Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Best (Interim) Fighter for Canada


Last week, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced that Canada would take steps to acquire 18 Boeing Super Hornets to help the RCAF deal with a "capability gap".  This would then be followed by a full, open competition to replace Canada's fleet of CF-18s.

This announcement was timely, as less than a week later, tragedy struck the RCAF.

There is still a great amount of debate as to the political motivations behind the Liberal government's move.

  • Will sole-sourcing the Super Hornet as an interim fighter give it an unfair advantage over the other fighters in a competition?
  • Is the RCAF really in dire need of new fighters so badly that it cannot wait a few more years?
  • Canada already has more than enough information to render a decision on a full fighter buy.
  • An open competition should be able to be completed with fighter delivery beginning by 2025.
The Liberal Government will have their feet held to the fire answering these questions, and rightly so.      Most of these questions center around the current viability of the RCAF's fleet and its intended mission.  

The one thing we CAN be certain of:  They picked the right airplane.



Long-time readers here may be confused by that statement.  My personal appreciation of the Super Hornet has been lukewarm.  It is a solid workhorse, no doubt...  But it fails to stand out when compared to its contemporaries.  It does not offer the blistering performance of the Typhoon, the cutting edge technology of the F-35, or the elegant minimalism of the Gripen.  In comparison to the others, the Super Hornet is...  Generic.  

Yet the Rhino is the perfect aircraft to serve as an interim fighter alongside the RCAF's current CF-18 fleet.  

Why?


Expediency. 

Unlike the F-35 and the Gripen E, the Super Hornet is ready now.  Boeing can easily produce the requested eighteen aircraft within three years or less.  At its current production rate of two aircraft per month, Boeing's St. Louis assembly plant can fulfill both Canada's (18) and Kuwait's (40) orders in under 30 months.  

Australia's acquisition of 24 Super Hornets took less than five years from initial decision to final delivery.  Canada could very well have its entire stock of Super Hornets by 2020.  Possibly sooner.  

The Eurofighter Typhoon, with its current production rate of 35/year, could match this delivery schedule.  Dassault, producing a mere eleven Rafales a year, would likely have difficulty given its current commitments.  While production rates could be increased, this would be unlikely on such a small order.  



Commonality.

Part of what makes the Super Hornet so attractive politically is the fact that it is marketed as a variant of the legacy F/A-18 Hornet.  It is not.  A more accurate designation for the Super Hornet would "F-24", but political motivations discouraged that.

While the Super Hornet is a lot more than an upgraded Hornet.  It is bigger, more powerful, and much more advanced.  Parts commonality is much less than you would think.  While the two aircraft look similar, the forward fuselage is the only part shared by both aircraft.  

Despite the difference in parts, the Super Hornet will be familiar to CF-18 pilots.  The cockpit layout is roughly the same, and the aircraft has similar handling characteristics.  For ground crews, most maintenance items are exactly where they would expect them to be.

The Super Hornet is as close to "plug-and-play" as you can get, operations wise.  It is compatible with Canada's CC-150 Polaris's probe-and-drogue system, fits in the same hangars, and can handle the same weather conditions.  It would have no problem operating from the RCAF Forward Operating Locations.  


Versatility/Capability.

There is no denying that the Super Hornet offers a major upgrade in capability for the RCAF.  While the smaller CF-18 has a slight edge in maneuverability, the Super Hornet improves on just about everything else.  More range, more payload, and a more powerful AESA radar offer a substantial improvement.  While some might argue that other fighters would offer even more of an improvement, there is no arguing the fact that the Rhino is better equipped than what we have right now.  

Besides its increased combat capabilities, the Super Hornet offers the RCAF some interesting new options that may be worth looking into.  The Rhino has the ability to act as a "buddy tanker", something that could prove useful if the CC-150 Polaris is not available.

There is also the possibility of acquiring or converting those Super Hornets to the electronic warfare version, the EA-18G Growler.  While the official word is that Canada's interim Super Hornets will be of the "vanilla" version, we could replicate the RAAF's original intention to buy Super Hornets and then convert them to Growlers at a later date.  (Australia ultimately decided to simply purchase twelve extra Growlers in addition to their Rhinos)

If the Canadian government ultimately decides on a different fighter after a competition, converting some or all of those eighteen Super Hornets into Growlers would be a true quantum leap for RCAF capability.  Which brings us to our next point...


Mixed fighter fleet.

One of the biggest sticking points of an interim Super Hornet purchase followed by a competition is that it opens up the possibility of a mixed fighter fleet.  Despite some treating this possibility as a near-doomsday scenario, the truth is that it might not be so bad.  The Super Hornet strengths complement another fighter types.

If the F-35 is ultimately selected,  the Rhino would still be useful thanks to its lower operating cost, more robust design, and the ability to add external tanks for range.  This would make it ideal for arctic sovereignty missions.  The Rhino would also be a preferable training aircraft, as the F-35 lacks a two-seat option.  

If paired with the Gripen, the Super Hornet can offset the Saab's lower payload capability.  It would as the the "ground pounder" while the smaller, faster Gripen acts as air-superiority or reconnaissance. The two aircraft share a common engine, helping to mitigate some of the extra costs of a dissimilar fighter fleet.  



Even if the "interim" Super Hornet buy is a means to merely "kick the can down the road", that may not be such a bad thing.  The fighter market, as it stands right now, is a mess.  

The expected replacement to the CF-18, the F-35, is still troubled.  With no other "5th generation" alternative, Canada faces a difficult choice.  Purchase the troubled fighter and hope things improve or purchase a more proven design and hope that it is "good enough" for the future.  

Instead of risk, the Liberal Government has chosen compromise.

By choosing to buy a small order of Super Hornets now, Canada buys itself a bit more time to see if the F-35 lives up to its promise.  If it does, Canada simply continues on with its purchase of the stealth fighter later and possibly in less numbers than originally intended.  

If the JSF remains an unattractive choice, Canada still has the option to buy either a token fleet of F-35s or walk away altogether.  That would still leave us with a modern, capable workhorse of a fighter that will remain relevant until the 2040s.  In that time, Canada may have more options to ponder.  

New technologies are always being developed and the emergence of possible threats like the PAK FA and the J-20 have thrown the multi-role fighter industry on its ear.  Perhaps waiting a little while longer on the CF-18's "true" replacement could result in a true "paradigm shift".



Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Interim Super Hornets: Winners and Losers


After more than a year of speculation, the Liberal government has announced its plan to replace the RCAF's aging fleet of CF-18 Hornets.  An election promise to walk away from the F-35, combined with promise to hold an open and fair competition meant there was going to be some sort of a shake-up.

Things were shaken up even more when Harjit Sajjan, Canada's newly appointed Minister of Defence, announced that the RCAF's current CF-18 fleet was in worse condition then initially thought and that Canada was faced with a "capability gap".

Rumors circulated during the summer that Canada would announce the sole-source procurement of a small number of Super Hornets to be used as an interim solution.  This week, the Federal Government announced exactly that.  Canada will procure 18 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, followed shortly by a full and open fighter competition that will last approximately five years.  Canada will continue to act as a JSF industrial partner during this time.

Naturally, this move has been met with both praise and criticism.  There are also some big winners and losers.

Winners:

Boeing.   One year ago, Boeing was in serious danger of leaving the fighter jet business.  This announcement, combined with a recent sale of 40 Super Hornets to Kuwait and 72 F-15s to Qatar, means that Boeing will continue to build fighter aircraft well into the 2020s.

RCAF.  There is no denying that the addition of eighteen Super Hornets will provide a huge boost to the RCAF.  Not only does it take some of the pressure off aging legacy fleet, but it adds new capabilities like AESA radar, longer range and increased payloads.  

The U.S. Government.  Canada's Super Hornet purchase helps the U.S. Government in two ways.  First, it ensures that Boeing's St. Louis assembly plant stays open.  This not only does the plant provide high-paying manufacturing jobs, but it is a major strategic asset and it keeps Lockheed Martin from having a defacto monopoly on the fighter aircraft business.  

Saab.  Oddly enough, this recent news actually improves Saab's chances of a fighter sale to Canada.  Currently, its Gripen E/F variants are still "paper airplane" that have yet to flight tested. In five years time, it should be in service with both the Swedish and Brazilian air forces.  The Gripen E shares its GE F414 engine with the Super Hornet, and the two fighters complement each other nicely.  If Canada decides to keep its interim Super Hornets alongside a new fighter, the Gripen makes an excellent choice.  

Nope.  

Losers:

Lockheed Martin.  There is no sugarcoating this.  This is a blow to the F-35 program.  While Canada will remain a partner, the chances of it going ahead with the purchase of 65 F-35As seem negligible at this point.  It seems more likely at this point that Canada will either buy a reduced number of F-35s...  Or forgo the JSF in favor of another aircraft (or aircrafts) entirely.

Eurofighter.  By the time Canada decides on a more permanent replacement to the CF-18, the Eurofighter Typhoon may no longer in production.  Even if it still is, the Typhoon would be a hard sell next to the more technologically advanced F-35 or the cheaper Super Hornet and Gripen.

Dassault.  Like the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Rafale may not even be still in production after 2020.  This would result in Canada's fighter competition becoming a three-way race between the Super Hornet, F-35, and the Gripen.

The RCAF's future.  Legacy (above) and Super (below) Hornets!

Winners and/or Losers (only time will tell):

The Liberal Government.  Canada's CF-18 replacement was always a "no-win" situation for the Trudeau government.  One way or another, they would have been criticized for either spending too much money or by purchasing the wrong aircraft for the RCAF.  Claims that they inherited a mess from the previous Harper government are partly true, but that makes little difference if things go wrong.  As it is, they will be accused of using an interim Super Hornet buy to both "kick the can down the road" as well as "stacking the deck" in favor of the Super Hornet when a full competition is announced.  

Yet there was no real "right choice" here.  Putting off any fighter purchase put the RCAF at undue risk during an increasingly unsure period of history.  Sole-sourcing a full fighter fleet would have been (rightfully) criticized as hypocritical.  Rushing into a fighter competition would be seen as overly rash.  The current plan, while not perfect, may be the "least wrong" approach.  

The Canadian Taxpayer.  Fighter jets are not cheap.  Not only will the Canadian taxpayer be on the hook for these multi-million dollar aircraft, but the RCAF will need more money to maintain them alongside the similar (yet still different) CF-18.  Mixed fighter fleets are more expensive to operate and the RCAF will be operating a mixed fleet of two, possibly three, different fighter aircraft as it transitions from the CF-18, to the Super Hornet, to whatever ultimately replaces the CF-18.  This could lead to logistic challenges.  

The current plan may still be more affordable than the previous plan, however.  Going ahead with the sole-sourced F-35 would have stuck Canada with a very expensive aircraft of dubious readiness.  The RCAF would also be in immediate need of new airbase facilities and aerial tankers to support the JSFs.  



Best case scenario?

Since Canada is taking a page out of Australia's playbook, we might as well follow their example \by insisting on Super Hornets that are compatible of being converted to perform electronic warfare duties.  The addition to EA-18G Growlers to the RCAF's fleet would not only counter the upcoming "capability gap", but would add a valuable new capability.  The RCAF would be one of the few air forces equipped with a dedicated EW aircraft capable of operating in high threat environments.

For more on this, be sure to check our Stephen Daly's piece on "Northern Growlers".  This "modest proposal" suggested procuring interim Super Hornets with the caveat that some (or all) be of the EA-18G Growler specification.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

RCAF to receive 18 Super Hornets, followed by competition.

It's happening...
In a news conference today, it was confirmed that Canada will indeed acquire 18 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets.  The Super Hornet will act as an "interim" fighter alongside the current CF-18 fleet to help mitigate the "capability gap" as the current fleet flies long past its prime.  Canada will then conduct a "open and fair competition" to find a permanent CF-18 replacement for the late 2020s.

Canadian government officials will immediately begin negotiations with Boeing and the US government to acquire 18 Super Hornets.  During this time, additional resources will be devoted to Canada's current CF-18 fleet to keep them flying and even expand their current role.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan clarified that Canada will remain on as a JSF partner for the time being.

The full-blown fighter competition will occur upon the conclusion of Canada's Defence Policy Review that is currently underway.  Using that review as a guide, a new fighter will be selected that will (hopefully) be the best fighter for Canada.  This will likely begin next year and the whole process will likely take five years start to finish.

Procurement Minister Judy Foote reiterated that Canada's current CF-18s should have been "replaced years ago" and blamed the previous Harper government's inaction on the file as the cause for the RCAF's current pressing need.  She promised that the upcoming permanent CF-18 replacement will be decided by a "Real competition to replace the fleet."

It is unknown at this time how much Canada's interim Super Hornets will cost or whether they will remain as permanent fixtures in Canada's fighter fleet.

Stay tuned...




Canada to acquire 18 "interim" Super Hornets

Get ready to see a few of these over Canadian skies...
CBC news has just reported that the Canadian government will announce the purchase of 18 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets as a "stop-gap" measure.

More on this story as it develops.

Monday, November 21, 2016

There has never been a better time for Canada to leave the JSF program.

Don't buy into the propaganda.


“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing."
-Theodore Roosevelt

It has now been over a year since the Trudeau Liberal have assumed power in the Canadian parliament.  One year is an acceptable amount of time for all the new ministers and cabinet members to get up to speed on their new portfolios.  Now is the time to start making decisions.  

For Canada's CF-18 replacement, the time for "industry consultation" is over.  The time has come to issue a statement of requirements, followed by selection.  Canada can no longer participate in Schrödinger's fighter program, where it is both a JSF partner and not at the same time.  It is now time to make the final decision.  

That decision should be to leave the JSF program and declare an open competition.  

There has never been a more sensible time for Canada should say "Thanks, but no thanks." to the F-35.  

Hope you like your F-35's "extra crispy".  

It is still not ready for prime-time...  And may never be. 

With over 185 F-35 Lightning II's built, none are yet ready to go to war.  The USMC and USAF may have declared "IOC" but this is little more than window dressing to keep the program alive now that politicians are demanding results.  The timing of the USAF declaring IOC during an election year is more than a little suspect.  

Make no mistake, the JSF program is still woefully behind on its promise to deliver a combat-capable aircraft.  A recent "successful" weapon test involving the AIM-120 AMRAAM launched from an F-35 omitted the fact that ground controllers told the pilot when to fire because the F-35's radar failed to display any targeting data.  

More worrisome still is the F-35's tendency to self-immolate.  Out of 185 F-35's built, THREE have now caught on fire.  The first was caused by "engine rubbing" and was hopefully fixed.  The second was likely caused by a stiff breeze (maybe not).  The third is still under investigation.  Statistically speaking, if the RCAF already had its full complement of F-35s, one of them would have been lost to a fire already.  

Canada cannot afford to transition from one "capability gap" because its fighters are too old to another capability gap because its fighters are not ready yet.



It is still WAY too expensive.

Lockheed Martin is still adamant that the CTOL version of the F-35 will have a unit cost of $85 million by the year 2020 (not including engine).  This does seem to offer an exceptional value for a fifth-generation strike fighter.  Compared to the recent sale of F-15QAs to Qatar (at almost $300 million/unit) this seems like an absolute bargain.  

Yet despite Lockheed Martin's assertions of a less-than-one-hundred-million dollar unit price, it balked at accepting $6.1 billion for 57 aircraft.  The Pentagon was forced to unilaterally force the deal after 18 months of failed negotiations with the contractor.  Keep in mind that this figure is for airframe only.  The cost for the F-35's engine has been consistently around the $30 million dollar mark.  Nor does this cover the inevitable "contract modifications" needed to fix design faults after-the-fact.  

Even if the F-35 could be delivered for a roughly the same cost as 4.5th generation fighters like the Super Hornet, there is still the question of operating costs and support.  The F-35 currently costs over $42,000(US) to fly.  That's over twice that of the F-16C/D and even more than any variant of the F-15; a fighter that was written off as too costly during the CF-18's selection.  

Add to this the additional infrastructure needed to accommodate the JSF's special security and maintenance needs and Canada's limited defense budget starts disappearing awfully fast.  

At best, the F-35 is still much more costly than initially advertised.  At worst, it is a money pit.


Its future is still in doubt.

While the F-35 is certainly "too big to fail" there are still too many uncertainties associated with it.  

First and foremost is the fact that President-elect Trump is not a fan of the program.  Given his bluster, there may be pressure to truncate the program or reduce production.  There are plenty of other  military programs in need of financing, and the money has come from somewhere given Trump's promise for tax cuts.  

Globally, the JSF program is still a mess.  Very few export F-35s have been built, let alone delivered. Export sales have been tepid due to high costs.  Since the JSF requires "economies of scale" to reduce its price, this puts the F-35 in a perpetual cycle where it cannot reduce price due to slow sales...  But cannot sell due to high prices.  

Even more uncertainty is added thanks one of the JSF's biggest customers, Turkey.  Like Canada, Turkey is considered a "Level 3" JSF partner and plans to purchase over 100 aircraft.  Turkey is also intended to be a major maintenance hub for the aircraft.  However, President Erdogan has made no secret of his disdain for the USA and NATO.  Do not forget about Turkey's failed coup attempt earlier this year.  Erdogan has even hinted about strengthening its relationship with Russia and China, a move that puts classified F-35 data at even more risk.  

F-35 drag chute...  Still in the planning stage.  
In its current form, the F-35A does not even come close to fulfilling Canada's needs for a CF-18 replacement.  Maybe it will, one day, but Canada no longer has the luxury of time to wait and see.  

Our involvement with the JSF program has been akin to an dysfunctional relationship.  While there are constant promises that things will "get better", all evidence points to the contrary.  The Joint Program Office is even suggesting that JSF partners are partly at fault since they are not buying enough of the faulty aircraft.  

Canada needs a multi-role fighter aircraft that will be able to fulfill the RCAF's needs by the year 2025.  Deliveries of aircraft would be needed to start around 2020.  These aircraft would need to be fully functional and capable of being deployed to both the arctic and to support ground operations in places like Mali.  It is doubtful if the F-35 will be able to do ANY of these things.  

It is time to move on.  

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Trump was elected: Now what?

Get ready...
[Note:  I take little joy in this post.  As much as I would like to discuss fighter jets, Trump's election will have a profound effect on Canada's defence policy.  There is no ignoring the big, orange elephant in the room.  That being said, let us get this out of the way.]

Full disclaimer:  I am no fan of Trump.  He in a privileged, obnoxious demagogue who somehow manipulated enough of the American public to become their President-elect.  For years he has cultivated his brand into the point of a cult of personality.  His election strategy was based on hate, scapegoating, and xenophobia.  Whether or not this continues into his presidency remains to be seen.  I, like many Canadians, find Trump and his rhetoric abhorrent.  He is a hypocrite the very personification of the "elitist" that he has demonized in his calls to "drain the swamp".

Donald Trump is everything ugly about America.

He is now their President-elect.

So now what?

Like it or not (and I don't), the inauguration of Donald Trump will have a profound effect on Canada and its defence policy.  Canadians should anticipate the largest shake-up to its defence policy since the 9/11 terrorist attacks...  Possibly since the end of the Cold War.

Trump's rhetoric concerning defence matters on the campaign trail has been at best unpredictable at best, panic inducing at worst.   The underlying theme is obvious, however:  Trump wants other nations to step up.

Most worrisome for Canada has been Trump's suggestion that the USA would only assist another NATO nation if "they fulfill their obligations to us".  This is despite the fact that the only time NATO has ever needed to activate it "Attack on one, is an attack on all" clause was to support the USA in the aftermath of 9/11.  Trump would do well to remember this.

Whether or not Trump's campaign rhetoric lives on, his election should serve as a wake-up call for Canada to increase its military spending.  This should be done, not in response to his extortion-like tactics, but in the realization the world will become a much more unpredictable place under his term.

Why?

Three reasons:

1.  Trump's disrespect for NATO and its allies will likely force Canada into taking a much larger role than we already do.  Great Britain's Brexit vote was already posing some difficult questions for the NATO alliance, Trump's foreign policy could ignite a full-blown crisis.

2.  Trump's reported "bromance" with Vladimir Putin puts added emphasis on Canada's need to beef up its arctic sovereignty.  Canada can no longer afford to take American support for granted in the event of any Russian incursion.

3.  Trump's election has made one thing abundantly clear.  The United States of America is a deeply divided nation.  In a sick twist of irony, Trump's election is being met with the same civil unrest he advocated towards his political opponent.  There is even a serious push for California (the 6th-largest economy in the world) to secede from the Union.  President-elect Trump's opposers have made it very clear, they will not go softly into the night.  This could very well represent a threat to the very stability of the Great American Empire.



Like it or not, expected or not, Canada must accept Trumps ascendency to the White House.  The "bromance" enjoyed by Prime Minister Trudeau and President Obama will soon come to crashing halt to be replaced with a cooler relationship between leaders.  Trump's pledge to renegotiate NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership will undoubtedly lead to loggerheads, as well Trump's energy policy.

The underlying narrative here may read like Canada has no other choice but to simply accept the new reality and simply hope the next four years go by smoothly for us.

While Canada may be forced into making some tough choices in the months ahead, they are still our choices to make.

While Trump may may righteously demand that NATO members spend the 2% of GDP that NATO guidelines recommend spending on defence...  There is no stipulation on how that money is spent.  Of course, the USA would prefer NATO nations to spend a great deal of that on American-built weapons.  The USA is the largest weapon exporter in the world, after all, and increased weapon sales would undoubtedly help create jobs for their military-industrial complex.

This is where Canada should send a clear message by spending that money elsewhere whenever possible.

This may seem petty, but it is not without precedent.

Consider the uproar when Canada signed a deal to sell light armored vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia.  There was (and is) great concern that these vehicles will not only be used for defence, but to squash civil uprising.  One could make the same argument that we should not be buying weapons of war from a nation that puts laws into effect that discriminate based on race or religion.

(Yes, America does have provisions to protect against discriminatory laws.  Remember that Trump will soon be tipping the balance of the Supreme Court, the body charged with interpreting these laws.)

Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas

For Canada's upcoming CF-18 fighter replacement, we should remember that both the F-35 Lighting II and the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet are manufactured in states that predominantly voted for Trump (Texas and Missouri, respectively).  While the people of these fine states have the right to support whomever they wish for president, this does not absolve them of the repercussions of voting for a candidate who based his campaign on hate speech.

Some say that politics should have no bearing on the selection of military hardware.  That we should merely buy the best aircraft for our needs.  That sounds great in theory, but the reality is that politics plays a major role in defense acquisition.  This is an unavoidable truth whenever spending billions of taxpayer dollars.  Those dollars must be spent in the best interest of the taxpayers, representing their beliefs and values.  Canada's defence budget should not be spent propping up a volatile figure like Donald Trump.

If Trump wishes to coerce Canada into increasing its military budget, we should send a clear message by doing so, but spending that money elsewhere.  Sure, it may be passive-aggressive, but is that not part of our cultural identity?




Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Yet another F-35 spontaneously combusts...

Photo not available at this time, so here's a pic of the 2016 US Election.
For the third time in the JSF's controversial timeline, an F-35 has self-immolated.

In September, an F-35A caught fire.  This was after a supposed fix to the "engine rub" issue that caused the first infamous flare-up

This time, the dubious honor goes to the STOVL F-35B.  What also makes this incident different is the fact that the fire seemed to originate from the weapon bay instead of the engine.  (Although the F-35B's vertical lift fan is located between the weapon bays.)

The FIRST case of F-35 spontaneous combustion.
The big question here is:  WHY ARE F-35'S SO FLAMABLE?

Does it have to do with the JSF's complicated "fueldraulic" system that used its jet fuel in place of hydraulic fluid to save weight?

Is there an issue with heat build up in the weapon bays?  (This would be bad!)

Is the aircraft's stealthiness to blame?

Its lack of fire suppression system?

Whatever the case, Lockheed Martin and the JPO had better find out fast.  Apparently; the new Commander-in-Chief is not a fan.