Weapons of choice: Ottawa's 65 new jet fighters - Macleans.ca

Weapons of choice: Ottawa’s 65 new jet fighters

And why Ottawa doesn’t want to talk about them


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Despite the presence of three cabinet ministers and a military band, there was something missing when the federal government announced its plan to spend $9 billion on 65 new fighter jets earlier this month. The politicians talked plenty about Canada’s long involvement in U.S. aerospace giant Lockheed Martin’s development of the new Joint Strike Fighter F-35, and about the contracts they hope will now flow to Canadian companies involved in the huge project. They stressed how Canada’s allies—mainly the U.S., but also Britain, Australia and others—are also buying F-35s. What they didn’t offer was a plainly worded description of what the new jets might actually do.

Asked for “specific examples of the uses of these aircraft,” Defence Minister Peter MacKay was imprecise. He mentioned “patrols over Canadian airspace” and “future missions with NATO,” then quickly switched to stressing how the “new gear” will make it easier to recruit pilots. That left critics to question the need for fighter jets, arguing they made more sense during the Cold War, when air-to-air combat with Soviet jets was a plausible scenario.

But experts say buying F-35s doesn’t amount to preparing to fight the last war. Elinor Sloan, an international relations professor at Carleton University and a former analyst inside the Defence Department, said this jet is particularly well-suited to firing satellite-guided missiles at enemies on the ground. “The primary role today is not against other advanced countries with fighters in the air,” Sloan said. “It’s close air support of army forces on the ground.”

Yet the government didn’t tout the F-35’s capacity to launch such air-to-ground strikes. Perhaps that reflects current qualms about using air power in that way. Last summer, U.S. commanders vowed to sharply curtail the use of air strikes in Afghanistan, in a bid to reduce the number of unintended civilian deaths. Still, while they vowed to reduce attacks from the air to avoid alienating Afghans, the Americans said they would still use air strikes in cases where their ground troops were in danger of being overrun in battle.

If boasting about air-to-ground capability is out of favour these days, the potential for using the new F-35s to patrol Canada’s Arctic seems far less sensitive. Indeed, the government said the core mission for the jets will be “defending Canadian and North American airspace.” But what exactly does that entail? Sloan said reacting fast when Russian jets fly too close to Canada’s territory in the Far North is one obvious job for the F-35s. Only last month, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin climbed into the cockpit of one of his new T-50 fighter jets, Russia’s first all-new warplane since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and boasted it was better than anything the Americans have in the air.

But MacKay didn’t explicitly mention anything about countering Russian boldness. Again, he might have been trying to avoid a political misstep. Last year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and MacKay complained publicly about intrusive Russian flights, sparking a round of diplomatic sniping between Ottawa and Moscow.


Weapons of choice: Ottawa’s 65 new jet fighters

  1. Other than NATO obligations and Arctic patrols, we haven't (strictly speaking) *needed* to use our fighter aircraft since the Korean War, although we have used them in a few theatres anyway. It doesn't follow that we should still be flying CF-101s and that the new CF-18s in 1984 were a waste of money.

    Every sovereign nation has to take responsibility for defending its borders. Canada is fortunate to have a friendly neighbor on one border who will neither attack us nor leave us to our fate if the other, less friendly neighbor, chooses to attack. However, (a) we do have NATO obligations to live up to, and (b) we will eventually end up in another major war – it is only a matter of time.

    Both of the above considerations lead to one conclusion: we don't need a huge militia, but we do need a small, capable, and well-equipped force that can play an integrated role with allies when the time comes. With combat aircraft, this necessitates up-to-date fighters both for useful integration and to maintain a small cadre of capable pilots and the capability to train and equip them to world-class standards. Fielding Hornets in 2030 would be just as useless as fielding Voodoos today: a liability for our allies, a death trap for our pilots, and an embarrassment to our country. And this is over and above the consideration that the CF-18 airframes are reaching the end of their service life, so we'd have to replace them anyway.

    Yes, MacKay is not someone from whom I'd expect a coherent case to be made. The case is there nonetheless.

    • I agree with all of your points (plus getting the perspective of Blacktop who also seems to argue much the same things) but I am just questioning the CF-35 as the ONLY POSSIBLE aircraft to consider. Maybe it is–I don't know. I'd like to know that, though.

      If it is, fine. Double fine as it will help the very same ally we are kind of relying on (Kind of?) to 'help' us if the need arises. I'm not against that, if the CF-35 is the best aircraft for the Canadian requirements. If it isn't the best aircraft for our needs, and we decide to go with it anyway due to the helping the ally thing, I can get behind that as well–just as long as we're clear that's what we're doing. So if the time should come when we need the payback, we don't quite have to fall all over ourselves continuously kissing their feet. One kiss ought to do it, I mean. :)

      • Well I'm with you there. I have serious doubts about the F-35.

        The problem is that the development cycle on these aircraft is so long, and the cost is so high, that you have to make the decision to buy in well before the aircraft is available. In Canada's case we effectively bought in during the Martin era when we opted to pay into the research in exchange for some of the development to be done in Canada and a discount on the final price. Without abandoning all that investment, the F-35 is kind of our only choice now.

        • Some other points:

          The F-35 is the only "fifth-generation" fighter craft available. That being said, there is some disagreement about whether or not they truly meet that definition. The Super Hornet has been classed as 4.5th generation. The main difference is the degree to which the planes rely on "stealth" as a key operating component. Arguably, this capability suggests the F-35 will remain competitive longer than the Super Hornet. The large number of F-35 to be built, over 2000, compared to the only 400 Super Hornet's have been built, may bring down some of the future costs of upgrades. But the F-35 remains three times as expensive as the Super Hornet. The Super Hornet is based on our existing CF-18s. It's possible that this similarity would bring down the costs associated with a new aircraft, although I'm only speculating.

          We did choose to use our CF-18s in the Gulf War and the Kosovo War. Interoperability with our allies was an issue for these planes during these conflicts.

          In any case, some new fighter is required.

          • The F-35 is the only 5th gen fighter available at the moment, but there are others coming down the pipe.

            Another problem with the Super Hornet is that it is going out of production within the next few years, whereas our new fighters aren't scheduled to come online until 2017. This causes a lot of headaches in terms of spares, replacements, and upgrades. The Super Hornet also doesn't have thrust vectoring, apart from its comparative lack of stealth. Since 5th gen fighter tactics are evolving to incorporate both these elements we'd be fairly helpless and useless in an aircraft without them.

          • "The F-35 is the only 5th gen fighter available at the moment, but there are others coming down the pipe.

            And the F-22 is more expensive and, thus far, will not be sold by the US to its allies.

          • And I was not referring to the F-22.

          • Yes, I believe F-22 has ceased production.

            Are you referring to the Chinese and Russian projects?

          • DND told PCO that they HAD to have stealth capability. That ruled out all other aircraft.

            That capability isnt really useful in providing close air support in failed states. There are few forseeable scenarios that would actually utilize this jets potential, the main one being an air war with china over the straight of Taiwan.

          • Japanese. I don't think the Chinese or Russian projects would allow us to integrate with our allies very well.

          • Ah. Yes. But are the Japanese willing to sell it?

          • That's right. And the F-35 is the only fifth generation aircraft that is going to be available within the window available for replacing the CF-18 before it becomes entirley impossible to keep in service. It would seem the only possible realistic alternative would be the Typhoon, but even that means we are buying in at the middle-to-end of that airplane's development, rather than at the beginning as in the F-35.

        • The only serious other option would appear to be the Typhoon, since the Rafael and Gripen aren't as multi-role as our forces need. If you can only field one type of aircraft (and given the expense that seems to be a requirement) it has to be as multi-role as possible. We don't know what challenges the air force will face over the next forty years, so it makes sense to buy the newest and most capable plane available at the time we are purchasing them. The Superhornet or F-15 are capable but they are designs essentially from the sixties and seventies. The Typhoon is a very capable plane, but, again, its concept is a generation earlier than the F-35.
          The Israeli air force want to get their hands on F-35s( they wanted F-22s but that's another matter). Given their experience that is a pretty good endorsement of Canada's decision.

          • Disagree on the last point. Of course the Israelis have a lot of skin in the game and are best-in-class at it, so their interest means that it's a top of the line aircraft. However their needs are far different from ours (small country, no cold weather) so the fact that it would be good for them doesn't mean that it would also be good for us.

            They, for example, do not need a twin-engine aircraft the way we do since their country is so small.

          • Not that the fact that it would be good for them means it WOULDN'T also be good for us, either.

            I think I have lined up all my negatives correctly in there…

          • The Israeli's have recently cooled on the enthusiasm for the F-35. Mainly, they'd prefer the F-22 and are cheesed off about obstacles to customizing it's software and avionics.

            Interestingly, they also were waiting to see what Canada would do! An odd bit of circular logic, no?

          • If our main purpose is to patrol and defend our borders it's hard to imagine why stealth would be such an important factor. Typhoon/Rafale/Gripen are all multi-role fighters with Mach 2 capability and a ferry range of at least 3200 kms. The F35 is limited to Mach 1.67 and a ferry range of 2200 kms.

            Is the stealth and 3D visor really worth the extra money and performance limitations?

          • Yes, stealth and avionics are huge. Max speed is virtually irrelevant. Max range does matter, which is a real drawback with the F-35.

            Tactics evolve to match fighter capability; we are now in an era where fighters close and launch on target without ever lighting up their own radar, guided in by information networked from other sources. The target gets little or no warning. These tactics rely on stealth, avionics, and information sharing. Defense also relies on stealth, and on thrust vectoring to evade. A fighter with Mach 2 capability but lacking stealth and avoinics is dead in the water unless it can overwhelm the enemy with numbers (that would not be us) and indirectly engage by taking out his fuel tanker.

        • It wouldn't have been the first time we opt out of a major investment to turn to a cheaper alternatives.

          Except this this time the Eurofighter is a proven alternative, as opposed to the Bomarcks.

          Also it's not that much of a discount; we're aparently paying 100 million per unit above its price.

    • "Yes, MacKay is not someone from whom I'd expect a coherent case to be made. The case is there nonetheless."

      Uh huh…

      I too have an issue with the untendered nature of this transaction. I also have to wonder about a government that preaches fiscal austerity to other nations at a time of incredible economic upheaval and turns around to spend an amount of epic proportion on military hardware for which they can't make a "coherent case."

  2. We would be wise to stop playing war and stop buying toys because Canadian needs are not being met in fundamental ways of which the most important being open and honest government articulating huge military acquisitions.

    • Military defense is a need.

      • And a constitutionally-defined responsibility of the federal government in Ottawa, to boot.

        • Never mind that it's not possible.

          Why should reality enter into it?

          • The defence of our country is not possible?

            Laura Secord was a lie?

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            Sprechen Sie deutsch?

  3. Another 'solution in search of a problem'.

    And a vastly expensive one at that.

    We really need to wean these guys off their Cold War fantasies.

  4. It would not matter what the Gov bought you !@#$ing Liberals would sh!t on it because your precious party were not the ones in charge of the purchase.

    • That's probably not going to convince anyone of the wisdom of purchasing these F35s. I admire your passion though. :)

    • Having recently come over here to this site, pretty much giving up on the uselessness of so many posts on the CBC's site, the one thing that I was really hoping to avoid was the totally nonsensical school-yard party-bashing drivel that comes equally as abusively from both sides. After all, nothing like good old kindergarten name calling to so eloquently get one's opinion across. Definitely adds credibility to your opinion.

      • Welcome aboard
        This is a good site and has some really interesting and informative views (though not my own, of course).
        I have learned a helluva lot here and enjoy the general tone of civility.

  5. If close air support is the big deal, why not go with drones?

    The Americans are already musing that drones are the inevitable future (well, the USAF is debating the issue internally – apparently very heatedly). They are already purchasing as many drones as planes, and that mixture seems to be tilting even more towards drones. Going forward, there are almost no good reasons why we need pilots in the planes, anyways.

    Given that any Canadian force interested in air superiority against a modern foe is going to be enveloped in American electronic/AWACs support, I just can't see why we need 5th generation fighters. We could totally go Super Hornet or Typhoon for an affordable stop-gap, and then move to drones when the Americans make that inevitable shift in regards to air superiority, as they have already largely done for ground support.

    • The Americans don't use drones for close air support (CAS); they use them in surgical strikes against terrorist leaders/facilities. As its name applies, CAS means delivering weapons into close proximity of friendly troops, either under direction from controllers on the ground or on their own. Its a very specialized task that no drone is capable of doing. Plus, no drone is capable of carrying the large amount of ordnance that CAS aircraft like the A-10 can carry.

      • Ok, that's fair enough. I do know that the technology is not quite there yet. They have occasionally used predators in a CAS role, but only when demanded by unplanned circumstances. It's gone fairly well, but it wasn't what they wanted to be doing and I take your point.

        We could get into a long, messy, conversation about this, because I think drones offer Canadians a really appealing potential package (in the future), because of issues such as range, endurance, and price, but I guess the question is all about how far away that next generation of drones will be, and I also understand that drones are far away from offering the full functionality of the F35.

    • Drones are the future. They can have a single engine because there is no fear of losing a pilot. They are less expensive and will evolve faster in the future. We can buy more of them to patrol this vast territory. By the time we get delivery of these planes, they will already be outdated or soon to be. Money wasted. We could buy a little squadron to parade with our allies, but for our real needs, drones are the future.

  6. I never understand why we need to buy one kind of aircraft. Couldn't we buy a few f35's then something else which will provide the distance and flexibility our country needs. I don't know what it just makes sense to me.

    • I agree, but 65 is 'a few'. The Americans are buying 2,400…we should also be getting F15's for air superiority, cause they won't sell us the f-22.

    • It's much cheaper to maintain one type of aircraft – think Westjet versus Air Canada.

    • There are huge economies of scale in producing aircraft (the global aerospace industry is probably a natural monopoly, though subsidies have produced a duopoly of big players*). I think I read somewhere that doubling an aircraft production run reduces the per unit costs by 20%. So multiple small orders of aircraft would increase costs significantly (or force us to forego some advantages). The joint strike fighter is particularly useful for us in that regard because we can make one order, but the jet can serve a wide range of functions.

      *There are smaller players, like Embraer and Bombardier, but they tend to operate in different niches than the big jets Airbus and Boeing make.

  7. Like those 'Ruslans' we could have had (all 34 of them for a tenth the price of our 3 C-17s), the Russians have a new 5th generation fighter hitting the showrooms. But then they wouldn't be compatible with our other equipment, just like those 'Ruslans' we continue to rent.

    But considering how much we've already spent for the F-35's prolonged gestation process, as well as how much we've shelled out for the alternate engine that's 'almost' ready, we'd be really dopey, and probably legally liable, to walk away from our investment.

    I'm still not sold that a single-engined fighter – no matter how reliable that engine is cracked up to be – is the best buy for a place like Canada where military-grade hardtop is sparse and well scattered. If the mill stops, there's only one alternative.

  8. Thank God the discussion here isn't like in the G&M's comments section. All you read over there "the Neo-con Republican style Harper is evil and ruining the country" etc. The intelligent discussion found here is greatly appreciated.

    From my own research, the main drawbacks of this fighter is it's single engine and questionable air-superiority advantages vis a vis other upcoming 5th-gen fighters. On the other hand, there really isn't any other options that will suit our future needs currently in development. The Eurofighter is more like a 4.5 gen fighter and lacks stealth and I highly doubt the Russians are super excited about turning over their latest technology to NORAD. The F-35 appears to be quite versitile, great at nothing, but good at everything, which I think suits Canada's role as a suplimentry military force. Air-superiority seems like less of a problem, as we are a partner in NORAD and the US has the F-22, which is by far the most advanced air to air fighter. Just my too cents…

  9. Of all boondoggles, this one takes the cake! More outrageous than the G20 fiasco or the penal reform put together. How do we stop this right wing tidal wave? At the polls?

  10. an essay on the subject in the DND library, somewhat dated (2005), by a Major Frawley – makes and interesting read; he downplays the stealth aspect and supports drones http://www.cfc.forces.gc.ca/papers/csc/csc31/exnh

    his sumarization is as follows

    'To accomplish this critical level of relevance, a number of specific requirements
    have been addressed. The CF must acquire a more robust fleet of UAVs and UCAVs (unmanned), as
    well as a follow-on fighter aircraft. This fighter must be a two-seat, two-engine platform,
    capable of carrying a large number of weapons, and it must be equipped with interoperable, up-to-date sensors and equipment. These essential criteria will ensure that Canada has a viable, multi-role fighter aircraft, capable of being employed in all of the roles and missions assigned by the political leadership, well into the 21st century. It has been argued that the JSF would not provide Canada with all of these essential requirements, and is therefore not the right fighter aircraft for Canada.'

  11. Two words: “Friendly fire” (truly an oxymoron, since there’s nothing friendly about having your troops killed by an allied air force … but … I digress …). If the RCAF … ooops – sorry – I keep having flashbacks to when we also had the RCN (third largest navy in the world after WWII …) … anyway, if the Canadian Air Force were to buy an aircraft solely designed for air-to-air intercepts (in order to protect the sovereignty of Canadian airspace) then we’d end up being wholly dependent upon allied air forces for Close Air Support (CAS). However, the multi-role aspect of the F35 will at least provide the “option” of deploying Canadian fighter jets to protect Canadian troops deployed in a hostile “pop-up shoot-back target” environment. P.S. (most sadly, the box score of Canadian troops killed by “friendly” air-to-ground attacks is … Allied air forces – 5, Canada – 0. Veterans from WWII have also remarked they worried about US aircraft almost as much as the ones with the big cross on the side …)

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  13. 1. a. "Despite whatever theories strategists may spin, the defense budget is now, to a large degree, a jobs program. It is also a cash cow that provides billions of dollars for corporations, lobbyists, and special interest groups."–Ronald Steel, 'Temptations of a Superpower'. See also: 'Canada to buy 65 F-35 fighter planes for $9B', The Calgary Herald, Saturday, July 17, 2010.

    b. "When a country decides to invest in arms, rather than in education, housing, the environment, and health services for its people, it is depriving a whole generation of its right to prosperity and happiness."–Oscar Arias Sanchez, 1987 Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

    c. "In India, Buddhist aspirants used to visit burning grounds and watch the corpses of those whose families couldn't afford a cremation rot away. This they did to terrify the greed and possessiveness out of themselves. After that they turned their minds toward thoughts of ideal individuals and ideal societies." (To be continued.)

  14. 2. The global armaments industry, a permanent war economy, and international military Keynesianism illustrate that public subsidies and the visible hand of state protection have long ago supplanted risk taking and Adam Smith's 'invisible hand'. Taxpayers' money covers all the risks of weapons development and sales, and the weapons industries are provided with contracted markets, complete with cost overrun guarantees. For the F-35, the cost per plane ranging from $80-$135 million is now more than 50% higher than 9 years ago when development began. "Some large-scale military hardware projects, like the F-35, seem to be nothing more than fishing trips designed to test the waters for new equipment and make as much money as possible."–Global Times, 'F-35 Has Become A Clumsy White Elephant', 21:57, March 24, 2010.

  15. 3. The crude juvenile attempt to alter text at the Wikipedia website is itself straight out of '1984', a real time version of doublethink and memory holes. "We, the Party, control all records, and we control all memories. Then we control the past, do we not?" As was stated long ago, 'where populations cannot be disciplined by force, they must be subjected to subtler forms of ideological control.'

    War is Peace
    Freedom is Slavery
    Ignorance is Strength

    Ahimsa and farewell.

  16. Mark,

    You should stop pushing the Super Hornet. You know it's more expensive than the JSF.

    The Aussies paid US$ 2.2 billion to get 24 jets and US$2.4 billion to maintain them for 10 years. Extrapolate that to our requirements:

    $6 billion for 65 jets
    $13 billion for 20 years of support (and we intend to keep them for 30-40 years).

    That's $3 billion more in total costs than the $16 billion for 65 F-35s and 20 years of support.

    Any honest and credible defence analyst would come to the same conclusion. If you have an agenda on the other hand….

    • Keith,

      Have no agenda other than a real competition based on clearly defined and justified requirements. E.g. does Canada need the F-35 for start of war strikes against heavy and effective air defences, it's main role for the USN? It will also have that role, along with others, with the USAF. That role is a major reason it has the stealth it does, including as a replacement for the F-117 replacement among other aircraft.

      Here's a major Defense Industry Daily article about India's new fighter, er, competition that may be worth reading in this context–F-35 also mentioned: http://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/mirage-2000s-

      " …
      Rather than attempting to predict, DID will simply summarize the strengths and weaknesses of the listed competitors. These aircraft also group into two very different categories: single engine lightweight fighters in the $25-50 million flyaway cost range (F-16 Falcon, JAS-39 Gripen, MiG-35); and larger dual-engine mid-range fighters in the $65-120 million flyaway range (Eurofighter, F/A-18 Super Hornet, Rafale)…"


  17. See my comment to MarkOttawa above. The JSF is actually the cheapest option over the long run.

    Any twin engine aircraft will cost $3-5 billion more over 20 years. And even more given that we intend to operate the platform for 30-40 years.

    There's only one cheaper option: the Gripen. And that platform had its first flight in the 80s, a few years after our Hornets went into service.

  18. This primarily an attack aircraft that countries "allies" such as Israel and others hostile to Islam are buying. It is deceptive of the Harper regime to call this a "defence" initiative.

    The best protection for our artic would be ice-breakers at far less cost and not send any hostile signals to Russia or China.

    Also what couldn't we do with those billions to our decaying infrastruture.

  19. maybe the F18E would be a better f18a/b replacement for Canada.
    simple reliable and Twin engine. cud save money too, imagine that.

  20. the stove is hot

  21. i agree whit joel

  22. I also agree with him.

  23. Good Stove

  24. Canada should produce its own Jet fighter tank and gun
    it cheaper to do we can build it at our own pace and at our own expense

  25. Lets just leave our R.C.A.F. pilots in our old planes and wish them well when they are up against the latest enemy aircraft.
    Too bad for the pilots and their families, but look at the money we saved.

  26. I think the government has to be more open about the realities of future air wars.
    With improvements in missiles there will rarely be dog fights and most engagements will occur beyond visual range/over the horizon. The f-35 has a significant advantage in sensors, radar, and electronic warfare capabilities, as well as stealth integrated right in. These will act as quality counters against future missile and radar technologies.

    However, the f-35 seams like it’s meant to be escorted or protected by f-22 raptors since it would likely have trouble facing off against future stealth air superiority fighters from Russia and possibly China. Hopefully we will never be sending pilots out in these alone when there are advanced Russian and chinese fighters with stealth lurking around (2020s this will be likely).The advantage of this is that the f-35 carries a lot bomb weight while the f-22 is superior to all fighter threats for the forseeable future and has true stealth capabilities.

    So really the americans should not be touting the f-35 as an air superiority fighter capable till 2030 and then keep the f-22 only to themselves, unless they want their allies to rely on them in conflicts with Russian and Chinese advanced fighters.The latter choice does not seem like a bad idea since those conflicts right now seem very unlikely, and the numbers of those advanced Russian/chinese fighters that are actually built might be quite low.

    • I agree with you except for one thing. The Russians and the Chinese will be exporting their fifth generation stealth fighters to anyone who can purchase them. I have not had an opportunity to read up un the J20, but the Russian T50 will be technically a better plane in all aspects then the JSF and it is a more maneuverable then the F-22. It lacks the stealth capability of the F22, but is at least as stealthy as the F-35. This assesment was done by an Australian think tank on air power not bu the Russians. So anyone that doubts the authenticity of these claims should read this articlehttp://www.ausairpower.net/APA-NOTAM-191010-1.html

  27. Procurement of F-35 is all about prestige and nothing about military capability; F-35 cannot counter any Russian fighter in service, T-50 or not.