Lightning Strikes

Avatar for Gary WatsonBy Gary Watson | September 14, 2011

Estimated reading time 30 minutes, 11 seconds.

On July 16, 2010, Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced that the Canadian federal government intended to buy 65 fifth-generation F-35A Lightning II stealth fighters for $9 billion Cdn from aerospace and defence giant Lockheed Martin to replace the aging fleet of Boeing (originally McDonnell Douglas) CF-18 (CF-188) Hornets. In operational service since 1984, the CF-18s are expected to be phased out between 2017 and 2020. Delivery of the F-35As are forecasted to begin in 2016.
Lockheed is developing three variants of the F-35 for the United States and eight international partners, including Canada, at a projected cost of more than $382 billion US. Reports conflict as to whether this amount is for the production of all 3,140 aircraft (2,443 for the U.S., 697 or so for the international partners) over a 20-plus-year period, or if it just for the U.S. military quantity alone. Regardless of which, it is said to be the most expensive arms purchase in U.S. history, and staggeringly more expensive than originally forecast. Canada announcement provided badly needed backing for Lockheed Martin and the embattled program, which has been fraught with delays and cost overruns.
The F-35 joint strike fighter [JSF] is the best aircraft we can provide to our men and women in uniform to face and defeat the challenges of the 21st century, MacKay told a news conference. This multi-role stealth fighter will help the Canadian Forces defend the sovereignty of Canadian airspace, remain a strong and reliable partner in the defence of North America, and provide Canada with an effective and modern capability for international operations.
The Main Concern: Cost
Some 12 months on from the announcement, the proposed acquisition continues to produce much criticism in Canada, including within Air Force circles. One of the biggest battles being fought concerns cost. No one seems to have a real answer of what Canada will actually pay for the F-35 by the time the fighters enter service. 
In March 2011, Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer, released an independent report on Canada planned acquisition and the actual potential costs involved. When Canada announced its intention to buy a fleet of F-35s, the cost was estimated to be $9 billion Cdn, which amounted to about $70 million to $75 million an airplane, plus associated costs for weapons, infrastructure, initial spares and training simulators. Part of that $9 billion was also to cover contingency funds and project operating costs. Add in maintenance and support costs pegged at another $250 million to $300 million a year, and the total F-35 project cost over a predicted 30-year lifespan would be as high as $18 billion. Page, though, said that $18 billion was likely to be $29.3 billion. 
If one then factors in the rise in per unit cost of the F-35 that the United States General Accountability Office recently estimated  thought to be as much as $133 million a piece, an increase that may factor into the associated costs, as well  the overall project cost could be $25 billion to $30 billion by the Canadian government numbers, and up to $40 billion or more by Page numbers. And, earlier this year, the Ottawa Citizen reported that Lockheed Martin confirmed there were no guarantees on the $75 million per unit figure often cited by government officials. The Citizen reported that Lockheed Martin official Tom Burbage said Canada will pay whatever the aircraft costs the year that it is purchased; and that all F-35 partners, including Canada, will pay the same price as the U.S. government.
The upside is that economies of scale will be realized by all partner nations in the JSF program; how much that is depends on the total number of fighters ordered. Simply put, the more that are made, the cheaper they become. The downside is that every time a partner country reduces or delays its promise to buy the F-35, the cost goes up. 
This downside was experienced earlier this year when Turkey put its order for 100 F-35s on hold indefinitely. The country was concerned that the U.S. was not sharing its source code for the plane with Turkey, which would allow Turkey to develop weapons systems of its own for the aircraft. Similarly, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Norway have decided to stretch out their acquisition of the F-35, eliminating at least 90 aircraft in the 2011-2016 buying period. Denmark, meanwhile, who are also partners in the F-35 program, are now holding an open competition that will include a number of modern fighters currently available. And, recent news out of Australia suggests the country may pull out of the program altogether if cost increases and schedule delays are not brought under control. 
While Canada remains committed to the F-35, it has not yet signed a formal contract; most partner countries have not signed, either. Lockheed Martin told Canadian Skies, however, that among partner countries, the U.K. and the Netherlands have ordered test jets; initial orders from Italy and Australia are in work; and Turkey and Norway are doing detailed governmental reviews. Among non-partner countries, Japan is having a competition in which the F-35 is a part; Singapore, Spain and Korea are participating in funded studies; and other countries have been inquiring about the F-35. All of this lends hope that the final numbers will be strong once this difficult period clears. Still, without the certainty of final order numbers, the ongoing controversy and uncertainty about price only increases, leading one to wonder how Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) officials can maintain that any increases will be covered by contingency funds the department has set aside for such an eventuality? 
Cost Aside, Is the F-35 Right for Canada?
To determine whether the F-35 is the right choice, it helps to know what it being used for. During a House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence meeting, following the announcement of the government intent to acquire the F-35, Air Force chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Andre Deschamps said his service core missions are defending the sovereignty of Canadian and North American airspace through NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command], providing Canada with an effective and modern capability for international operations, and effectively conducting joint operations with our Allies through NATO or a coalition. 
Since 1984, Canada fleet of CF-18s has served the nation well in the roles Deschamps described. Over its lifetime, the CF-18 was deployed for combat operations in the 1991 Gulf War, the 1999 Kosovo air campaign and even current NATO operations in Libya. But the CF-18 is getting old, and will need to start being replaced by around 2016. What it is replaced with is the billion-dollar question. 
We need robust aircraft, capable of operating across Canada vast geography under harsh and varying weather conditions, and deterring challenges to Canadian sovereignty, said Deschamps in an article he wrote for the Canadian Military Journal. Our fighter aircraft must be capable of undertaking multiple roles, and flexible enough to deal with threats and missions that were unexpected at the time of its conception. We know that some of the threats faced by the CF-18 in the late-20th century have faded, some have continued and new ones have emerged. There is no reason for us to doubt that we will continue to see similar fluidity and evolution in threats as this century unfolds.
Deschamps said the Air Force looked at future and current roles and missions for which its next-generation fighter would be responsible, and the environment  in regards to both physical and military threats  in which it would be operating. Our analysis of our mandatory requirements for the next-generation fighter made it clear that only a fifth-generation fighter could satisfy those requirements in the increasingly complex and uncertain future security environment. 
According to Deschamps, the F-35A is the only aircraft that meets the country mandatory requirements and the only fifth-generation aircraft available to Canada. But, interestingly, these requirements had never before been made public.
To be considered a fifth-generation fighter, the aircraft must have these five key mandatory requirements: 
1. Stealth or low-observable capabilities;
2. Secure communications;
3. The capability for the pilot to visually operate the aircraft in no-light conditions (night vision goggles are ineffective in no-light conditions);
4. The automatic sharing of data and sensor information between friendly aircraft to maximize the effectiveness of the pilot own aircraft and of the formation aircraft; and 
5. The capability for the pilot to effectively detect and engage small targets at tactically significant ranges.
While the F-35 may technically be the only fifth-generation fighter available to Canada, questions abound about whether it is the right aircraft. Concerns have arisen not just over the escalating costs and program delays, but also about Canadian equipment and design requirements that aren’t standard with the F-35  in other words, there could be significant additional costs since engineering changes are not included in the purchase price. For example, there is a lack of air-to-air refuelling commonality with the Air Force current fleet of two Airbus CC-150 Polaris (civil A310) and five Lockheed Martin CC-130H(T) Hercules tanker aircraft; a lack of twin-engine reliability with the F-35s; the inability to operate the F-35s from Canada forward operating locations (FOLs) in the North; and the lack of weapons commonality with our current armaments. Then, there are the added costs associated with the infrastructure needed to support the F-35 in Canada.
Consider that, sovereignty-wise, of late, Russian bomber hunting is the most common task our fighters engage in. Over the past few years, long-range bombers have resumed flights impinging on Canadian (and American) airspace in the Far North. Since 2007, Russian Tu-95 Bears and Tu-160 Blackjacks have been probing NATO and NORAD borders. CF-18s have been kept busy intercepting these aircraft. 
Interception from 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alta., or 3 Wing Bagotville, Que., requires long flights and often staging out of three of our northern FOLs: Inuvik, N.W.T.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. Each of them has what are considered short runways for the safe operation of fighter aircraft, particularly those fighters returning from a mission and carrying weapons. And, with significant distances between the FOLs, this necessitates landing with appropriate fuel reserves. To solve the inherent safety issue, the Air Force employs a mobile arrestor gear system to stop the CF-18 in case of an aborted takeoff or if runway traction conditions could result in a landing roll longer than the runway. The F-35 has an arrester hook, too, but it is designed for emergencies only and therefore is not robust enough to handle regular operations, like that of the CF-18 (which is essentially an aircraft that was designed for aircraft carrier operations with the U.S. Navy). 
Canada and Norway have asked Lockheed Martin to consider a drag chute option. No real specifications are public yet, but Lockheed Martin has said that for an additional cost, provisions for a drag chute can be added with minimal modification to the aircraft. However, a drag chute could potentially have an impact on the fighter stealth features, although Lockheed Martin claims the chute could be fitted in a benign location that would not affect the F-35 low-observable characteristics. Maybe more critically, the drag chute likely will affect the crosswind landing characteristics of the aircraft, and also could make it tricky and dangerous to land in the high-wind conditions of Canada North.  
Patrolling Canada vast northern regions effectively is nearly impossible without aerial refuelling. The F-35A uses a refuelling receptacle, as opposed to the CF-18 (and the F-35B/C for that matter), which uses a probe. The probe works with the Air Force current fleet of Polaris and Hercules tankers. Lockheed Martin said the addition of the same probe to the F-35A, which is already available on the F-35B/C, would be possible, at an additional cost, if requested by the customer. 
One or Two Engines?
Some in the fighter pilot community are also concerned about the decision to buy a single-engine fighter to fly over some of Canada most remote regions. The F-35 is powered by the Pratt & Whitney F135, which can provide 43,000 pounds of maximum thrust, making it the most powerful engine in its class. However, the redundancy of two engines was the deciding factor 30 years ago when the CF-18 was selected over the single-engine Lockheed Martin (originally General Dynamics) F-16. 
While the thought of flying around Canada Far North in a single-engine fighter concerns some people, DND said that due to advancements in technology, single-engine fighters are far more developed and reliable today. I want to assure you that engine safety and performance have improved greatly compared to that of previous aircraft generations, thanks to superior ingestion and damage tolerance, fault detection and prognostics, redundancy and electronic controls, wrote Gen. Deschamps. As a result, modern single- and twin-engine fighter aircraft have virtually equivalent engine-related attrition rates from either engine failure or combat damage. There are, however, significantly lower operating and maintenance costs associated with a single-engine configuration.
Stephen Fuhr, a retired major in the Canadian Air Force, is of the opposite opinion, and told Canadian Skies: There is no question that there have been major advancements in jet engine technology since the CF-18 entered service. However, operating in the North comes with additional risks. A former CF-18 fighter pilot and CF-18 fleet manager for five years, Fuhr has questioned whether the F-35 is the right choice for Canada, and said that flying around in single-engine fighters in Canada Arctic will put pilot safety at risk. In fact, Fuhr, who has no ties to any fighter aircraft manufacturer, has been quite vocal over the selection of the F-35: The Canadian North is vast and unforgiving. Canadian fighters often operate in areas where search and rescue resources are many hours away, if not a day away. Arguments concerning single-engine reliability are futile as even the most modern jet engines can fail.
While Canada has chosen a single-engine fighter, the U.S. Air Force plans on continuing to operate its twin-engine Boeing F-15 Eagles and Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors from Alaskan bases for its own sovereignty missions, well into the future. In 2007, when F-15s were grounded due to structural problems that had surfaced, it was the Canadian CF-18s that filled in (not the single-engine F-16 Fighting Falcons that also are based in Alaska), and performed multiple intercepts on Russian Bears that approached American and Canadian airspace.
Is There an Alternative?
Fuhr agreed that Canada needs to replace its aging fleet of CF-18s, but had a different idea in regards to that replacement: The F-35 will be a very capable fighter. But, is it the right fighter for Canada given our commitments? I don’t think it is. Given the alternatives, the fighter that best balances tasks versus cost is the current Block II version of the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Twenty-five per cent larger than the legacy CF-18, the Block II Super Hornet boasts a proven design; network centricity; low observability; active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar; integrated, defensive, electronic countermeasures; and a multifunctional information distribution system  all at a significantly lower price than the projected costs of the F-35.
Australia, which is also a partner in the F-35 program, is the first air force outside the U.S. to take delivery of the Block II Super Hornet. It has committed to purchasing 24 aircraft, of which up to 12 will be wired to allow for some of the electronic warfare capabilities of the EA-18G Growler variant. Some sources are reporting that Australia is now looking at acquiring an additional 18 Super Hornets. These aircraft will fly alongside the F-35 should Australia eventually decide to take delivery of the F-35. 
Boeing has been promoting what it calls the Super Hornet international roadmap to potential international customers  including F-35 partners  as a cheap fighter alternative (relatively speaking). Boeing is currently delivering Block II Super Hornets to the U.S. Navy for around $50 million US a piece. The company also unveiled the new beyond-Block-II derivative at the Farnborough International Airshow in 2010, but there haven’t been any takers yet. 
So, how does this new affordable derivative of the Super Hornet measure up to Canadian requirements?
Said Fuhr: Since Canada flies the CF-18, the Super Hornet can use the existing infrastructure that is already in place, including tankers, runways and weapons. With twin-engine reliability, it is also aptly suited to patrol Canada Far North, which is essential. A bigger advantage is that the Super Hornet can carry more weapons. This is a huge benefit when flying Canadian sovereignty missions and counter-insurgency operations, like those being flown by CF-18s in Libya today. 
With the Super Hornet international roadmap, Boeing is proposing six growth options to the Block II Super Hornet, which, among other things, will turn the fighter into much more than a slightly stealthier Super Hornet. Key upgrades on offer include: conformal fuel tanks, an enclosed weapons pod that would eliminate under-wing stores, enhanced-performance engines, a next-generation cockpit with an 11- by 19-inch touchscreen display (similar to that fitted in the F-35), a new missile/laser warning system, and an internal IRST (infrared search and track) system. According to Boeing, the Super Hornet platform will continue to evolve with newer systems and capabilities well into the 21st century. 
The Block II Super Hornet, along with a planned and deliberate sensor and modernization program, said Fuhr, is the best choice for Canada. It would save taxpayers billions and not threaten other major defence projects. The Super Hornet may have started life as a fourth-generation fighter, but it can finish life as a 4.5- to 4.75-generation aircraft. Future enhancements will keep this fighter tactically relevant for decades to come.
Is Cancelling the F-35 an Option?
As the debate over the F-35 continues, some have talked about Canada potentially cancelling the F-35 program and holding an open competition for a new fighter aircraft. Government officials maintain that cancelling the F-35 could put Canadian aerospace companies, which could potentially gain lucrative F-35 contracts, at risk. Or could it? 
The purchase of defence and security capital items by the Canadian government always includes some sort of financial benefit for our industries. The typical process has been via Canada industrial and regional benefits policy that matches the purchase price of the product to the value of the benefit the supplier must provide. This ensures Canadian companies receive contracts and develop new processes and manufacturing skills that also make them more competitive globally. 
In the case of the F-35, a different procedure is utilized. Direct industrial participation is one of the key reasons Canada signed on to the F-35 program. By being a partner, Canadian industry will have the opportunity to compete for $12 billion US in contracts. This is indeed a lucrative plum that Lockheed Martin has used as an incentive for countries to participate in the JSF program from day one. To date, Canada has spent approximately $168 million US, and Canadian companies have garnered contracts equalling approximately $830 million Cdn (although there seems to be some debate on this exact amount, as well). 
The Aircraft Industry Association of Canada (AIAC) says thousands of jobs and millions of dollars would be lost if the F-35 program were cancelled. And, according to the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed with Lockheed Martin, Canada could be on the hook for up to $334 million prior to signing a contract and upwards of $551 million if it cancels after the contract is signed.
But, according to Alan Williams  the DND former assistant deputy minister for its Materiel Group  the person responsible for signing the MOU with the U.S. in 2002 that committed the Canadian government to the F-35 program, the potential benefits from the F-35 pale in comparison with the guaranteed benefits that would accrue to Canadian industry through a competition. In an editorial that appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, he wrote: In a competition of this size, all bidders would be required to provide an industrial and regional benefit [IRB] plan as part of their bid. This plan would require each bidder to provide a guarantee of benefits equal to or greater than the value of the contract. The total value of the acquisition and support costs would likely be in the $20-$30 billion [Cdn] range. It is this value that would be guaranteed to Canadian industry through a competitive process. 
Boeing told Canadian Skies that if Canada selected the Super Hornet, the IRB benefit would be fully based on the acquisition costs, and delivery dates could easily meet or be earlier than the 2016 F-35 acquisition date. Theoretically, the same AIAC companies that could lose work from the F-35 program would benefit from these IRBs, and in some cases would also keep the F-35 contracts. And, the IRB benefit would likely be realized in a much shorter time period, and potentially provide for follow-on contract work from other countries that may purchase the Super Hornets. 
Despite the surrounding controversy, including the lack of a competition, the DND believes the F-35 meets all its operational requirements for a next-generation fighter aircraft. The official position is that it offers the best value by providing exceptional capability at the lowest cost, with excellent benefits and opportunities for the Canadian aerospace defence industry. 
Given the increasingly complex and uncertain future security environment, the F-35 Lightning II will provide Canada with the greatest probability of mission success and the greatest probability that our men and women will survive and return safely from their missions, wrote Deschamps. 
And, said Defence Minister MacKay, This acquisition will equip the Canadian Forces with the aircraft it needs to defend Canada sovereignty and contribute to the defence of North America and international security.
However, despite assurances from Department of National Defence officials that the F-35 is the right aircraft for Canada, the only way to really know which aircraft can best meet Canadian requirements  and at what cost  would be to put out an open, fair and transparent statement of requirements and request for proposals, and conduct a rigorous evaluation of the bidders’ responses. Denmark, which is a Level 3 partner in the F-35 program, like Canada is, has decided on an open competition to select its next-generation fighter aircraft. People are questioning why Canada is not doing the same thing. Only then will Canadians know the right fighter has been selected, 
at the right price.

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