News that the Canadian Government is re-evaluating the purchase of F-35 Lightning II fighters has exploded across the headlines of military news and blog sites on the web. First, the government denied that it had cancelled the program outright, now it confirms the plane is off the table; certainly a “death watch” on the program is probably warranted. The spiraling costs associated with the program during a period of austerity and looming international fiscal turmoil has probably convinced the government that its reputation for financial responsibility, most recently highlighted with the appointment of Mark Carney as Governor of the Bank of England, could be placed at risk. Certainly, the fighter program enjoys very little support amongst Canadians.
Clearly, cancellation would raise significant questions about the future capabilities of the RCAF. It is unlikely that the air force is facing its “Kiwi” moment (the RNZAF eliminated fighters from its squadrons back in 2001). The residual threat posed by Russian bombers is probably sufficient to retain some form of offensive air power and only “fast air” is capable of quickly reaching the far reaches of Canadian geography. Nevertheless, the air force has spent the last decade planning for a fifth generation fighter that would allow it to continue participating in high-intensity air operations, such as those carried out over Kosovo and more recently Libya. Such capabilities are not required in a strictly domestic air control scenario: even given a collapse in Russian relations with the West, Canada is unlikely to be threatened by fleets of advanced bombers across the polar regions. The Russian air force operates only 16 TU-160 ‘Blackjacks’ and 64 TU-95 ‘Bears’; the latter is near the end of its life. Tupolev is exploring new bomber programs, but Russian aviation is facing multiple problems and the likelihood that this will result in new threats to the North American continent is very low.
A group of consultants, including F-35 critic Dr. Philippe Lagassé of the University of Ottawa have been named as consultants on the commission to revisit Canadian air power. They will face two primary problems in moving this file forward. The first is to define what the role of this aircraft is to be. The inescapable geographic determinant of Canadian defence remains the unassailability of our nation from regular military forces, outside of those of the United States. As noted, the rump threat posed by Russian ‘Bear’ bombers is one that is slowly setting and no other power in the near or mid-term future will generate sufficient military forces to change this. As such, the type of threat that might emerge from the air against Canada is likely to remain restricted to hijacked aircraft repurposed for terroristic ends. The capability requirement for this type of scenario requires speed, but not much else. While fast air provides a capability to respond quickly against geographically distant threats, it depends upon adequate warning and forward positioning. The range of modern fighter jets is restricted to narrow parameters; further, sustained coverage will also require tanking support, which is extremely limited in the RCAF and not consistently available. Worse, fast air often faces difficulties in intercepting so-called “low and slow” threats.
Other international scenarios require higher-end capabilities. Given the proclivity to purchase weapon systems for the long term (forty years in this case), pursuing fifth generation capabilities promised in the F-35 made a great deal of strategic sense. While a relatively cheaper option exists, in the case of the F-18E/F Super Hornet – a larger, more capable version of the A/B models flown by the RCAF – such an aircraft is unlikely to be still operational within the timeframe envisioned for this project. The Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale, and Saab JAS 39 Gripen airframes are alternatives advertised as generation ‘4.5’, meaning they lack the stealthy features of the F-35. The Gripen is the cheapest option, but its future is under a cloud of uncertainty in Sweden. The Rafale had a spectacular audition during operations in Libya, but has found few international buyers. The Typhoon has a broader customer base, but its air-to-ground credentials have been questioned and it costs nearly as much as the F-35.
Some have called for a drone solution for the air force. Certainly, the capabilities of UAVs have advanced considerably in the past two decades, and they might seem to promise cheaper operations given the lack of onboard systems to sustain the pilot during flight. However, there are a variety of reasons why a drone is unlikely to be a replacement for the CF-18. Drones are controlled from distant command centers: Predators flying over Afghanistan and elsewhere are actually flown from bases in California, New Mexico and Nevada. These facilities add considerable expense to the weapon systems but also pose significant problems for Canadian flight operations. Given the difficulties associated with both satellite and radio communication in the high latitudes of Canada, drone operations in the high arctic will be challenging, if not impossible, to fly. Most drones have not been designed to operate in extreme weather conditions either. Icing remains a persistent problem in Canada throughout the year. As such, drones are neither as cheap nor capable as they might otherwise seem.
Given the difficulties associated with any of the options, there exists the possibility of even more “radical” ones. The absence of a serious air threat against Canada means options other than a fighter jet might be considered. Light Attack Craft (LAC), such as the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 (their engines are built by Pratt and Whitney in Nova Scotia) or the Embraer Super Tucano could be used to counter “low and slow” threats such as highjacked civil and commercial turbo-prop aircraft. Such aircraft would have difficulty in intercepting large commercial jets operating at high altitude and speed, however, the cheapness of the airframe means that many more of them could be acquired, permitting more flexible basing and operations. Additionally, such aircraft would prove to be highly useful in joint operations with the Canadian Army. Admittedly, few fighter pilots would be happy with such an outcome.
The second problem may be the most important factor in resolving the challenges faced by the RCAF: the lack of public support for expensive defence acquisitions. Back in 2001, in a Canadian Military Journal article, I wrote the following:
The questions that surround the JSF and the Air Force are crucial to the future of the fighters. The JSF may be wishful thinking, but it cannot be seen as a solution until some essential thinking is done. As military professionals, airmen want as capable an Air Force as possible, but they have a professional obligation to explain why this must be so to those not familiar with military operations. All the more need for forward thinking and a transparent policy on the part of the Air Force. Now that the modernization of the CF-18 will be fully funded, the Air Force has time to accomplish this task. Indeed, the legacy assets of the Air Force are sufficiently limited to permit a fundamental reexamination of what an air force is for and why this is so. If the Air Force wants to remain in the business of combat operations in the next century, this is a task that will have to be accomplished before there can be any fighter solution, JSF or not.
Sadly, it is clear that either this was not done, or the air force was not allowed to publicly state its case. The problem still remains. The field has been ceded to critics such as Michael Byers and Stewart Webb and few Canadians understand or care about why the RCAF desires advanced kit as evidenced by the bizarre campaign to resurrect the CF-105 Arrow. No matter which air frame is selected, a new fighter will be one of the most expensive procurement programs ever pursued by the CF. Convincing Canadians that such outlays are necessary and well spent will be a challenge, particularly given the strength of the already established public narrative that the F-35 is a boondoggle.
Dr. Paul T. Mitchell is a Professor of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College, an alumnus of Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Research Associate of the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Canadian Forces College or the Department of National Defence.