"As I mused, the fire burned"

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I get asked this question frequently…probably as the only ‘token fighter guy’ that people have in their lives…should Canada be purchasing the CF-35?

The background that most people haven’t heard through the media is that we started buying into the new fighter development program over a decade ago – I recall the project management office being stood up before I retired in 2003, and there was an industrial agreement even before that. The lead time for a major capital project is such that the preliminary work on it begins long before the aircraft first flies.

All that said, I have been a little shocked at the dogged determination that has been shown in making the F-35 the aircraft of choice. It is clearly a highly capable aircraft, that would easily fulfill a multi-role tasking.

However, I am continually amazed at the degree of risk that a small nation like Canada takes on when we buy into a development program, imho far beyond what we should be willing to accept. The USA has hundreds of fighters (1000’s?) to rely on, so if the development project slips 5 years, there are contingencies. For us, we have an aging fleet of CF-188s, another very capable aircraft, but one that is burning through its fatigue life with each flight (fatigue life = the number of load cycles that an aircraft can bear before the probability of structural damage reaches a level that the aircraft is considered unsafe to fly). We started retiring the first aircraft when I was on squadron – CF-1888702 was the first one I personally saw leave the fleet for fatigue reasons. We don’t have a buffer of F-16, F-15, AV-8B, F-14 etc to fall back on, so the timeline is much more critical for us.

In addition to the development risks, I really question a single engine fighter for arctic operations. I know, I know, the engine is ‘really’ reliable. Even so, it is a single engine, and an engine failure means aircraft loss. Arctic operations often mean a pilot is dragged by tanker support way north, right over the pole in some cases, and far from any airfield or even SAR resources. You just can’t beat two engines in that circumstance.  That role, arctic operations, is also the only real-world sort of mission our fighter force conducts on a regular basis.

The other development risk is the cost. A delay in production due to development problems means the cost continues to grow, which is something else we cannot bear. You really have to ask the question about the need for fighter aircraft at all – when our last real deployment was the first Gulf War (I’m deliberately excluding Libya, which was more of a ’boutique’ deployment). We have not deployed in direct support of Canadian ground forces…well, since Korea (excluding the work out of Aviano in the former Yugoslavia). It is truly awful, when our Canadian ground troops cannot rely on Canadian fighter assets being there in a CAS (close air support) role when they’re under fire. Instead for the past 10 years in the sandbox, our troops have relied on the British and US air forces. That is almost unacceptable, and is one of the reasons I question the need for fighter aircraft at all.

If soverignty ops is the answer, there are much better ways to do that – long range patrol aircraft, that can carry out soverignty patrols without requiring tanker support or deployment to the north (and excusing the small benefit of air troops in the north, since we only deploy to already existing settlements anyway).

If we wanted to seriously get into the role of supporting our ground forces – something I suspect is the most likely mode of operations in the next few decades – I’m not sure why we don’t consider something like attack helicopters. The Brit experience with Apaches in Afghanistan is truly inspiring, along with how quickly their land forces started demanding that their Apaches be on hand whenever they were operating (Ed Macy in his latest book describes how the CO of 3 Para spoke at a BBQ and told them he had been opposed to the purchase from the start, but that he was now a convert, and would not deploy into harm’s way without the Apaches.) It has always mystified me why the leaders of our air force have not eagerly been selling themselves to the army at every opportunity – with such a clear need ahead of us, being there in intimate CAS for our troops seems the place to be.

As an aside here, I can recall many times having debates with my operations counterparts about providing CAS support to the CF army for training – be it large exercises or to train FACs or FOOs. Invariably those tasks would either be fobbed off on the CT-133 units, or would be given to the most junior pilots on Sqn, as they were so low on the priority list. My argument was always that our disregard for our army colleagues would come back in a bad way to bite us. Instead, we would plan huge deployments to go and fight against US units in DACT (dissimilar air combat training), preparing for a dogfight type war that hasn’t happened since…Korea.  Is there really a good potential we’ll be fighting another first nation’s military in the next few decades?  Or is the present and future reality that counter insurgency ops, like Afghanistan, will be our most likely engagement?

The reality is that one or two added squadrons of fighters, even if we were willing to deploy them to support the army, really won’t make a big difference in a multi-national type of operations (another reality of the future). One or two squadrons of attack helicopters, on the other hand, with pilots trained to interoperate with our army brethern, would be invited to any future battle with open arms.  You can’t beat the ability to drop a Hellfire missile in on an enemy with accuracy measured in inches and within minutes of the request, or to provide CAS cannon fire to suppress on request.

This is off topic, but something I’ve ranted about for years. The bottom line for me, if we’re going to buy a new fighter aircraft, is that we should stick with a proven platform that does what we need, and is suited for the arctic operating environment. I would vote for the Super Hornet, as it meets all that, and has two engines to boot.

But a better path, would be to replace our fighters with attack helicopters (speaking as a life-long fighter guy, that is).


Written by sameo416

January 6, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Thanks for taking the time to write this, Matt. It makes me wonder if the Royal Canadian Air Force has a grand plan with the purchase of a new fighter. Would they agree with your role for the RCAF or are they still thinking we have to be prepared for air-to-air combat even if it hasn’t happened since Korea? What do they see as the main purpose of the fighters (CF-35 or other) that they would eventually purchase?

    Mark Peppler

    January 15, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    • Hi Mark,

      I suspect the specification is for a fully multi-role fighter, meaning fully air to air and fully air to ground. That’s the role that the CF-188 was designed to fulfil (and does it quite well). In a single-fighter air force, you don’t have much other choice unless you take the risk of specifying a single mission (ie, we will be the best ground attack).

      What is held up as the requirement for air to air is the debacle of the Avro Arrow – one of the things that killed the Arrow was an ideology that said manned fighters were a thing of the past, and bombers could be shot down with rockets or missiles. The Bomarc missile (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CIM-10_Bomarc) was put in place as an alternative to human-driven fighters. This is considered a huge failure (and some interesting Canadian history…it isn’t widely discussed that Canada hosted nuclear weapons on two occasions – the Bomarc, and the Voodoo fighter interceptors on both coasts). However, that was in the 1950s, and things are a bit different now.

      Are we going to face a first or second-world adversary who will be flying modern fighters, an engagement where we will have to win air superiority to permit ground operations? I don’t think that is a realistic future mission, and a fighter is particularly expensive insurance against a low probability event. We’re also no longer engaged in NATO as a blocking force vs the Soviet Block countries, which is our most recent valid mission that required a fighter (and ended about 1991 when the wall came down). There is a northern patrol requirement, but a fighter is not the best way to do that.

      The first-world threats today are probably N Korea and China, and I can’t see us engaging either of them directly. If we did end up in WW III, God forbid, the fall-back question is where Canada could be of most use to a international force (commanded by the US)? One or two fighter squadrons of 15 airplanes will not tip the balance…but ground attack helicopters (or even a force of UAV drones) could have a huge impact.

      I suspect our future reality is asymetric warfare, like Afghanistan, like Iraq (which started conventional but quickly converted). Even the first gulf war had air superiority from about 5 minutes into the campaign.

      This is a long response to a short question. We’ll buy a fighter, and continue to train in a multi-role mode. That unfortunately means you do everything not well (we used to spend 220 hrs per pilot per year on ground attack alone, now they spend 180 hrs per pilot split between air to air and ground attack).


      January 15, 2013 at 7:27 pm

      • Wow. I date myself by saying I remember the Voodoos and the Bomarc although I didn’t know they were geared for nuclear capability. Hmm. I like your thoughts about a truly collaborative military effort. But I suppose that’s as likely to happen as a common currency in North America. Sadly, all these things cost us tax dollars in the end. It’s a shame we can’t get more bang for our buck the way you’ve described it.

        Mark Peppler

        January 15, 2013 at 7:56 pm

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