The F-35 is Not the Silver Bullet of Air Power

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.    


The Best Defence: A PhD Retrospective

A few months ago I defended my doctoral thesis, and next week I will walk across the stage during the University’s convocation ceremony.  I will officially no longer be a graduate student: After five years of work, I will be a doctor of philosophy.

What does that mean?  How do you explain to the people in your life (family, friends, baristas) the nature of what you’ve been doing with for several years?  It’s a doctoral degree, so you can insist that people call you “doctor” – but then you run the risk of having them ask you about that weird rash they’ve got.  It’s the highest level of academic achievement; nice and all, but most people stopped caring about “academic achievement” when they left high school and entered the so-called real world.  Neither of these common descriptions really capture the essence of the enterprise.

What is a PhD?  I offer four answers to that question.

For starters, it’s rare.  According to Statistics Canada, 0.7% of the Canadian population over the age of 15 has a doctorate.  That’s about the same number of people (a bit shy of 200,000) as the population of St. John’s, Newfoundland – the 20th-largest city in Canada.  When you’re in academia, you basically live in that imaginary city: Most of the people in your professional life either have a PhD or are working on one.  It’s the price of admission in a very hierarchy-conscious world, and so it quickly becomes something that you take for granted.  Having a PhD seems normal and unremarkable, and it is neither.

Second, a PhD is difficult.  The proof is in the completion and attrition rates: In the social sciences at Canadian universities, only 52% of PhD students complete their program after a decade of study.  This are slightly lower than comparable figures from the US (from the PhD Completion Project, unfortunately no longer freely available online).  After ten long years, barely more than half of would-be doctors of philosophy in the social sciences have succeeded.  Almost as many people have quit their PhD program by then; less than a tenth of those who began are still plugging away.

In the mythology of academia, a PhD is a four-year degree. The American data show that just over 20% of American social science PhD students finish their degree within that time.  If the Canadian picture at the four-year mark is as comparable to that data as the ten-year figures are, then the reality is that very few of us manage to finish within the mythical four years.  So, if you’re into your fifth year or beyond, realize that you’re in good company.  It’s a long hard slog, and you need more than just intelligence to see the end of it.  Being smart just gets you in to a PhD program: Perseverance and strong support from a spouse, family or friends get you through it.

Third, a PhD is more than the sum of its parts.  It’s a doctorate of philosophy because you are supposedly in possession not only of expertise on 18th century naval warfare, or ancient Etruscan comic books, or whatever, but also of some meta-quality – some set of cognitive skills, some form of über-critical thinking – that enables you to acquire expertise in new fields.  (Expertise is not fungible, though: Being an expert in one thing doesn’t automatically make you an expert in anything else, something all PhD-holders would do well to remember!)  I suggest that it is this quality that is the definitive characteristic of a PhD.

The degree represents more than the courses you took, the books you read, or the research you did.  It signifies that you have demonstrated the ability to push back the frontiers of human knowledge, no matter how incrementally or provisionally.  This is what separates a PhD from the expertise of practitioners (born of long experience) or of journalists (born of long observation).  As one long-time doctor of philosophy put it, “When somebody says to me, ‘I’ve been doing X for so long that I practically have a PhD in it’, what that really indicates is that they don’t understand what a PhD is.”  This ability to expand knowledge – both your own, and that of humanity – is the ultimate transferable skill.

Fourth and finally, a PhD is intrinsically satisfying.  Or it should be, because if you don’t find it intrinsically satisfying (if you’re doing it to enhance employment prospects, or if you want to be a “professor” because you like the idea of tenure and long summers, or to make your mother proud, or for any other sort of external reason), then chances are you’ll have a miserable time, or you won’t finish, or both.  If, on the other hand, you have a hard time understanding why other people don’t share your enthusiasm for 18th century naval warfare, ancient Etruscan comic books, or whatever, then you probably know what I mean.

For me, this has been the best job in the world.  Not the best paid by any means – although I’ve had exceptionally good support from the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies – but by far and away the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had.  My propensity to ask questions and my desire to follow the answers to wherever they lead me is an asset in this life, rather than a liability (as it was in the public service.)  I have also had the further and, these days, incredibly rare good fortune to be able to continue doing this job, minus the “genteel poverty of graduate school”, at a dynamic young university.  Don’t tell them this, but if it weren’t for the pesky demands of feeding and clothing my progeny, and myself, I might just do it for free.

To those whom I am leaving behind in the ranks of graduate students, be you in coursework, or in the grips of candidacy exams, or in the no-man’s land of “all but dissertation”: Chin up and soldier on.  Make conscious, strategic choices about how you spend your time.  Follow the lines of inquiry that interest you, but keep one eye on how they all fit together.  Have a plan for how you will shape all that research into a thesis that you can defend, because the defence is really the crucible.  The defence, not convocation, is the ritual through which you are transmuted from a graduate student to a scholarly peer.  Realize that by the time your defence arrives, you will know more about the specific topic of your thesis than anybody else in the room.  On that terrain, the best defence is not a good offence; it is excellence.