This is a question that’s been asked by many over the past year and a half, ever since the government announced a single-source contract to purchase 65 of the still-under-development “fifth generation” advanced fighter aircraft. In the fall of 2010 I wrote in favour of this decision; although aghast at the nine billion dollar price tag for so few planes, I concluded that our air force needed the very best technology to make up for our ever-dwindling numbers. Having been watching this debate with great interest for the past 18 months, I’m afraid I have to reconsider my opinion.
Progress on the F-35 Lightning II has been plagued with problems and delays, with nation after nation cutting back on their planned orders as the price tag threatens to climb ever higher. The F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant has been particularly troublesome, and has called into question the fidelity of the entire aircraft design. Did the designers make too many compromises to try and fit too many roles into a single airframe? Is the STOVL variant a white elephant that has unnecessarily sent the program costs soaring higher than any interceptor? Why did the plane’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, continue to pump money into a back-up engine design even when the US Congress cancelled funding for it? To many observers, the F-35 program has come to represent all that has gone wrong with the American defence industry, with giant corporations bloated from decades of government largesse unable to work efficiently or quickly, yet still nimble enough to lobby effectively in Washington, DC, whenever defence programs look threatened by budget cuts.
In truth, except for the price tag, none of the political-industrial controversy around this project should affect Canada’s decision to buy, if the F-35 is the right aircraft for our military needs. It does indeed incorporate the most advanced technologies available, including sophisticated sensors, stealth technology, and labour-saving control systems vital to today’s over-taxed pilot. But is it the only choice? The Eurofighter Typhoon has entered service with other NATO countries, and the Swedish Gripen has a proven track record of success, for a fraction of the cost of the F-35. And while the deployment of these fighters may be limited, it’s still far more than the unproven F-35.
But any one of these options brings with it a high cost that goes far beyond the sticker price. One of the difficulties of adopting any new piece of hardware is the significant delay as operators train and get comfortable with it. Canada’s fighter jocks have been flying the F-18 Hornet for 25 years: even if we received our next-generation fighters today it would be several years before the training organization was in place and our pilots were competent enough in their new aircraft to risk their lives in actual military operations.
Happily, there is another option. 20 years ago McDonnell-Douglas recognized some of the deficiencies of its F-18 design, and it began producing for the American military an enhanced F-18 concept known as the Super Hornet. This aircraft would be very familiar to our pilots, but it incorporates fundamental improvements to effectiveness and survivability in combat. It may not be a seductive “fifth-generation” fighter like the F-35, or the F-22 Raptor currently in service with the USAF, but it is more than a match for any foreign forces the Canadian Air Force can expect to do battle against in the next 20 years, including the current generation of fighters being exported by the Russians and, in time, the Chinese.
The Super Hornet is what you might call a “fourth-and-a-half-generation” fighter. While it may not be quite as capable as the F-35, it has the tremendous advantage of being battle-proven, immediately available for delivery, capable of immediate deployment by Canada’s current fighter pilots and training establishment, with all this coming at a fraction of the cost of its unproven, incomplete, unfamiliar and risk-laden competitor. Does Canada need the F-35? No, we need the best all-round option to equip our air force, defend our country and serve our military needs around the world. That option already exists, and is staring us in the face. Canada needs the F-18 Super Hornet.
F-35 photos from www.jeffhead.com
F-18 photo from www.freeairlineindustry.blogspot.com