By Vincent J. Curtis
Canada’s glacial fighter jet replacement project made a small advance over the last year. The problem is the advance is down the slope of Mount Mediocrity.
The French Dassault Rafale, withdrew from competition because of the requirement for interoperability with the USAF in the air defence of North America; and the matter of economic benefit to Canada. The possible third factor is that the Rafale is conceived more as a deep penetration fighter-bomber than an air superiority fighter.
There remains the following entrants: the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet Block III, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Eurofighter Typhoon, and Sweden’s Gripen E model. None are particularly inspiring.
The Boeing Super Hornet is probably the most sensible entrant of the group. With the United States Navy renewing its commitment to the Super-Hornet program, the RCAF wouldn’t be getting an orphan. Interoperability with the USAF is assured. Economic advantages to Canada will be met with increased work at Boeing’s facility in Western Canada. Finally, the transition from the Hornet to the Super Hornet should be the smoothest of all the entrants. The major impediment to acquiring it is the Liberal government’s spat with Boeing. Boeing accused Liberal favorite Bombardier of receiving unfair subsidies (gasp!), and blocked Bombardier exports to the US. In response, the Liberals cancelled a purchase of 18 Super Hornets that would have filled an RCAF capability gap. Instead, the government decided to acquire aging CF-18s from Crown Assets Disposal – Australia Division.
Which brings us to the Eurofighter Typhoon. A major player in the Eurofighter project is Boeing rival Airbus, who stepped in to save Bombardier from Boeing’s trade action. Airbus partnered with Bombardier to build the C-series passenger aircraft at Airbus’s Alabama facility, by-passing U.S. import rules. Economic benefit to Canada in a Eurofighter acquisition would be for Bombardier to assemble the aircraft from parts shipped from Europe. The problem with this aircraft is two-fold: it is extremely expensive, and it’s crippled by a part shortage. The German Luftwaffe has exactly four of 128 Typhoons flyable because it can’t replace a defensive electronics pod. Without the pod, the aircraft can’t carry out operational missions. Unlike America’s, the European supply chain is lacking in depth.
The Saab Gripen E model excites a lot of people, being Volvo’s take on Lockheed-Martin’s F-16. The problems are all those associated with a small, specialized supplier. The aircraft was designed to meet Sweden’s needs, and its future development will depend upon Sweden’s needs. The economic benefits to Canada remain an open question.
That leaves the F-35, which has been written about extensively in this space. The economic benefits to Canada are already settled if Canada purchases it. Its technical benefits are Gen 5 stealth and whiz-bang video-game technology. The problems are that it is expensive to buy and maintain. Its technology is unproven in actual combat. Finally, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau swore a blood-oath in 2015 not to buy the F-35 because the Harper Conservatives wanted it.
Three other aircraft not on the list would lift the competition out of mediocrity. The first is Lockheed-Martin’s F-16 V, which would be acquired in two variants: a clean interceptor and air-superiority dogfighter; and a fighter-bomber, for when Canada wants to bomb another third-world hell hole with impunity. The F-16 is inexpensive and cheap to maintain, which means lots of flying time for pilots.
Second, is the brand new F-15X. The USAF believes the Gen 4 F-15 will be front-line relevant beyond the 2050s.
Finally, as proposed here, the Mark 3 Avro Arrow, Canada’s aircraft for Canada’s needs. Russia recently flew two Tu-160 bombers to Venezuela. Only the big Arrow would have had the legs to intercept them over the Atlantic.
However, no career is threatened by opting for the conventional.