Anyone who’s been paying attention to the Canadian Forces over the past few years knows that our current front-line fighter aircraft, the CF-18, is in desperate need of replacement.
Canada currently wants to buy 65 or so replacement jets for the CF-18. The Royal Canadian Air Force is leaning toward Lockheed Martin’s F-35, a fifth-generation “stealth” fighter in development for the US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. However, the F-35 program is increasingly controversial on both sides of the border due to ballooning costs (something that happens all too often in military procurement, alas). The Canadian government has recently been backing away from the idea a little and is reviewing other options as well.
Part of the problem Canada’s facing in looking at the F-35, though, is that we’re trying to pay a premium for a “one size fits all” aircraft that can do pretty much everything. The current CF-18’s high-end, front-line capabilities aren’t actually needed for many of its day-to-day tasks — sovereignty enforcement and patrols (think of scoping out Russian Bear bombers snooping up north), counter-terrorism (no, you don’t need a latest-generation fighter to take down an airliner), pilot training, etc. Canada is increasingly involved in counter-narcotics operations, and such operations don’t face a significant air-to-air threat. The vastly superior capabilities of an F-35 would be well in excess of those day-to-day requirements.
Furthermore, even in case of a high-intensity war, Canada expects to be fighting alongside NATO allies–and for the foreseeable future, NATO is fairly safe to assume that it will assume air supremacy fairly rapidly in most conceivable conflicts. Once the enemy’s air force is knocked down and most of their anti-aircraft capability is degraded, tasks like reconnaissance, strike, and ground support operations can be flown by less capable aircraft.
One might usefully compare Canada’s decision about replacing the CF-18 to its recent conundrum about replacing the Army’s Leopard I main battle tank. I remember when I was in uniform that there were active plans in the Army about dropping main battle tanks entirely in favour of wheeled anti-tank guns. While some theorists felt that mobility, sensors, and communications would make heavy tanks obsolete, other Canadian officers disagreed–and were proven right in Afghanistan, where the Canadian Army quickly learned they needed the protection and firepower that only a big tank could bring.
So while there will be those in the Canadian political environment who push for Canada to follow New Zealand’s example and get out of the air combat business entirely, that would be deeply unwise. Whether one agrees with the individual deployments or not on a political level, the fact remains that Canada has deployed CF-18s into combat in three wars (the Persian Gulf War, Kosovo, and the Libyan conflict) in the past 25 years where an air threat was faced and air support of ground forces was required, and fought in a fourth (Afghanistan) where, though the RCAF didn’t deploy fighters, Canadian soldiers relied on allied fighter aircraft for ground support. We’re a NATO member with treaty obligations, and so just as the Canadian Army needs to have main battle tanks to fight in high-intensity conflicts, we need advanced, front-line fighter aircraft in case we need to fight a war. So I fully agree that Canada needs to have a front-line fighter capability.
However, just because a high-intensity front-line capability is needed does not mean that such a capability will be suitable for all military operations. There are operational needs in the Canadian Army that, as powerful and tough as it is, the Leopard tank simply isn’t the best choice for. Main battle tanks are extremely heavy and difficult to transport cheaply or quickly in sufficient numbers to operational theatres; rapid reaction forces tend to use lighter vehicles. Tanks do not travel as quickly as wheeled vehicles on roads and so are often less suitable for certain battlefield tasks like convoy escort. Armoured reconnaissance is usually done by lighter vehicles like Canada’s Coyote vehicle. At home, the Canadian Army didn’t deploy tanks to disaster zones like High River, Alberta to provide offroad capabilities–they sent lighter armoured vehicles. So even armies intending to be able to fight high-intensity wars need an array of supplementary vehicles to better serve such supporting roles on the battlefield.
Only in the past 20 years or so has Canada tried to use exclusively front-line fighters for the day-to-day operational tasks I listed above. Canada used to use more than 130 Canadair CF-5 aircraft alongside the CF-18 for many of those tasks. And they did so at the height of the Cold War, to boot, when a high-intensity conflict was a pressing possibility. Even if World War 3 had broken out, there wasn’t the expectation that the CF-5 would be useless; on the contrary, there were plans to deploy two squadrons of them to Norway to protect NATO’s northern flank.
A BETTER WAY
There are good reasons to consider the F-35. Several of our allies have committed to buy them and so we would be more interoperable with the air forces that the RCAF is likely to fight alongside in the future, able to share tactical and operational lessons learned and cooperate on matters like pilot training. There is the potential of significant industrial benefits to Canadian companies if Canada participates in the program. And Lockheed Martin, though it is a US company, has a significant Canadian arm as well (full disclosure: I have a family member who works for Lockheed Martin Canada, though not anywhere related to the F-35 program). Tactically, it would be more than a match for any other aircraft out there.
That said, if there is another highly advanced fighter that Canada could procure that would provide close to the same capability but at a better cost, we need to consider that as well. Alternatives like the Swedish Gripen, Boeing’s F-18E/F (a more advanced version of our current CF-18s), and the Eurofighter are available; while not stealth fighters per se, they are nonetheless highly advanced and probably significantly less expensive. There are also reasons to question whether built-in stealth capability will be militarily effective over the long-term, and hence worth the added expense.
So I think Canada should do two things:
1) Proceed with a purchase of the F-35 or another advanced fighter, but in smaller numbers — enough for two squadrons plus those required for training. Somewhere between 25 and 40 aircraft, rather than 65. The Netherlands, a country militarily similar to Canada, recently decided to buy a reduced number of 37 F-35s; that example should be followed.
2) The RCAF should, at the same time, procure several dozen (50-80 or so) light combat aircraft to provide more efficient options for operational tasks like Arctic sovereignty enforcement, counter-terrorism and narcotics, airspace protection, and wartime support roles–a “new-generation CF-5,” if you will. There are a couple of off-the-shelf options available, such as:
— The British Aerospace Hawk trainer/light attack aircraft. What’s attractive about this option is that it’s already being flown by the RCAF as a trainer aircraft.
— The various turbo-prop aircraft being considered for the US Air Force’s Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance project.
— Soon to be available is the Scorpion twin-engine fighter being developed by Textron (maker of the Cessna). This is being developed as a low-price, low-cost-of-operation aircraft without any government dollars using commercial best practices, specifically to cater to air forces under tight budget constraints. Canada purchased the CF-18 over the F-16 back in the 1970s due partly to the fact that the F-18 had two engines, and Canadian officials were concerned about single-engine aircraft on long patrols over the Arctic. (I’ll point out that the F-35 is a single-engine aircraft).
Furthermore, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Canadian aerospace industry could build one of the above light aircraft options here in Canada under licence. Embraer and Cessna, two of the manufacturers of aircraft mentioned above, are competitors to Bombardier–the company that built the CF-5 in the first place.
My take is that, despite questions about stealth and the capabilities of competing aircraft, the technological edge offered by the F-35 is probably the best option for a country with a very small air force. So, I think Canada should stay in the F-35 program for alliance, political, and economic considerations and crucially to maintain a front-line high-intensity air combat capability–but reduce the planned buy to a couple dozen aircraft. Use part of the savings to buy a much larger number of light attack aircraft (and see if we can build them here in Canada, for more industrial benefits and to enhance Canada’s military self-sufficiency by increasing our aerospace sector’s ability to produce military aircraft).
It’s a better, and if done right probably significantly cheaper, option than 65 F-35s.