(Volume 25 Issue 4)
By Vincent J. Curtis
Canada’s Future Fighter Capability Project is proceeding without any agreed upon idea of the future of air combat. Deciding which fighter to acquire, then, is like trying to decide which tool you are going to buy without having much knowledge of the job you need it to do. Any discussion of the relative merits or capability of the tools will end up being a discussion about undeclared, underlying beliefs instead.
So it is worthwhile to spend some time thinking about what are the likely needs Canada will have for air power, and then decide what the best fit is.
What we know for sure is that NORAD and NATO are not going to go away within the next thirty to forty years, because Russia isn’t going to go away. Canada’s role within NORAD is the air defense of North America in cooperation with the United States. Practically, this means that the RCAF needs a high flying and fast interceptor with long range. The RCAF needs to be able to intercept Russian bombers flying over the high Arctic.
Canada’s air role in NATO has been to contribute to the gaining of air superiority against Russian-made fighters. The air superiority role once placed a requirement on a fighter for tight turning or for speed in diving; but missile technology and the “platform” concept may be changing that.
A third demand upon fighter aircraft has been for surface to ground attack. After air superiority has been gained, fighters don’t have much other practical use except to attack targets on the ground. Any aircraft equipped with guns, bombs, or missiles is capable of attacking targets on the ground, though some are better adapted to it than others.
For example, in World War II, the P-47 Thunderbolt, because of its toughness, was better adapted to strafing ground targets than the similarly armed P-51 Mustang. The Hawker Typhoon underperformed at high altitudes, but turned into an excellent ground attack fast mover.
In South Vietnam, jet fighters were used exclusively for ground attack, while over North Vietnam most of the missions of jet aircraft were for attacking targets on the ground. Some air combat did occur over the North, but a concentrated effort by the USAF eliminated the North Vietnamese Air Force and thereafter the North relied exclusively on surface to air missiles for its air defense.
It seems, then, that the question the RCAF needs to answer is whether or to what degree it wants to be able to engage in tactical air-to-ground combat. The RCAF has shied away from that role. In the last forty years, the only significant occasions when CF-18s were so employed was in Libya (2011) and in Iraq against ISIS (2014-2016). The electronic suites in the Hornets had to be changed and upgraded for this role because the original avionics of the Hornet was for air combat
At this point it is useful to differentiate between real air power and special operations involving air assets. Real air power requires mass. Real air power means literally hundreds of aircraft and thousands of sorties. Special operations involving air assets involves a small number of aircraft equipped for special missions. The Israeli attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor was such a mission that involved F-15s and F-16s. A single CF-18 intercepting a Russian Tu-95 (Bear) bomber is another example of a special operation.
The F-35 seems to be an aircraft of the special operations category. One platform is supposed to be able to simultaneously track, scan, and attack multiple targets both in the air and on the ground and be invisible to radar. It can fly a long way on internal fuel and carry up to 18,000 pounds of ordinance. It is rather maneuverable. One plane can do a lot. But you pay for all these capabilities, and that means that on a limited budget you can buy only a few of them.
In addition, all these capabilities make for a complicated aircraft, and so the operational up time may be less than for a cheaper, simpler aircraft due to the higher maintenance requirements and costs. In choosing the F-35, Canada sacrifices mass.
The acquisition question comes down to this: Is it better to spend money on capabilities you might never use, or to keep it in your pocket against future contingencies? The F-16V and the Block III F/A-18 Super Hornet will be able to meet 98 to 100 percent of the operational requirements of the RCAF over the next twenty to thirty years. We can say this because the US Navy is purchasing new Super Hornets and the USAF is buying new F-15E Strike Eagles and refurbishing older F-16s for service into the 2040s. They are doing so because the “augmented reality” software, sensors, and networking that make the F-35 so
cutting-edge have not been completely de-bugged. All the operational testing of the F-35 has been with small numbers of friendlies and targets; engineers do not know if network overload would occur when large numbers of aircraft flew together. And we assume that stealth remains undefeatable over the next forty years.
Does RCAF see itself as a kind of special operations force stealthily taking on multiple targets in the air and on the ground simultaneously alone? If so, then a force of F-35s makes sense. But as a component of the total air power of NORAD, NATO, or a coalition with the United States, then the F-16V or Super Hornet makes more sense because Canada isn’t going to be the lead air power or conduct independent missions. If stealth isn’t essential to the RCAF mission, and the more the mission profile is of a fast air-superiority fighter-interceptor, the more the F-16 is favored. W