such a stealthy airplane as the F-35 would be ideal for engagements over what was NATO’s central European theatre two decades ago.
Stealth would have guaranteed a high survivability in the dangerous environment of a frontline exceptionally well equipped in surface-to-air missiles.
The relatively low payload capacity and short range of the aircraft would not have been too much of a problem, considering the relatively small geographical area concerned.
Fortunately, all this belongs to a never-to-be future in the past and the probability of a standoff involving Canada in Europe is extremely low.
Canada needs a long range air-supremacy jet fighter to fulfil its NORAD and NATO commitments, as well as provide adequate defence for Canada’s territory.
The fighter must be capable of both combat air patrols and/or long range interceptions, with a low-speed cruising capability as well as fast accelerations.
Such an airplane, combined with appropriate detection assets, would have the capability to intercept potentially hostile long range reconnaissance/bomber aircraft far from potential missile launching positions as well as to conduct extensive barrier CAP (Combat Air Patrol).
The latest information available on the Air Force version of the F-35 reveals a remarkably short range (1,135 km of total operational autonomy, the equivalent of a 570 km combat radius) and a very limited (250 km maximum) supercruise capability.
(Supercruise is sustained supersonic flight with a weapons load without using afterburner)
This is clearly insufficient in a vast country where interceptions (for example, of Russian transpolar flights) could involve total distances 5 or 6 times longer, and would require a substantial increase of in-flight refuelling capacity or external fuel tanks.
Even the addition of two massive external fuel tanks, which would completely negate its vaunted Stealth capability, would hardly increase non-air-refuelled operational range beyond 1,400 km, a 700 km combat radius.
One may also question the relevance of a single-engine aircraft over such a large area as Canada.
Engine failure on a single-engine aircraft means the loss of the C$137 million machine, whereas a twin-engine aircraft such as the F/A-18 Super Hornet can often limp back to its base, a simple fact that has contributed to the high proportion of twin-engine aircraft among 4th generation jet fighters.
The F-35 is designated as part of the US strategic nuclear bomber force.
The F-35 is designed to carry what has been called the most dangerous nuclear weapon in America’s arsenal: the B61-12 guided nuclear bomb.
It is the most dangerous nuclear weapon because it is set to deliver a nuclear blast of “only” 1/3 of a kiloton, making it what war planners consider a “useable” nuclear weapon.
(The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima exploded with an energy of 15 kilotons of TNT)
Seriously, upon whom does Canada foresee dropping a small nuclear bomb??!!?
There have been so many problems with the F-35, it’s difficult even to summarize them.
Pilot blackouts, crashes, premature part failures, software development disasters, and more, have all figured over the years.
Firing the main gun can crack the plane.
The crash rate for the F-35 is 3.6 times higher than the current crash rate for the current CF-18 fleet – each crash C$137 million going up in flames.
35% of the weight of the F-35A is combustible military carbon composite with a combustible Stealth coating.
If it crashes, its 10,000 pounds of combustible material would burn in the inferno created by 2,700 gallons of jet fuel.
According to a Naval Air Warfare Center report, highly toxic, mutagenic and carcinogenic fumes, particulates and fibers would be released before firefighters could arrive.
Needless to say, it would be catastrophic for the neighbourhoods near the airbase.
Noise and air pollution from the F-35 will directly impact school children, workers and pedestrians in the vicinity of the airbase.
When the F-35 reaches 1,000 feet altitude, it hits people on the ground with a 115 dB noise blast, more than four times louder than the CF-18.
Afterburner takeoffs will be much louder than the already intensely loud takeoff of the CF-18, far exceeding the 130 dB extreme danger level.
This sound level can produce “immediate and permanent hearing loss.”
Although the noise produced by the F-35 will be intolerable, the air pollution will probably be far more damaging to the health of local residents.
At the very least, each F-35 can be expected to annually emit:
1.63 tons of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
1.62 tons of Carbon Monoxide
1.30 tons of Nitrous Oxide
13.26 tons of Sulphur Dioxide
3.26 tons of large particulates
3.16 tons of small particulates
48.76 tons of Carbon Dioxide
Average fuel consumption for the F-35 for each flight hour is 5,600 litres compared to 3,500 litres for the CF-18, 60% higher.
A group seeking to halt the siting of a squadron of F-35 fighter jets at Madison’s Truax Field in Wisconsin filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force earlier this year.
The lawsuit occurs in the midst of growing public awareness regarding the harmful effect of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
The substances, PFASs known as “Forever Chemicals” exist in high levels in groundwater around Madison, and are linked with firefighting foam used at the Air Force Base.
An eyedropper full of these chemicals could pollute an entire lake; they can pollute an entire source of drinking water for a community.
In a world devoid of any political constraints, one would recommend the purchase of Eurofighter Typhoon or Dassault Rafale as the optimal aircraft for Canada’s air forces.
The Typhoon is optimised for the RAF long patrols over the North Sea and is an excellent air-superiority platform.
The Rafale has lower air-to-air capabilities (although further radar developments and the integration of the Meteor missile will reduce the gap) but is a better, combat-proven multirole fighter-bomber.
Both aircraft have similar purchase costs, much lower operational costs, better payloads and greater combat radius than the F-35.
From any perspective, the procurement of the F-35 has consistently looked like a suboptimal military choice dictated by other concerns.
Spending $19 billion on cutting-edge 5th Generation fighter bombers only makes sense based on a vision of Canadian foreign policy that includes fighting in future US wars.
Elon Musk says the F-35 fighter jet’s competition should be a drone, remotely controlled by a human with manoeuvres augmented by autonomy.
Musk said that the future of air warfare will belong to drones and that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter would have “no chance” against a drone fighter.
“The fighter jet era has passed,” Musk said.
“Drone warfare is where the future will be. It’s not that I want the future to be – it’s just, this is what the future will be.”
Artificial intelligence in a drone fighter plane would be able to pull together all the data about two aircraft in a dogfight, from airspeed to weapons available, and then come up with an ideal solution of action to shoot down the other aircraft.
It would do this faster than a human, the same way supercomputers can calculate possible chess moves faster than any human chessmaster.
The US Air Force planned to pit an advanced autonomous aircraft against a piloted plane in a challenge set for July 2021.
The USAF has been silent about the results.
The project will eventually lead to unpiloted fighter aircraft that use artificial intelligence (AI).
Elon Musk is right about the future of fighter pilots, but wrong about why robots will take their place.
It won’t be because they’re inherently better – it’ll be to save the pilot’s life.
In the world’s most recent war, Azerbaijan’s drone-led assault won a decisive victory over Armenia’s forces in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, using Bayraktar TB-2 drones supplied by Turkey.
Drones that cost USD$4 million each.
Perhaps Canada could ponder this and plan for what the future will be rather than spending billions planning for yesterday’s war.
Is it possible that, given the economic fall-out from the COVID crisis, a Canadian government might simply punt even further, making do with its current fleet of Hornets, improved with some equipment upgrades?
The temptation may exist to keep the current CF-18 fleet in the air even longer, until something else, such as advanced drones, comes along.
The Royal Canadian Navy is pushing to replace Canada’s beleaguered submarine fleet, setting the stage for what will be an extremely controversial debate around the need for such vessels.
A tough conversation is brewing about the need for new submarines given the high cost of building and operating such vessels, and the many problems that have afflicted its current fleet.
Questions about the costs and benefits of submarines have circulated since Canada bought 4 second-hand vessels from Britain in 1998.
The government of the time argued it was getting a bargain by paying only $750 million for the four Victoria-class vessels.
But the submarines have since spent more time in drydock for repairs and maintenance than at sea, with Ottawa sinking billions of dollars into the fleet over the past 20-plus years.
The cost of maintaining and operating the 4 Victoria-class submarines has been around $300 million per year.
Australia’s recent experience suggests building a new fleet won’t be smooth sailing – or cheap.
The Australian government which had been working for more than a decade to buy 12 French-designed submarines, revealed last year that the diesel-electric vessels will cost more than $90 billion — or more than $6.5 billion each, nearly double Canberra’s original estimate, and more than the $60 billion Canada plans to pay for a whole new fleet of 15 state-of-the-art frigates to replace its fleet of Halifax-class warships over the next two decades.
It would have been Australia’s largest military acquisition.
But the US has talked Australia to move instead to at least 8 nuclear-powered attack submarines which will be even more expensive.
Each US Virginia-class nuclear submarine costs around US$5 billion to build but add in other development and planning costs, including the extra financial burden of building the fleet in Australia and that bill will end up being north of $100 billion.
Submarines have only one big trick.
They are stealthy.
But, in a conflict, if a submarine can be detected, it is dead.
A raft of technological trends will upend submarine warfare – new radars married with AI will make oceans transparent.
The biggest threat is the proliferation of underwater drones, cheap and increasingly reliable.
Drones can operate for weeks on end, reporting only when their sensor suite finds something of interest.
Put simply: The submarines’ one big trick will no longer work.
Australian officials are now struggling with what to do in the face of severe public and expert criticism.
Canada does not need a horrifically expensive stealth fighter bomber like the F-35, nor a horrifically expensive fleet of submarines.
We need to address more realistic needs.
For example, Climate Change is increasingly opening up the Northwest Passage, the Arctic sea route north of the Canadian mainland.
The next 20 years will herald an era of year-round cargo shipping around the top of the world linking China and Asia to the eastern U.S. and Europe, a waterway that will become busier than the Panama Canal.
Canada needs a fleet of icebreakers to keep the waterway open and a fleet of coast guard frigates to patrol it, ideally a fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers like Russia has.
Russia’s 10 Arktika class nuclear-powered icebreakers are the world’s largest and most powerful icebreakers.
US ex-Secretary of State Pompeo’s asserted that Canada’s claims to the Northwest Passage are “illegitimate”, maintaining that the Northwest Passage is an international waterway through which its commercial and military vessels have the right to pass without seeking Canada’s permission.
In March, 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reminded Canada that “the US has a long contested feud with Canada over sovereign claims through the Northwest Passage.”
The feud has been a visible point of contention a number of times in the past.
In 1969, the U.S. oil tanker SS Manhattan transited the passage without permission from Canada, despite receiving assistance from Canadian icebreakers during the voyage.
In response, Canada passed legislation asserting control over environmental regulations across the Northwest Passage.
Since the 1980s, the U.S. and Canada have essentially agreed to disagree on the issue, with little discourse on the issue until now.
However, this arrangement may soon prove to be untenable as shipping traffic in the region rapidly increases.
Adding to the mix of potential tension in the Arctic is China which is expanding its presence claiming Canada’s North is a “near Arctic state”.
China has built two huge “Snow Dragon” icebreakers and is in the process of building a nuclear-powered ship capable of breaking 3-metre ice and bigger than the Russian nuclear powered Arkitka class nuclear-powered icebreakers.
Canada’s fleet of icebreakers currently consists of only two considered “heavy” with 38,000 hp.
This compares to Russia’s fleet of ten nuclear powered 75,000 hp ships, with new nuclear powered ships in the works which will be much wider and with 160,000 hp.
With the shortening of the winter season and now ice-free more of the year, icebreakers are critical, and growing even more so as the world looks to the vast potential resources of oil, natural gas, and minerals in the Arctic and who has sovereignty over them.
It appears that Canada could lose control over its portion of the Arctic to the world’s superpowers.
Canada needs a strong Arctic naval presence to maintain and project sovereignty over the Northwest Passage.
Really, whom do we foresee bombing with mini-nukes?
Or whose ships do we foresee sinking with torpedoes?
Canada does not need a horrifically expensive stealth fighter bomber like the F-35, nor a horrifically expensive fleet of submarines.
We need to address more realistic needs.