It comes with little surprise that the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter programme continues to make international headlines. Just last March, Canada’s Associate Minister of National Defense Julian Fantino stated that his government has not discounted ‘backing out’ of the programme. Yet it was a surprise to see Canada back peddle. Since 2002 Canada has consistently remained devoted to the programme. The government has labeled the F-35 as the only fighter capable of meeting Canada’s requirement with no “Plan B” option existing. Until Fantino’s statement it seemed to be the F-35, or bust, for Canadian air power.
Australia previously made a similar announcement. Defense Minister Stephen Smith stated in Parliament that Australia has only committed to taking fourteen of the one hundred F-35s it requires (including two test units). Furthermore, his ministry will be undertaking a careful review of the procurement schedule. Australia appears to have an exit strategy in place.
Canada and Australia are performing an increasingly implausible act of doublespeak – avowing their commitment to the JSF programme whilst keeping one eye firmly fixed on the exit. In the context of the Italian decision to slash their F-35 order, and the American decision to postpone production of 179 airframes, the prognosis for the F-35 appears grim. The JSF participants find themselves in a quintessential ‘bank run’ situation – equivocating on their intentions and nervously waiting for the first country to break ranks. There is now a non-trivial possibility that the JSF programme may fail, or that Canada and Australia may unilaterally withdraw from it.
This may seem to be a calamitous situation. The JSF programme is intended to replace an entire generation of Cold War-era aircraft. No less than seven different airframes within nine JSF partner nations are up for retirement. For their part, Australia and Canada are saddled with a fleet of rapidly aging F/A-18 and CF-18 Hornets. In 2010, Canada completed a CDN$2.6 billion CF-18 modernization project designed to maintain its air power until all of its expected sixty-five F-35s are delivered. Meanwhile, Australia has announced that any further delay in the delivery schedule could create an air power capability gap, leading to the March announcement of purchasing additional F/A-18 E Super Hornets as an interim measure.
Few seriously question the imperative to replace the Hornets – they represent a military capability that Australia and Canada have utilised in the past and would like to maintain well into the 21st Century. Since the end of the Cold War, both countries have deployed their fighters on several occasion in the name of international stability: Canada during the 1991 Gulf War, the 1999 Kosovo War, and the recent 2011 Libya War; Australia in the 2003 Iraq War.
Now for some good news: the potential (and we stress potential) failure of, or withdrawal from, the Joint Strike Fighter programme does not spell complete disaster for Canadian or Australian air power. Why? Because the F-35 is not the alpha and omega of modern aircraft design. Simply put, the F-35 is not vastly superior to other airframes that were previously swept off the table, such as the F/A-18 E/F/G Super Hornet. In terms of basic on-paper metrics such as speed, agility, operating range, and payload capacity there is very little distinction between the conventional model of the F-35 and the F/A-18 E. In fact, the Super Hornet outstrips the F-35 in some areas like speed and range while fielding a nearly identical set of ordinance.
The chief virtue of the F-35 is its stealth capabilities. Proponents argue this is what sets the F-35 apart from its rivals. Certainly this is a valuable quality, given the sort of offensive missions that Canada and Australia have previously employed their air forces for. But the F-35 is just not that stealthy. When fully armed, weapons must be carried on external hardpoints that completely remove its cloak of invisibility. The fighter’s enclosed weapons bays, designed to maintain the airframe’s stealth, have only a limited space for ordinance. Even under a restricted payload, the F-35 is not a true stealth aircraft in the sense that the B-2 bomber, or even the F-22 fighter, is. As pointed out by critical reports in Air Power Australia Analyses, the F-35 departs from stealth ‘shaping’ principles in the structure of the aircraft. The underside of the aircraft does not match the flat profile found on other stealth aircraft, which under certain situations gives it a larger radar signature.
Does this matter? We argue it does. The F-35 meets stealth requirements that were originally outlined within its 1997 design specifications. However, since that time, surface-to-air radar and missile technology has increasingly become more accurate and lethal, meaning the F-35 will likely be unable to operate independently in hostile airspace. Instead, the fighter will need to be held in reserve until air defenses have been neutralised by traditional means: true stealth aircraft, dedicated electronic warfare aircraft (like the ‘Growler’ variant of the Super Hornet), and cruise missiles.
So, the choice for Canada and Australia will be to operate the F-35 with limited offensive capability and less-than-absolute stealth, or with full offensive capability and no meaningful stealth what so ever. Whatever the decision, the Canadian and Australian air forces will be dependent on dedicated anti-air suppression weapon systems in order to confidently operate their F-35s – a continuation of the present situation in operating the existing fleet of CF-18 and F/A-18 Hornets. The Australian air force might have already tacitly agreed on this point, as it has procured the sub-systems necessary to operate twelve of its Super Hornets as ‘Growlers’.
In our assessment, the F-35 is not indisputably superior to some of the other aircraft currently available for procurement by the Canadian and Australian governments: the Eurofighter Typhoon; the American Super Hornet; the Swedish Gripen; or, the French Rafale. It does, however, comes with a dramatically higher per unit ‘fly-away’ cost to its competitors – The United States Department of Defense’s 2012 Budget Estimates put the Air Force’s F-35s at US$151 million each, as opposed to US$57 million for the Navy’s Super Hornets. Granted, the fly-away costs for the F-35 will fall as (or rather, if) production ramps up, but the aircraft will remain a premium-priced option.
None of this is to say that the F-35 is a bad aircraft – some stealth may indeed be better than no stealth – and given a ‘fly-off’ evaluation it may well prove to be the superior aircraft to any of the aforementioned options across the full spectrum of performance metrics. But this is not a sure thing. Nor is it to say that the Canadian and Australian governments necessarily ought to withdraw from the Joint Strike Fighter programme – such a decision carries political consequences that run deeper than just air power capabilities. Instead, it is merely to illustrate the point that the F-35 is not a silver bullet for Canadian and Australian air power requirements. All options should be put back on the table for careful analysis.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally envisioned several months ago as an op-ed. I have updated it to reflect the present situation.