Saturday, April 07, 2012

The F-35 Is About More Than Cost

In fact the burgeoning cost of Lockheed Martin's light bomber may be the least of our problems.

To begin, what do you do with 65-light bombers in a country the size of Canada?   You'll always have a good number of them in reserve so you can make the fleet last.   You'll have a number under maintenance at any given time.   You can expect to lose a number of them through accidents and attrition.   You're going to be left with a pretty small number of operational aircraft to patrol and defend the second largest national landmass on the planet.   Look at it this way, the Dutch, whose country is roughly the size of Vancouver Island, are slated to buy 85 F-35s. 

The F-35, compared to the alternatives, doesn't do very much very well.   That's the premium price of the stealth technology.    All high-performance aircraft are flying compromises.   Designers are always trying to cut weight while sacrificing as little engine power, range, firepower and agility as possible.   The F-35 ups the ante.  The shape of the airplane has to be stealthy which also means whatever it's going up with in terms of fuel, weapons and sensors  has to be carried inside.   That adds another huge layer to the sacrifice/compromise equation.

So, as the RAND Corporation pointed out, to rely on the F-35 you have to accept disadvantages in speed, climb rate, turn rate, range and firepower.   You have to hope and pray that each of those disadvantages will be offset by the stealth factor.   Which means you have to cross your fingers real hard and hope that your potential adversary won't figure out the key to countering your stealth technology for the thirty plus years you'll be depending on the F-35.  (Hint - they already have).

But it's not performance sacrifices, numbers or costs that is the real problem with the F-35.   It's not about what it won't do.   The problem is what the F-35 will do, what it's intended to do, what it means to Canadian defence and foreign policy, what no one wants to talk about.

Forget the "strike fighter" appellation.   The F-35 is a light bomber.   The F-18 it is supposed to replace was a strike fighter, a true multi-role fighter.  It could handle air defence, air superiority and ground attack missions.   It could intercept Russian bombers, sink Iraqi gunboats or bomb Libyan tanks.   With Canadian pilots at the controls it showed itself capable of winning Top Gun-style competitions.  (And, of course, it was selected by the Trudeau government after a proper competition)

The F-35 is no F-18.   It can't dogfight with modern rivals like the French Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon or the Sukhoi 35S.   That's why the US air force also fields a true stealth air-superiority fighter, the F-22 Raptor.   It's the F-22s job to take on those capable adversary fighters to sweep the skies for the F-35 to go in and drop bombs.

The F-35 has passive sensors that are, by some accounts, impressive.  But it doesn't use emitters such as radar because that would give it away.   To remain stealthy it needs an AWACS, airborne warning and control aircraft to uses a very powerful radar to see for the F-35 and transmits the information to the bomber.

So, the F-35, to operate against a modern adversary with sophisticated air defences,  needs a real fighter to protect it and an airborne command aircraft to be its eyes and ears.   The F-35 needs one more support aircraft - aerial tankers.   Because the F-35 can only be stealthy if it uses its onboard fuel tanks, it has limited range.  That means it needs tanker aircraft to top it up for the run in and to refuel it on the way out and the F-35's modest range means those tankers have to be forward positioned where they're very vulnerable to any long-range defending fighters of the very sort flown by the Russians.   Which means those F-22 Raptors defending the F-35 bombers will also have to find ways to defend the AWACS and the tankers without which they're not going home either.   That's not good news for the F-35s.

But it's not the operational vulnerabilities that are of paramount concern.   It's what the F-35 means for Canadian foreign and defence policy.

Because the F-35 is a light bomber, it's ill-suited to Canada's home defence.   The remaining role is to use it as we used the F-18s in Serbia, Iraq and Libya - as part of a coalition air war.   But, unlike the F-18s, the F-35 is dependent on an aerial armada of support aircraft - the F22, the AWACS and flying refueling tankers.  And just who has all of those?   Not us.   Not NATO.   Only the US Air Force has them.

Which means the F-35 pretty much is our admission ticket to America's aerial Foreign Legion.   This should be our major concern.  21st century America, as pointed out by Bacevich, Chalmers and others, has become hyper-militarized, a true warfare state in which military violence has replaced diplomacy as the principle and favoured instrument of foreign policy.   The F-35 signs us onto that.

Does anybody in his right mind believe it's in Canada's interests to become entangled in America's hyper-militarism?   Remember, the F-35's core technology, its stealth, is intended for use against nations having sophisticated air defences, nations such as Russia and China.  That's who you're lining up against when you equip your air force with the F-35.   You'll never convince them you're choosing the F-35 for homeland defence and that's because they're not stupid.

While the debate rages over the F-35, it's on costs and who knew what and when.   No one is talking about what the F-35 means to Canada and how it will shape our defence and foreign policy as, perhaps, no other weapon system has in the past.   The government and the opposition are way out of their league on this one.


kootcoot said...

"Does anybody in his right mind believe it's in Canada's interests to become entangled in America's hyper-militarism?"

Stevie "ChickenHawk" Harper does! But then I would never accuse any member of the Canadian Taliban of being in their right mind.

This has been an excellent series of posts on the F-35, finally someone (besides the Galloping Beaver folks) actually discussing the important aspects of this boondoggle. Any chance the almost useless Lamestream might EVER pick up on such relevant stuff?

The Mound of Sound said...

I have no optimism that the media will pick up on the critical issues underlying the F-35 selection. Even our politicians prefer to splash about in the shallow end of the pool.

We don't handle these things at all well in Canada and we never really have. We never had the issues of the Afghan war debated in Parliament. The Tories didn't want to talk and the Liberals and NDP either didn't understand the war or weren't willing to raise the fundamental problems.

All I have seen in this 21st century from our Western political and military leadership is profound incompetence compounded by astonishing amounts of hubris.

Canada really hasn't produced many first-rate generals. They have consistently been sub-par compared to the excellent quality of our fighting soldiers. Some things, it seems, are hard to change.

The whole rotten business kind of makes me sick.

Anonymous said...

You mentioned Trudeau and his wisdom regarding former jets. Wasn't it the Liberals 9 years before Harper got his claws into government who began this mess of purchasing these F-#35?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Mound of Sound said...

Anonymous, you're stong on talking points but weak on facts. That's what happens when you swallow what Harper spoon feeds his supporters.

The Liberals didn't get us into any mess on the F-35. They did spend some millions of dollars to get in on the development programme which has already repaid us more than twice in industrial contract work.

At the time, the F-35 was touted to be more airplane for much less money than we see today.

The Libs never chose to sole-source our next fighter, that was done by Team Dumb led by Captain MacKay and Coach Harper. The Libs are not so ideologically hidebound as to miss the importance of competitive bidding and trials. You have to be a Conservative to do that.

So the simple answer to your question, despite the compulsion of the Conservatives to continually lie to their gullible flock about it, is "no."

Don't you people ever get tired of the taste of bullshit?

Sam Gunsch said...

I think it might be worth your time to foward your post to Paul Wells or Lawrence Martin or Gwyn Dyer.

Your take on this is very much a fit with their analytical approach to similar issues.

Might be just enough to get national column on this.

The Mound of Sound said...

Sam, I think I'll just stay with my amateur status. Thanks.