Just in case you have been stuck in an “Encino Man-esque” state, the Government of Canada announced in July of 2010 its plan to procure sixty-five Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II fighter jets (the Joint Strike Fighter, or simply JSF). Projected to enter service around 2017, the JSF will replace the Royal Canadian Air Force’s existing seventy-seven McDonnell Douglas CF-18 Hornets. The Government has estimated the entire procurement and twenty-year maintenance of the fighters at around $16 billion, which has been a very difficult pill for many taxpayers to swallow during a period of uncertain economic stability.
The Joint Strike Fighter continues to make international headlines. In the first instance, the Government of Norway announced last week that it would budget over $40 billion to procure and maintain fifty-two JSFs over a thirty-year period. Currency conversion, inflation, and different weapons aside, Canada’s math appears to stink. More so, as the Parliamentary Budget Officer argued last spring that the JSF will cost Canada closer to $30 billion over a thirty year period. Second, it was announced that the current limited production of the F-35 will be reduced in order to correct minor defects in the air frame that were discovered as a result of purposeful “fatigue testing” of the design. Associate Defence Minister Fantino argues this will have little impact on the Canadian procurement, as the Government is expected to introduce the fighter incrementally in small batches. Third, and finally, there remains speculation that the entire project may be cancelled. The United States is looking to make defence cuts as part of larger austerity measures. Senator John McCain, who sits on the Senate Armed Service Committee, has consistently questioned the almost $1 trillion in research and development that has result in only twenty some odd fighters actually being produced.
I don’t question the “Ted Danson” (obscure Seinfeld reference) ability of the JSF, but I do wonder whether this is the right next generation fighter jet for Canada. Landing strips in the Canadian Arctic are too short to land the plane. But, the addition of a drag chute, which would make shorter landings possible, will compromise the stealth nature of the fighter. The JSF’s current communications package means it cannot communicate with ground troops with potentially dangerous implications (wiki “Tarnak Farm Incident”). Also, there is an issue with the JSF’s mid-air refueling nozzle. It is different than the current Canadian one, meaning Canada will either have to buy new air-tankers, use external fuel tanks, or engineer the old nozzle to fit onto the JSF. Yet once again, the last two refueling options mean changes to the plane’s design, meaning even the most minor of fine-tuning of the JSF for Canadian requirements could compromise its stealth ability.
I don’t think Canada has learned from its previous procurement fiascos. Anyone remember the Avro Arrow? In 1957, Canada built the world’s most modern and first all weather interceptor. It was pretty much the F-35 of its day… very Ted Danson. Yet, Prime Minister Diefenbaker made the correct call to cancel the fighter before it went into production. Like most high-tech gear the price had drastically escalated from $2 million to $12 million per jet. This is the equivalent of today’s (not initial) price tag of the JSF jumping from $75 -150 million per unit price to $450-900 million! Canada had originally only planned to build the Avro frame, with the weapons, radar, and engines to be imported from either the States or UK. The point being, when you deal with ‘high-tech’ state of the art technology (meaning “Ted Danson,” just in case you are not with me), it must be expected that today’s pricing will not reflect tomorrow’s production costs. These fighters are going to cost more than we presently expect, despite whatever the Government of Canada tells us. Second, look at the Victoria-class submarine. Canada bought four used subs from the UK, but decided to gut the UK designed boats to make them acceptable to Canadian standards (electrical and weapons systems.) Although the last boat came to Canada almost ten years ago, no sub has ever fired an actual torpedo and the subs spend more time in drydock then on actual patrol. When we buy foreign, even if the JSF project is part of a multinational endeavor, we cannot change, tweak, poke, alter, amend, or otherwise revise particular systems in order to make the item more “Canadian,” and expect everything thing else to work perfectly (Read: Stealth).
So I guess the question is, why do we need this particular plane? Both DND and the Government will tell you we need the JSF to intercept Soviet-era bombers from flying over the North Pole and invading Canadian air space. So Canada basically needs the JSF to interdict bombers in the Arctic even though we will be required to modify it for Arctic operations and there clearly exist better planes on the market for conducting long-range operations. This seems to me a somewhat strange justification. Although the planes are stealthy, they cannot get into the Arctic to interdict any ‘evil doers’. Furthermore, ancient Russian bombers remain a greater threat to themselves, than to Canadian airspace. I do believe it is necessary to prevent unwanted intrusions of Canadian airspace, but it seems to me a big waste of technology. The Russians fully expect Canadian resistance. That’s how this air-based game of chicken is played: they try to sneak in, and we prevent them from doing so.
Instead, I believe the true value of the F-35 will be for expeditionary operations, like with the example of CF-18 participation in Gulf War I and more recently in Libya. In an offensive role, stealth will increase the survivability of the plane in actual hostile situations. Within a multinational framework, refueling issues would not become a major problem through the use of regional basing.
Canada has always employed its military within an integrated multi-national framework. In the First and Second World War, the Canadian Army adopted the British kit while operating within a larger British command structure. When the 6th Canadian Infantry Division prepared for Pacific operations in 1945, it discarded British equipment and adopted an American kit because it was expecting to operate under American command and logistics. If Canada desires to continue its participation in coercion operations, upholding collective security, and earning a seat at the World stage, it will always be required to have the proper toys to do so. I certainly feel this is the intent of our present Government. It has realized that if Canada wants a say in global politics, it must pay the price of admission. If the US buys the F-35, Canada should too, so it can interoperate effortlessly with the USAF and other NATO countries in overseas operations. Although the US may go to war without Canada (Gulf War II), I strongly doubt Canada would ever go to war, or engage in collective security, without the support of the US.
Then how should we solve the dilemma I raised? How should Canada’s fighter force be constituted? It seems all too easy to me. Canada should develop a mixed fighter air force. We should procure fewer JSFs, say somewhere in the range of eighteen, for expeditionary operations. Given the needs of training, maintenance, and attrition, this should facilitate a nationally representative Canadian commitment for overseas operations within a larger multinational framework. It may result in a higher per unit cost, but it also protects Canada from counting its chickens (JSF) before the eggs hatch (production). Ultimately, I do not really care how many are bought for expeditionary needs – leave that to DND – but it should be way less than the present sixty-five fighters. By prioritizing the JSF for expeditionary operations, it will also avoid many of the issues surrounding Canada’s domestic and continental air-interdiction needs. Mainly, that stealth fighter technology, at least in its present form, does not bode well with long-range operations. Instead, Canada should look for a different, and proven, fighter that has long-range abilities to meet it domestic needs. Any opinions on which exact fighter are duly welcome. Nonetheless, this would not prevent the proposed other fighter from participating in overseas operations, nor does it exclude the F-35 from domestic use. It just gives Canada more options for exercising its national air power.
Importantly, this idea is not new. Prior to the CF-18, Canada did have two different fighters. For domestic use, Canada operated the MacDonnell CF-101 Voodoo. It was purposely designed in the 1950s for meeting the requirements of North American Air Defense Command (today’s North American Aerospace Command). Meanwhile in Europe, the RCAF used the Canadair (Lockheed) CF-104 Starfighter. Operating from 1961 to 1987, the Starfighter was used within a NATO framework, and was tasked for high-speed strike and deep reconnaissance operations. This was simply jargon for dropping nukes (yes, we did have them both domestically and internationally until the 1980s) deep behind enemy lines.