The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is a fifth-generation multirole stealth fighter aircraft. It is designed as a platform that can replace as many existing types as possible and most importantly being able to perform those roles just as good as or better than the existing types. For the United States Air Force, the F-35A CTOL variant will replace the legacy F-16, A-10 and eventually the F-15E Strike Eagle. For the U.S. Navy, the F-35C will replace the legacy F/A-18C/D Hornets and complement the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. Last but not least, the F-35B STOVL variant will replace the famous AV-8B Harrier II jump jets for the USMC.
In this article, we will discuss whether the F-35 is suitable to fulfill the needs of the Royal Canadian Air Force. What Canada needs is a fighter that has these four features:
– High top speed (to be able to perform interceptions).
– High capabilities (Must be able to detect and engage any potential threats)
– High Flexibility (Must be flexible enough to be deployed anywhere within and without the country).
– High Value (The aircraft must be worth the taxpayer’s money).
Does the F-35 have high a high top speed ?
Not by jet fighter standards. With a maximum speed of mach 1.6, the F-35 is slower than the Canada’s current CF-18 (mach 1.8), which itself was not as fast as its contemporaries, the F-16 (mach 2), F-15 (mach 2.5), and F-14 (mach 2.3). The F-35 is also slower than potential adversaries based on the Russian MiG-29 (Mach 2.3) and Su-27 (mach 2.35) designs, or the latest Chinese J-10 (mach 2.2).
Russian Su-27SM3 has a top speed of Mach 2.35, which is way faster than Mach 1.6 of the F-35.
Top speed isn’t everything of course. What good is a blistering fast top speed if it can only be maintained for a short period before running out of fuel ? For long distance intercepts, a fast cruising speed is much more useful than supersonic dash. Here again, the F-35 falls short. A recent (and often touted as a “fifth generation”) development among fighter aircraft is the ability to achieve supersonic speeds without the use of the afterburner. That ability is called “supercruise“. As engine technology improves, we can see more and more fighters being able to perform supercruise. Sadly, the F-35 was never intended to achieve supercruise (The F-35 achieved minimal supercruise abilities during tests), despite the fact that many advanced fourth generation fighters do.
Without the benefit of supercruise, the F-35 may have issues intercepting invading threats before it is too late. Hitting the afterburner will severely shorten its range, while making it easier to detect for enemy infrared tracking devices. Without a high top-speed dash, the F-35 might have trouble engaging or disengaging faster enemy fighters. In a situation where the F-35 pilot gets in trouble, turning tail and running simply won’t be much of an option.
Most fourth generation fighters have a built in Infrared Search and Track (IRST) device. This is a PIRATE IRST on the Eurofighter Typhoon
Does it have “High Capabilities” ?
Well, sort of.
With a AESA radar, 360 degree infrared sensor, data-link capability, and massive computing power, the F-35 has one of the best sensor suites available on a jet fighter. At this moment, it is highly unlikely that an enemy aircraft will get the jump on the F-35 pilot as the highly advanced sensors on board the aircraft would have detected the presence of a non-friendly aircraft. The F-35 is not alone in this department however, as many other fighters, like the Super Hornet, Typhoon, Su-35 and the latest MiG-35, can be equipped with similar setups.
It is worth knowing that the F-35’s most hyped feature, of course, is its stealth. Stealth promises to allow the F-35 to engage the enemy before even showing up on their screens. The F-35 pilot then merely fires missiles or drops bombs from a safe distance, then casually flies away without being noticed. On paper, anyway.
In truth, stealth is fallible. It requires meticulous care of the aircraft’s outer skin, it only works against certain radar wavelengths, and the simple act of maneuvering can change or render the aircraft visible. Also, it also does not make the aircraft undetectable by other means, such as infrared or the legendary “mark I eyeball”.
Moreover, stealth also requires the internal storage of any weapons, which further limits the F-35’s ferocity. In this situation, it can only carry four missiles. Or, two missiles and two bombs while on a ground attack mission. The F-35 can carry more munitions on optional wing pylons, but doing so compromises it’s stealth to the point that it is no longer a “stealth fighter”. In simple terms, carrying additional weapons externally will make the F-35 no different than a non-stealthy fighter aircraft.
Thankfully, the recommended version of the F-35 for Canada, the F-35A, will also carry an additional weapon in the form of a 25mm multi barrelled rapid fire cannon. Of course, if the F-35 is close enough that the cannon is a factor, then at least, it has something in its disposal besides its missiles. Thankfully, the cannon remains undisputed even in today’s beyond-visual-range oriented air combat world, where pilots are more likely to engage and exchange shots at great distances beyond the sight of our eyes.
Compare the F-35’s four internally mounted weapons to the potential enemy, a Russian made Su-35. Capable of mounting of total of fourteen air-to-air missiles, the Su-35 has firepower to spare. The Su-35 pilot has the luxury of firing volleys of missiles, mixing radar guided and infrared guided tracking systems.
To be fair, the F-35 does have the potential of storing up to ten munitions using internal and external pylons, but again, doing so removes the F-35’s stealth advantage. Even fully loaded, the F-35 cannot match the firepower of jets like the Su-35.
If Canada wants to take advantage of the F-35’s stealth, it’s going to have to buy new missiles.
The KPMG report on the F-35 mentions that, in order to keep total costs down, the ammunition budget for the F-35 will be dropped to $52 million from $270 million used for the current CF-18 Hornet and that infrastructure upgrades will be dropped to $244 million from the planned $400 million. What these numbers actually mean is anybody’s guess, but buying a new fighter jet then skimping on the ammunition would seem rather pointless. Why buy new fighters without the missiles to arm them? Canada’s current air-to-ground missile, the AGM-65 Maverick, nor the AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles can be carried in the F-35 weapon’s bay. This limits Canada’s current choices for the F-35’s weapons bay to either the AIM-120 AMRAAM medium range air-to-air missile or guided bombs. If Canada wants to engage ground targets from a distance it will have to use a lot of that $52 million to buy the Brimstone air-to-ground missile, currently the only air-to-ground missile that fits in the F-35’s weapon bay. If Canada wants to arm its F-35s with short range heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, it will have to purchase the AIM-132 ASRAAM or carry legacy AIM-9 Sidewinders on pylons that compromise the F-35’s stealth.
Before delivery, Canada’s F-35As will require some changes to current design. Not engineered for landing on short, icy, or less than optimum runways; the Canadian F-35 will need to be outfitted with a drag chute to reduce stopping distance. This is nothing new, similar systems were needed for older jet fighters like the CF-101 Voodoo and CF-104. The CF-18, since it was designed to land on a carrier deck, needed no such system. Part of the F-35s proposal to Canada was to equip the F-35A with a “probe-and-drogue” system used on the current CF-18 Hornet, as well as a deployable drag chute for short runways.
It is worth knowing that buying the F-35A will mean that Canada might need a new tanker m since the F-35A isn’t built to have the probe and drogue refueling system.
Oddly enough, the other two variants of the F-35, the STOVL “B” and the aircraft carrier compatible “C” version, both use the more common “probe-and-drogue” method. Both versions are considerably more costly than the “A” variant and, since Canada doesn’t have any aircraft carriers, don’t make much sense for the RCAF.
So why not take the “probe-and-drogue” system from the F-35B or F-35C and fit it on the F-35A model? Lockheed Martin’s own literature mentions this and a staffer has stated that it is an easy fix. Such a design change would likely take time and money to test and develop. It would also require Canadian F-35s to be “custom” orders rather than “off the lot”.
Previous stealth fighter designs have been notoriously maintenance dependent. The F-117’s stealth coating wasn’t supposed to get wet, the B-2 required storage in special, climate-controlled hangers between flights. The F-22 is said to require much less intensive measures, but still requires time consuming inspection of its outer skin between flights. Any imperfection requires a special glue to repair that takes up to a day to dry. Marketing for the F-35 promises that it will require even less maintenance than the F-22, but it would be naive to believe that an F-35 would have better combat readiness than a simpler, fourth generation or advanced fourth generation design. During a high speed test, an F-35 had significant issues with it radar absorbent skin peeling off. How the F-35 will fare in Canada’s cold north has yet to be seen, as the F-35 has yet to undergo cold weather testing.
Remember those internal weapons bays needed for stealth? They impose a rather stiff penalty when in comes to mounting potential future ordinance. Designed around the current AMRAAM medium range missile and 2000lb JDAM guided bomb, those weapon bays only have so much space inside. Weapons like the anti-ship Harpoon missile (currently carried by the CF-18), Storm Shadow cruise missile, and formidable Meteor air-to-air missile simply don’t fit inside. These would have to be externally mounted.
It is important to note that the F-35’s Pratt & Whitney F135 engine is still considered under development. Developed from the F-22’s F119 engine, the F135 is still an unknown as far as real world reliability is concerned. There have been a few widely publicized reports of the F-35 being grounded due to engine related issues however. First, it was a specific issue to the STOVL F-35B, but then a crack was found in a F-35A’s engine, grounding the entire fleet for investigation.
Being that the F-35 program is the largest military acquisition program in history, training, spare parts and support would undoubtedly be plentiful. This would, of course, be at the convenience of the F-35’s largest backer, the U.S.A. As currently planned, all Canadian F-35s will be built in America. Canadian F-35 pilots will receive their training in America, by Americans.
When it comes down to it, the F-35 is still a work in progress. Since it is still being developed, there is no way to know exactly what the final price tag will be. The JSF project driving force was to keep costs down, but, as with any military procurement process, specifications are changed, deadlines are missed, and budgets are blown. As it stands now, the F-35 program as a whole is estimated to be 10 years behind schedule and a half-a-trillion dollars over budget. Canada has already spent hundreds of millions towards the project, not in exchange for jets, but simply for the opportunity of allowing Canadian firms to bid on manufacturing contracts involved with the program.
During the 2011 Federal election, it was stated that the estimated cost for each Canadian F-35 would be about US$75 million. By American estimates, their cost for an F-35A is between US$92 million and US$135 million.
The Cost of an F-35A today, however, isn’t in that range anymore. At US$ 90 million, it is still very expensive.
It is unlikely that Canada would receive the F-35 at such a discount. The intended strategy would be to purchase the F-35s during “peak production” when economies of scale would be the most beneficial. The problem is however, as F-35 development lags, so does the “peak production” timeframe, which is currently thought to be in the year 2019-2020, when Canada’s CF-18s will be dangerously close to their expiration date.
Procurement cost isn’t everything however, the real cost of an airplane is its cost per flight hour (CPFH). Again, the F-35 fails. Although it was supposedly designed to be “affordable”, seemingly every independent review of its operating costs put the costs of the single-engined F-35 as above and beyond that of comparable twin engine fighters like the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale. Against single engine fighters like the F-16 and Gripen, the cost differences are even more pronounced. Anticipating these increased costs, the RCAF has decided that actual flight training time will be reduced in favour of more time spent in cheap simulator training.
This, despite the fact that reduced pilot training was identified as a major factor in the fatal crash of a Cormorant search-and-rescue helicopter in 2006.
For more information about the Cormorant SAR helicopter crash in 2006, click at this link. :
Given the F-35’s lackluster specs, high acquisition and operating cost, as well as limited versatility, it certainly doesn’t fit inside the mould for Canada’s CF-18 replacement plans. It is in fact ill suited to fulfill the needs of the Royal Canadian Air Force.