Editor’s Note: No one disputes the fact that Canada needs to procure new fighter jets, but that’s where universal agreement ends. Several aircraft types are competing to be Canada’s next fighter jet. In this ongoing series, defence analyst Richard Shimooka examines the pros and cons of each contender. He wraps up the final installment with a look at the Dassault Rafale and the Lockheed Martin F-35.
The Dassault Rafale is a French multi-role fighter currently under production. It emerged during the Future European Fighter Aircraft (FEFA) program – a multinational effort between France, West Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, to produce Europe’s next fighter aircraft.
Paris required a single aircraft type to replace seven that were in service during the 1970s: the Mirage F.1, III, IV and 3000, the F-8 Crusader and the Étendard IV and Super Étendard. The last three presented a significant challenge, as they formed the core of the Aéronavale’s (French naval aviation’s) carrier-borne capability. The other partners resisted adding such a condition to the FEFA requirements, as none of them utilized the catapult launch and arrested landing system. Consequently, France would part ways with the other partners, and Dassault started development. The Rafale’s concept demonstrator flew in 1986, and it entered service in May 2001. The aircraft has seen incremental improvement since then, with the current production standard known as F.3. The Rafale has seen significant operational service over Afghanistan, Libya and Mali.
Dassault currently has only one major customer, France, which operates three versions: conventional takeoff single and dual seat configurations, and a carrier version. One hundred and ten have been produced, with 70 more under contract. Yet, the Rafale’s export record has been marred by several disappointing outcomes. A number of expected deals have fallen through during contract negotiations, most notably with the United Arab Emirates and Morocco. Dassault’s fortunes turned in 2011, when Rafale won the Indian medium multi-role combat aircraft competition. This was a highly sought after contract, with six different manufacturers offering their aircraft. Initial indications suggest the contract may add up to 189 aircraft to Dassault’s order book, significantly improving its production scale and the opportunity for manufacturing learning. At the time of writing, final contract negotiations were still ongoing between the two parties.
From its inception, the Rafale was designed to be an advanced multi-role fighter, much in the same vein as the F/A-18E. It took advantage of new technologies and aerodynamic approaches to produce a highly maneuverable and capable aircraft. This included the use of an unconventional canard-delta design and new composite structures. Consequently, the Rafale is in a similar class to the Eurofighter, but with small differences. Its twin Snecma M88 engines produce approximately five to 10 per cent less thrust than the EJ-200 that powers its European cousin, depending on the flight profile and power setting.
The aircraft also made trade-offs in aerodynamic performance to improve its low observable features and multi-role capabilities. This included blended body features, and the internal carriage of several key systems. The aircraft also possesses excellent low-level and low speed performance, in part due to the carrier landing and related requirements. The aircraft has a very large air-to-air combat radius, which is said to exceed 850 nautical miles (NM) according to the manufacturer.
Overall, the Rafale is considered a highly maneuverable, high performance aircraft with aerodynamic performance on par with most contemporary western fighters of its generation. One of the Rafale’s key advantages lies with its avionics systems, which have benefited from strong and consistent investment by the French government. The most apparent upgrade was the installation of the Thales RBE2 active electronically scanning array, or AESA, radar. The aircraft’s other systems are also significant. The forward sensor optronics (FSO) system is a combined infrared, TV and laser rangefinder system mounted on the Rafale’s nose and primarily optimized for the air-to-air field. FSO is complemented by the Thales Damocles external sensor pod with FLIR and TV capabilities, which is primarily designed for the air-to-ground field. Combined, these systems provide a pilot with the ability to passively scan and track his surrounding environment without betraying his position through active electronic emissions. The Rafale also integrally mounts an electronic warfare (EW) defensive warfare suite called SPECTRA. It allows for the identification of incoming threats and deploys countermeasures when required. SPECTRA also provides a limited electronic signals detection and jamming capability. The data from these systems are brought together by the aircraft’s core architecture, the Thales Modular Data Processing Unit. As with other sensor fusion systems, it integrates data and displays them for a pilot in an ergonomic fashion. The Rafale’s avionics systems were highly praised by French pilots during the Libyan campaign, for their ability to manage the combat environment. That operation also displayed another strength of the aircraft: high mission availability rates. Dassault designed the aircraft with easy to replace systems and modules that decrease maintenance time spent on the fighter.
Despite these advantages, the Rafale is not without shortcomings. As with other aircraft of its generation, it must carry all of its weapon stores externally, which increases drag and electromagnetic visibility. Yet its most significant issue relates to interoperability. The French military has indigenously developed a complete ecosystem of capabilities and systems, in part due to the Gaullist efforts to create a strong independent state. The Rafale’s capabilities reflect these policy choices. The aircraft almost completely relies on French systems, either indigenously produced or as part of a multinational group. This has been a major selling point to some of Rafale’s potential customers, who were worried about American influence. Yet it is problematic for the RCAF and its strong operational relationship with the United States. Purchasing the Rafale would lock Canada into Dassault’s supply chain and decisions, or else assume the total cost for upgrading the aircraft to enhance its interoperability and operational relevance. This is particularly evident with the ordnance the fighter is cleared to carry, the vast majority of which is French made. The Rafale is only cleared for a limited selection of American weapons, primarily the Raytheon Paveway II laser-guided bomb. It has not integrated any weapons from the GPS-guided joint direct attack munitions (JDAM) family or the new small diameter bomb. While the French have developed a similar, more capable weapon (Safran AASM), at $300,000 per unit it is 12 times the cost of the JDAM, which is $25,000 per unit. While the AASM’s costs will decline as more units are produced, it will only slightly narrow the wide disparity between the two systems.
Although choosing Rafale would diversify Canada’s military and industrial relationships, it would come at the detriment of interoperability with its closest ally. This can have operational consequences in a wide array of areas. During the Kosovo conflict, for example, the Canadian Air Force at Aviano purchased ordnance directly from deployed United States Air Force units. Such advantages would be largely negated if the RCAF went with the Rafale.
It should be noted that Dassault and the French government have facilitated operational interoperability with allies in other areas. For example, the Rafale employs the NATO standard Link 16 datalink, which allows the aircraft to communicate seamlessly and share data with allied fighters.
Cost and Industrial Benefits
As with other European fighters, the Rafale suffers from a small order book and an inefficient production rate. With only 180 fighters slated for French service, to be introduced over the space of 15 years, the yearly rate of production is about 10 to 15 aircraft per year, or roughly one a month. Consequently, Dassault is unable to develop economies of scale or efficiencies developed through a manufacturing learning, leading to higher than normal costs. In 2010, the French Ministry of Defence suggested the unit cost as 101.1 million Euros, with a Court of Inquiry pegging it at 125.3 million Euros. The actual figure probably is closer to the former for export, particularly given the Rafale’s recent success in the Indian MRCA competition. Operational costs are approximately US $18,000 per hour, according to the French government. However, that figure only provides a rough comparison, due to different accounting practices between governments. At $18,000, the Rafale’s operational cost should be around that of other aircraft like the F-35 or the F/A-18E.
The industrial benefits package is likely to be significant, meeting the Government of Canada’s requirements for 100 per cent of the contract’s value being reinvested into the domestic economy. The question remains (as with all programs) as to the proportion: will the offsets be direct or indirect, and what level of quality will the latter category entail?
Dassault has sourced components from several major Canadian subcontractors in the past, including Heroux-Devtek and Pratt and Whitney Canada. It has also promised that subcontractors will retain any intellectual property for the parts they produce. However, it is questionable whether Canada will be able to obtain major contracts on foreign-operated Rafales, given France’s preference for national producers. It is also doubtful whether those contracts would be particularly valuable, given the relatively small size of Dassault’s order sheet. Finally, Canada’s probable purchase timeframe (2016 to 2019) is likely nearer to the end of the aircraft’s production life. Thus, Dassault will have to provide more indirect offsets to meet the Government of Canada’s purchasing requirements.
The Rafale’s future prospects largely reflect that of its current state, with the same benefits and problems. Development would continue to refine the aircraft’s already strong multi-role capabilities. Dassault has actively upgraded the fighter’s capabilities in an iterative manner, and plans to do so in the future. This includes a directional infrared counter measures system, and a new model of the Damocles targeting pod. The ability to upgrade the aircraft is aided by its modularity. For example, components in the Thales MDPU avionics suite can easily be replaced with new versions when required.
However, the underlying problem with a possible Canadian purchase is whether the aircraft will be upgraded in a fashion that meets the air force’s requirements. If the French and/or Indian governments do not fund improvements deemed necessary by the RCAF, it will likely bear these costs alone. This is a significant risk for future cost escalation and military capability.
The Rafale offers a very strong out-of-the-box capability compared to other aircraft, albeit at a higher cost and with serious implications. Its long range and effective multi-role capability are major assets for the RCAF, but the questions surrounding interoperability and its future upgrade path are considerable.
LOCKHEED MARTIN F-35A LIGHTNING II
The Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II (also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF) is a single-engine, multi-role fighter currently under development and limited production by the Lockheed Martin Corporation in the United States. The program emerged from a consolidation of several aircraft replacement programs during the 1990s. They represented an entire generation of lightweight tactical aircraft then in service with the United States military, including the F-16A/B/C/D Fighting Falcon, F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornet, A-10 Warthog and the AV-8 Harrier. These four aircraft were procured in large numbers during the 1980s and 1990s, and represented the bulk of the U.S. military’s strike capability. Lockheed and Boeing submitted designs for the JSF in a winner-takes-all competition, which the F-35 won in 2001. The contract was initially for 2,800 aircraft, but this was reduced in 2002 to 2,443, where it has remained since.
International participation was a strong component of the JSF program from the outset. Many U.S. allies had purchased their current tactical fighter aircraft in the 1980s, which required replacement in the 2010 to 2020 timeframe. A unique multinational participation scheme was established, where foreign countries could become risk-sharing partners in the JSF’s development and obtain the opportunity to bid on subcontracts. A total of eight countries joined as partners in the program, including Canada. Approximately 660 F-35s will go to partner countries, with at least 200 more to be sold through foreign military sales.
The F-35 was designed with a novel operational concept in mind. Previously, aircraft development had largely focused on improving aerodynamic performance, such as speed or maneuverability, as a path to superiority. The F-35 largely eschewed this approach. Its maneuvering performance objectives roughly sought to maintain the standards set by previous generations of fighters like the F-16 and earlier legacy F/A-18. These aircraft exhibited outstanding maneuverability, which the F-35 would only attempt to emulate in certain regimes. This included high acceleration, instantaneous turn rate and slow speed nose authority, among others, which are generally critical for modern air-to-air combat. This design philosophy also provides excellent performance in areas that are useful for other mission profiles, such as air-to-ground strikes.
The F-35’s streamlined design and fuel-efficient Pratt and Whitney F135 engine provides the aircraft with excellent range. Its combat radius with two 2,000-pound bombs is just over 600 NM. Unburdened with such weight, the F-35 will likely be able to go significantly beyond 700 NM, and reach all major forward operating locations in Canada without refueling.
Yet, the aircraft does not devote effort to performance areas that were of lesser value to a pilot, or those that would increase the jet’s cost with minimal operational benefit. For example, the F-35’s maximum speed is only Mach 1.6. While many aircraft (like the F/A-18 and F-16) could theoretically reach higher speeds, they could not do so while carrying any appreciable combat load. The Lightning II can reach supersonic speeds carrying a full internal ordnance load.
Instead of focusing on aerodynamic improvements to provide pilots with an edge, designers looked to incorporate technological advances in two different areas: low observable systems and advanced avionics. First, the F-35 was designed to be a very low observable aircraft, along the lines of other “stealth” aircraft like the F-22, B-2 and F-117. Yet its systems were designed to be much more durable and affordable than those of legacy stealth aircraft, which had prevented them from being introduced on a wide scale. Moreover, these systems were not just aimed at avoiding detection by radar, but also included most common sensor systems across the electromagnetic spectrum. It would allow pilots much greater opportunity to operate without being detected in contested airspace, which by itself is a significant advantage.
The second, and arguably the more important, developmental focus was on the F-35’s avionics, specifically in regards to its sensors, commutations and computing capabilities. The primary goal of these additions would be to provide pilots a superior ability to detect, identify and track adversaries and targets. Several key systems were developed. The most advanced sensor is likely the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81 AESA radar, with low probability intercept modes, as well as limited jamming and hacking capabilities. It is backed up by a new generation of electro-optical and infrared sensors. Another was the Harris Corporation Multifunction Advanced Data link (MADL), which allowed large volume data transmission with a low probability of detection or intercept. This in effect creates a flying battlefield network, where aircraft share information.
Linking these systems together is the F-35’s onboard computer system, which processes data from all onboard and offboard sources, then presents prioritized data to pilots through a display projected onto a helmet-mounted visor and large touch screen display. Combined with the advanced sensors, these systems should provide a pilot with a superior situational awareness over any adversary.
Significant attention was also paid towards developing aspects of the F-35’s capability indirectly related to combat capability. The aircraft is intended to have a very high operational availability rate, largely achieved through several technological advances. The Lightning II utilizes a highly modular design, which makes major subcomponents and assemblies easy to replace on the flight line. In addition, the aircraft uses a large amount of internal sensors that provide real time prognostics on component health during flight. Replacement parts can be quickly ordered, based upon a forecast of need, through a global logistics network and delivered where and when required. These capabilities are not precisely novel; however, they leverage significant developments in the civil aviation industry over the past two decades. In particular, prognostic systems are becoming widespread among airlines to increase the efficiency of their maintenance, repair and overhaul systems.
The F-35 also benefits from significant investments in engine and component reliability driven by the civil aviation industry. Its F135 turbofan will likely have extremely low loss rates. The company’s last engine in a single-engine application, the F100-229, has yet to cause a major crash on any F-16C it is installed on. The F135 incorporates a significant number of design improvements, which will improve the reliability and safety of the engine.
Yet, the leading edge nature of these systems came with significant risks. The program is significantly delayed, almost seven years behind the original intended schedule, and has experienced significant cost overruns. In response, the Joint Program Office implemented several major reforms in 2010, including increasing program funding and pushing back major milestones to provide more time for development. This has forced Canada, and several other partners, to extend the life of their current fighter fleets and, in some cases, reduce the number of aircraft they intend to purchase. The delays and overruns have caused considerable consternation among partner nations, which has become a major public embarrassment for Lockheed Martin. In light of the delays, the U.S. military services have decided to move up their initial operating capacity date for the USAF to 2016 while pushing back the introduction of some capabilities. These are largely related to some higher-level programming tasks surrounding sensor fusion, which will be added to current aircraft as part of the JSF follow-on development process within a year or two.
Cost and Industrial Benefits
Likely the biggest advantage of the F-35 over other aircraft is its very large production scale. Lockheed Martin can currently count on more than 3,000 aircraft orders from the United States and its allies, between 2009 and 2040. The manufacturer will ramp up production after 2014, reaching 10 per month by 2020. This creates the opportunity for large economies of scale and learning curves to decrease the per-unit costs to a point where aircraft can be efficiently produced. Canada’s projected cost is approximately CDN$85 million (2018 dollars) per aircraft for most of the aircraft it plans to purchase, based on current estimates. This is around 15 per cent higher than originally envisaged by the Government of Canada in 2010. However, a recent cost analysis undertaken by the United States government suggested a slight decrease in the unit cost. While such decreases rarely translate into actual savings, they indicate the program is becoming increasingly stable, making further major cost increases unlikely. Also, Canada’s involvement in the partnership program would exempt it from the 3.5 per cent administrative fee usually applied to foreign military sales, as well as the non-recurring research charge (currently US$1.5 million per F-35.)
The F-35’s operational cost was originally envisaged to be around that of legacy aircraft; however, this area has also witnessed significant cost overruns. Some internal U.S. government analysis suggested an operational cost that was 30 per cent higher than previously estimated, which was considered unaffordable. However, the 2010 reform efforts were able to bring this down significantly. In April 2013, program executive officer Christopher Bogdan suggested the F-35’s hourly cost would only be 10 per cent above that of the F-16; or approximately US$23,000 per hour. While this is a significant increase, the F-35 will likely fly fewer training missions than legacy aircraft, due to increased simulator use to replace some aspects of flight training.
The Joint Strike Fighter program utilizes a very different scheme for providing industrial benefits than other programs. Partners that signed the memorandum of understanding have gained the opportunity to bid on production subcontracts, which were usually limited to American suppliers. Given the large size of the F-35 order sheet, these are extremely lucrative for any participant. Unlike traditional offset programs, contracts were not guaranteed, however; they were awarded through a best value competition. With its strong aviation industry, the Government of Canada predicts that it will eventually produce CDN$9.8 billion worth of F-35 contracts; 20 per cent more than what it would gain through a traditional offset arrangement.
This is not without limitations, however. Unlike traditional contracts, Canadian companies will be less involved in the actual design and engineering of subcomponents. Lockheed Martin provides the engineering plans to manufacturers, but retains the intellectual property. Thus, Canadian companies cannot easily apply the experience gained from the F-35 on other programs. While this reflects the nature of the civil aviation industry and could benefit Canadian industry for additional advanced technology work, it does somewhat limit the profitability of participating in the JSF program.
Considering the F-35’s critical role in Western defence planning, the aircraft’s potential is very bright. The Lightning II will likely dominate the fighter procurement market for the next two decades, which will assist in further driving down costs and delivering additional economic benefits to participating Canadian industries.
Like with the F/A-18E/F, the F-35 will utilize a spiral or iterative design process, where additional capabilities will be added incrementally. Already, several major upgrades have been identified, such as additional missile carriage and engine improvements. It will remain at the leading edge of fighter capability for at least the next thirty years. Yet the F-35’s upgrade plans are, in some ways, a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the United States is Canada’s closest ally, and choosing the Lightning II all but ensures nearly complete interoperability for the foreseeable future. Canada will also have access to upgrades at a much lower cost, as research and development funding can be spread across the entire JSF partnership. However, the proprietary nature of the F-35 will make it very difficult to unilaterally upgrade the fighter. Canada has previously enjoyed the ability to modify its CF-18s as it saw fit, which allowed for significant tailoring to occur. While some of those costly upgrades were required because Canada did not have access to similar U.S. Navy upgrades, others added meaningful advances to the aircraft’s capability and flight safety. While the need will be somewhat different, the government will have less ability to undertake such modifications under the F-35’s strong proprietary safeguards.
The F-35 likely offers the best long-term capability at the best cost, but with some restrictions. While the program suffered serious problems between 2006 and 2010, many of the major issues have either been addressed or are on their way to being resolved. The aircraft is delivered as a complete capability. However, these advantages must be weighed against the restrictions on unilateral development of the capability and delivery delays. If Canada can get past these initial development hurdles and accept Lockheed Martin’s proprietary control, it will likely obtain an aircraft that will keep the RCAF at the forefront of aerial warfare for the next 30 years.
Richard Shimooka is a defence analyst with the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. Between 2007 and 2012 he was a fellow at the Defence Management Studies Program at Queen’s University, and is a member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Richard recently released a report on the F-35 with the CDAI, entitled “Towards an international model for Canadian defence procurement? An F-35 Case Study.” He lives in White Rock, B.C.