Friday, May 10, 2019

LOCKMART THROWS TANTRUM... GETS RULES CHANGED... SLIGHTLY.



We are now approaching the end of the beginning of Canada's meandering quest to replace the CF-18 Hornet.  Later this month, the Government of Canada will finally release an official RFP (Request for Proposals) to the fighter manufacturers.  

Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Airbus (representing Eurofighter), and Saab will then have until the end of the year to submit their bid to replace the RCAF's aging fleet of CF-18s.  Dassault respectfully declined to offer its Rafale due to compatibility reasons.  

Once the RFP is released, the decision should be (mostly) out of the politicians' hands.  Even if the government changes in the upcoming election, restarting the process yet again would be politically catastrophic.  

In short...



Of course, Canada's fighter jet replacement program has to put up with at least one more hurdle before it can get on to business.  In this case, its Lockheed Martin and the Trump administration crying foul.  

A report released earlier this week takes umbrage with Canada's fighter selection criteria, stating that it is "fundamentally and structurally prejudicial to any F-35 bid."  Why?  Because it forces Lockheed Martin to abide by the same rules that Canada has had in place for any major military purchase for the last several decades.

At issue is Canada's stipulation for manufacturers to guarantee industrial offsets for Canada.  If Canada is going to spend billions of dollars on equipment and services, it seems only fair that the manufacturer commit to investing some of that money back into Canada.

Unfortunately, that is not how the JSF program works. 

In the convoluted Joint Strike Fighter program, potential customers join up as a "partner".  Partner nations are allowed to bid on F-35 related work.  The more a partner pays into the program, the more work they are allowed to bid on in order to make that money back.  While not technically a pyramid scheme...  It does share some characteristics:  While there is a potential to come out ahead, there are no guarantees.  There is also a competitive nature inherent in the program.  Potential JSF contractors have little choice but to provide their services at the thinnest of margins in order to stay competitive. Others might be tempted to go even further and cut corners.  


In short, the F-35 is a supersonic collection of parts, each of which was supplied by the lowest bidder and cobbled together by the world's largest defence contractor.  What could possibly go wrong?

They're gonna need to scratch a few of those flags off...

So far, Canada has invested enough into the JSF program that it is considered a "Level 3" partner.  This has paid off somewhat, with $1.3 billion worth of F-35 contracts being rewarded to Canada's aerospace sector.  It also means Canada will be able to bid on future F-35 work.  

Moving forward, Canada may very well come out ahead on the F-35.  With plans to build thousands of the stealth fighters, combined with Canada's strong aerospace infrastructure, we have a good chance of being one of the "winners" in the JSF program...  Or we might see nothing else at all.  It is a complete gamble.  

That is the sticking point.  

Needless to say, Canada's requirement for guaranteed industrial offsets do not sit well with Lockheed Martin, who prefer to promote the F-35 on potential industrial offsets.  

Even The Pentagon has gotten involved, threatening to withdraw the F-35 if Canada did not waive its Industrial and Technological Benefits (ITB) policy.  

Claims its the best fighter...  But demands special treatment.
So what does Canada do?  

We cave in...  Sort of.  

The Federal Government has decided to allow a "flexible approach" when it comes to determining industrial benefits.  With nearly $20 billion being spent, you can be assured that there is going a be a large emphasis on seeing substantial return on our investment.  A European manufacturer promising a guaranteed industrial offset is going to be at a huge advantage over a potential industrial offset.  

At this point in the game, the European manufacturers seem to be in the stronger position than ever.  Neither Airbus or Saab have made many waves, and seem to be simply happy to supply Canada with a fighter bid.  At the same time both American manufacturers have seemingly tried to bully us into buying their wares.  One wonders if this a is wise move given the current political climate.  

Five years ago, it seemed an almost certainty that the F-35 would replace the CF-18.  If not, the Super Hornet would have been the next logical choice; with the "Eurocanards" a distant long-shot.  Now, Boeing and Lockheed Martin seem to have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.  

This could very well end up being a two-way race between the Gripen and the Typhoon.  Strange times indeed.  









Friday, April 12, 2019

LIGHTNING DOWN.


On April 9th, 2019, a Japanese F-35 Lightning II went missing while flying over the Pacific.  Not much is known so far other than the pilot signaled the need to abort the mission shortly before disappearing from radar.  Debris found in the area has been confirmed to be from the mission plane.  No word yet on the condition of the missing pilot.

This is not good.

Even for the troubled and tumultuous history surrounding the F-35, this is not good.  For more reasons than those one might usually suspect.

There is of course, the damage this incident does to the JSF's already troubled safety reputation.  A reputation that includes one previous crash, engine fires, and oxygen deprivation.  One could argue that no aircraft is completely safe, but given both the F-35's newness and importance to allied airpower, any mishap worthy of concern.

Just as concerning is the security risk this incident brings up.  The F-35's "killer app" is its stealth.  The very nature of a stealth design dictates a high level of security surrounding the aircraft.  To put it simply, the less a potential enemy knows about the aircraft, the better.

Building a stealth aircraft consists much more than the aircraft's shape.  Every aspect of the plane's construction needs to be considered.  Stealth design is dependent on the materials used in construction, the way heat is dissipated, excess electromagnetic radiation from the avionics, and other mundane items need to be tightly controlled to minimize radar and heat signature.

Losing a top secret stealth aircraft over international waters is a scenario right out of a Bond movie or Tom Clancy novel.  It represents a substantial prize for foreign intelligence agencies.  Even the smallest detail would give insight into how to better detect the JSF, not to mention how to improve upon competing stealth designs.  A piece of its radar-absorbent material (RAM) coating alone would make the effort worth it.  Something more substantial, like the flight-data recorder or other "mission systems" could reveal enough about the radar signature to give hostile weapon systems an advantage...  Or perhaps a way for to hack into the JSF's infamous ALIS (Autonomic Logistics Information System).  Even the smallest bit of debris could turn into a security risk.  The capture of a downed pilot would catastrophic.

Thankfully, the remaining wreckage of the missing F-35 has been found, and a salvage operation will soon be underway.  Even this brings up security concerns. Everyone involved in the process will require security clearance and scrutiny, lest they be compromised by some foreign interest.


Imagine, if you will...  A similar incident happening in the future.  However, instead of happening to a Japanese F-35 over the Pacific, it happens to a hypothetical RCAF over the arctic.

The year is 2029.  Canada has selected the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II as its replacement for the CF-188 Hornet.  Deliveries have been ongoing and crews are transitioning over to the new fighter.  

Tragedy strikes when a CF-35 is lost while performing exercises out of one of the RCAF's Forward Operating Locations (FOL) at Iqaluit Airport in Nunavut.  The aircraft disappeared from radar contact and its exact position is so far unknown.  

Rescue and recovery operations are activated immediately.  The Canadian Cost Guard and Search and rescue Squadrons from both 9 Wing Gander and 14 Wing Greenwood are pressed into action, to be assisted by a (now nearly 50-year-old) CP-140-Aurora surveillance plane.  The USA has agreed to offer any and all assistance needed to recover the pilot and aircraft.  Military Police and CSIS have been dispatched to Iqaluit to investigate any possible security concerns.  

Matters are complicated, however, by Russia's recent military build up in the arctic.  They have offered to "assist" in recovery efforts, but have been rebuked given the sensitive nature of the aircraft.   Instead, they have increased their presence in the disputed area where the CF-35 was last seen.  This includes a nuclear-powered Arktika-class icebreaker, capable of navigating in ice 3 meters thick. Neither Canada or the USA have anything approaching the Arktika-class's capability.  Unfortunately, Canada has but a single Polar Class 2 Icebreaker, the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker capable of operating in ice up to 2.5 meters thick.  

It is assumed Russia has dispatched nuclear submarines to the area as well, knowing full well that Canada lacks the capability to operate under arctic ice with its own subs.  There is also talk of a possible "ice-breaker sub" that is rumored to exist in Russia's fleet.  

Complicating matters even further is the recent appearance of China's newest icebreaker in the area. While not much is known about the vessel, it appears to be larger and more powerful than Russia's Arktika-class.  

Increased presence in the area have caused diplomatic tension among all parties.  Not only are there concerns about Chinese and Russian incursion into Canadian territory, but some have voiced concerns about increased American military presence on sovereign Canadian soil.  In the meantime, the RCAF has been forced with the difficult decision as to whether it should ground its F-35 fleet and rely solely on ancient CF-18s during this time of increased tension.  

Once again, both Canadian news agencies and political opposition parties are questioning the wisdom of Canada going "all in" with the F-35 program.  Internationally, some question whether or not Canada has the ability to keep the aircraft's secrets given Canada's history of lackadaisical defense spending.  



The previous hypothetical situation is exactly that...  Hypothetical.  It is not out of the realm of possibility, however.  Operating a stealth aircraft requires many caveats.  Day-to-day operations require increased security.  An unplanned event like a crash could have repercussions far beyond the potential for loss of life.

For an aircraft like the F-35, additional security is mandatory.  Security concerns have put a kibosh the Turkey's F-35 acquisition.  This includes the additional resources required to contain any adverse event.  A Canada committing to the JSF would also be required to commit additional resources around every aspect of that fighter.  This include operations in less-than-ideal environments.

Is Canada willing to take that responsibility?

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

USAF TRADES F-35S FOR F-15EXS



For years, the Pentagon and the USAF have extolled the virtues of the F-35 Lightning II.  The message has been very clear:  Fourth-generation fighters are now obsolete, no matter how good they may have been in the past.  The JSF is a complete game-changer, a paradigm shift in air combat.  Whatever the mission, the F-35 is superior.

While the USAF will not come out and say it, it is clear that they are they are not as enamored with the F-35 as the public relations material would suggest.  Earlier this month, the USAF proposed to cut F-35 orders down to 78 from 84.

And then...  In its 2020 budget, the USAF is swapping out JSF orders in favor of the F-15EX.  cut its F-35 orders from 54 units a year to 48.  This will free up enough money for the USAF to procure 8 F-15EXs instead.  Moving forward, F-15EX deliveries will ramp up to 18 per year.

This certainly pokes a AMRAAM-sized hole in the press material that states that the JSF is superior to fourth-generation aircraft in both capability and price.  Why would the USAF demand updated F-15s if that was the case?

The Pentagon has justified the action as a way to preserve the "industrial base".  It makes strategic and economic sense to ensure that Lockheed Martin is not America's sole fighter manufacturer.  There is also the not-so-coincidental fact that Boeing has found itself in a bit of a financial pickle lately.  A big fighter jet order might help alleviate some of the damage done to Boeing's stock price following the 737 MAX scandal.

Oh yeah...  THIS happened...  Whoopsie!  (REUTERS/Mike Blake)

Make no mistake, however.  There is more to the F-15EX order than just trying to maintain an industrial base.  Thanks to its Saab-assisted win in the T-X competition, it is already guaranteed to be making fighter trainers for decades to come, as well as making the inevitable light-fighter spinoff to the T-X.  International sales of the F-15 platform remain steady, even without the USAF's orders.  Super Hornet/Growler production is safe for a few more years as well.

The USAF's sudden interest in an updated F-15 is not so much about maintaining an industrial base as it is about capability.  Simply put, the old warhorse F-15 can do some things better than the F-35 wunderkind...  And some things the F-35 cannot do at all.

For all of its advances, the F-35 has to obey the laws of physics.  It is a large, bulky aircraft that has many compromises built into its "jack-of-all-trades" stealth design.  By contrast, the F-15 was developed with a singular focus of air-superiority.  That not only means speed and agility, but lots of range and payload as well.  That requires a robust airframe, a feature that would later make for a great strike variant.



While some could argue that the F-35's stealth and sensors make it a superior aircraft, it simply cannot match the F-15's speed, range, or payload.  It never will.  This means that the F-15EX could perform missions that the F-35 simply cannot.  It also means that the F-15EX can perform certain missions that the F-35 could do...  But would require additional tanker support, additional sorties, etc.

Not constrained by weapon bays, the F-15EX does not have to worry about cramming future weapon systems into its fuselage, just a external pylon.  This makes adding future weapons a much easier process.  This is not inconsequential given the recent interest in hypersonic stand-off missiles.

The F-15EX has the additional advantage of requiring little additional infrastructure or training.  This will help keep operational costs down.

In the end, the decision to trade F-35s for new F-15s may have been the USAF's only viable option.

The F-35 is far from the roaring success it was intended to be.  The idea of it replacing almost every fighter in the NATO arsenal seems laughable at this point.  Its operating cost is still a staggering $35,000 per hour, substantially more than aging F-15Cs and F-15Es, let alone the much cheaper F-16 that the JSF was intended to replace.  Unfortunately, the USAF is in desperate need of new fighters.  Any potential sixth-generation fighter is likely decades away.

That does not leave the USAF with many options.

It could order some Super Hornets...  An unattractive option given the rivalry between the USAF and the USN.

It could order some updated F-16Vs; the cheapest option by far...  But this would simply swap out one Lockheed Martin product for another, making the "industrial base" excuse non-usable.

It could order a foreign-made aircraft...  A political impossibility given it would deny jobs to "hard workin' 'Muricans" and imply that the USA does not necessarily build the "best damn aircraft in the world".

Or it could order a fighter that first flew almost 50 years ago.  Mind you, that fighter has a reputation for being one of the best fighter aircraft of all time with a perfect combat record.  The USAF and many other air forces have come to know and love the F-15 Eagle and have no real compelling reason to part with them any time soon.  With a few updates one could easily see the F-15 being a force to be reckoned with for decades to come.

For the USAF, the decision is clear:  If it ain't broke, don't fix it.



Monday, March 4, 2019

"EMERGING THREATS" (RANT)



Let me get this off my chest...  I hate the term "emerging threats".

Those two simple words are a powerful combination.  They are ominous and imply a need for urgency while also being incredibly vague.  What are these threats?  Where are they emerging?  How long do we have until we see them?  Will it be too late once we do?

The term is often used when justifying some sort of military largesse, whether it be a cutting edge weapon system or massive building projects.  After all, what better way to combat "emerging threats" than to SIMPLY BE PREPARED FOR ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING.

Nothing exemplifies this more than the current United States military.  It is not enough to have the biggest military in the world, but a larger military than the rest of the world combined.  Despite this, there is still the drive to take it even further.  The mere suggestion of a slight reduction is scoffed at.  How could the USN possibly get by with only 10 nuclear powered supercarriers instead of 11?  Combined with their smaller America and Wasp carriers, that is only 20 in total (with another 3 under construction).  That is not nearly enough compared to possible threats like...  uh...  Russia's single diesel powered "ski-jump" carrier or China's two diesel powered carriers (one of which is still in trials).



Nations that make the conscious decision to build up their military prowess rarely do it at a whim, and they certainly cannot undertake the task overnight.
 In response to its growing role on the world's stage, China has greatly increased its military spending in the 2000s.  It now comes second only to the US when it comes to defense budget.  Despite this, China's military budget is still a mere third of the good ol' USA.  Much of that budget devoted to simply modernizing China's military hardware, much of which dates back to the Cold War.

Make no mistake, China is committed to being treated seriously on the world stage.  The introduction of the J-20 was a clear statement that China's aerospace industry should be taken seriously.  The days of China flying warmed over Russian fighters are over.  Despite some western nay-sayers, the J-20 could very prove a threat to even the vaunted F-22 Raptor.

Even if the J-20 turns out to be absolute world-beater, its effect on the world's stage will be minimal for years, possibly decade to come.  China would have to construct hundreds of them to match the numerical superiority of American air power.  That sort of undertaking would take decades and result in some serious diplomatic repercussions.

China's newfound military might is based on its improved economy.  That improved economy is based on trade.  That trade would be jeopardized by any belligerent action on its part.  China is unlikely to be any sort of threat besides defending its own interests.


Russia's answer to the F-22, the Su-57, certainly appears imposing.  Sukhoi's reputation for building large, fast, and deadly fighters like the Su-27 combined with its jaw-dropping airshow displays would seem to give military planners cold sweats and sleepless nights.

But lo-and-behold, the Su-57 has had some problems.  Full-rate production has been delayed and the program is in serious trouble.  Despite a promising start, the Su-57 looks like it will suffer the same fate as the F-22 Raptor; a short-lived production run cancelled due to exorbitant costs.

Like the J-20, the Su-57 seems very unlikely to have much effect on the world stage now or anytime remotely soon, if ever.


What about new technologies?  Surely some foreign military is working on a top-secret weapon system that will render current missiles and guns obsolete.

Once again, the USA's research and development budget dwarfs all the others.  If any new weapon comes out, there is a very good chance it will be fielded by the US military first, with all other nations playing catch up.

Even if a foreign power developed a "game changer", its effect on the battlefield would likely be limited.  Historically, very few weapons have changed the face of warfare overnight.  Instead, they work themselves into the battlefield after years of experimentation, improvement, and changing tactics.

Iron weapons would turn out to be far superior to bronze but still took centuries to replace them.  Early wrought iron was inferior to bronze and required more advanced blacksmithing and smelting techniques to realize its full potential.

Early gunpowder weapons were slow, inaccurate, and unwieldy.  It took many years before they were even capable of being handheld.  Even then, one would not dare depend on one as their sole means of defense.  Swords, spears, shields and armor would serve alongside matchlock rifles.  A soldier armed with a flintlock would likely have a bayonet (effectively a sword/spear) attached as well as a sword for close-combat.  Bayonets still saw prevalent use in WWI, were built into Cold War battle rifles such as the Russian SKS, and are still seen today as attachments to modern assault rifles.

Even guided missiles, a weapon thought to render guns obsolete in fighter combat, have yet to do so after more than 50 years.  They have continued to get better, but sometimes nothing beats the simplicity of a good old fashion cannon.


One could argue that the only weapon to truly change the face of warfare overnight has been the thermonuclear bomb.  Not that it changed the way make war but how we look at war.

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the idea of a large-scale war between superpowers has become unpalatable to all but the most ardent warmongers.  It is now possible for conflict to escalate beyond the actions of men on the battlefield.  War has become much more indiscriminate.  Entire cities of non-combatants can be wiped off the map in an instant.

Thankfully, the introduction of nuclear weapons has seen priority given to diplomacy and communication.  Threat of nuclear annihilation kept conflict on smaller scale.   The post Cold War world has seen great strides in international trade.  The internet age has helped teach us that those in other parts of the world are not so different than ourselves.  It has made it more difficult for governments to oppress their people.  Fear and misunderstanding has begone to give away to empathy and understanding.  The world has become so interconnected that ruination of one nation could effect countless others.

There are still hold outs.  Those that believe it will always be "us versus them".  Those that choose to rattle their swords instead of simply talking.


Instead of constantly trying to combat "emerging threats" that do not truly exist, maybe we should pay attention to the world around us and ask ourselves who the threat really is.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

A TALE OF TWO FIGHTERS



In 1959, the Avro Arrow was canceled by then-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.  After sixty years, many still view the decision with disgust.  For them, the Avro Arrow was more than an interceptor; it was the embodiment of Canadian pride.  The Arrow was proof that the Canadian aerospace was on par, if not superior to, anything else in the world.

In retrospect, those people were right.

The Arrow was Canada's last serious effort to design its own fighter jet.  Not only that, Canada has pretty much given up designing any military aircraft since then.  The CP-107 Argus ASW aircraft, developed alongside the Arrow, failed to justify a Canadian successor after   The far less ambitious DHC-4 Caribou's lineage died after the DHC-5 Caribou.

While Canada still maintains a robust aerospace industry, it is dwarfed by the American and European giants.  Our largest indigenous aerospace manufacturer, Bombardier specializes in small regional airliners and business jets.  While this is nothing to scoff at, it is a far cry from building supersonic interceptors.


We all know the the story behind the Avro Arrow.  It was a commendable effort, but in the end it was deemed too costly.  Not only that, but its very concept was in doubt.  Similar aircraft, like the North American XF-108 Rapier and British F.155 shared similar fates despite originating in nations with much larger military budgets.

No...  There was no conspiracy to kill the Arrow because it was "too good".  Nor is it worth resurrecting it as a CF-18 replacement.  Stop that.

The CF-105 Avro Arrow was ultimately a victim of its own ambition.

It was intended from the outset to be one of the largest, most powerful, and fastest fighter aircraft of its day.  This in and of itself made for a budget challenge.  Larger aircraft need larger engines to compensate for the increased weight and drag.  Larger engines need more fuel, which requires a larger aircraft still.  Needless to say, larger aircraft simply cost more.  They require more raw materials, more labour to build, and more fuel to fly.

Alongside the sheer size of the aircraft, the Arrow relied on technology that simply did not exist yet.  Its massive control surfaces required a fly-by-wire system, something unheard of at the time.  Jet engine of the time were not yet powerful enough for the massive airplane so a new engine, the Orenda Iroquois, needed to be developed.

There was also a question regarding the Arrow's weapon systems.  Originally intended was the Canadair "Velvet Glove" radar-guided missile, but these were cancelled over concerns that the missile could not be launched at supersonic speeds.  This led to the decision to incorporate the American Sparrow II that was under development at the time.  Unfortunately, the Sparrow II suffered a similar fate when its active radar guidance was found lacking.  The only remaining option was the incredibly underwhelming AIM-4 Falcon missile.  Shorter range (but much more accurate) IR guided missiles could not be mounted in the Arrow's internal weapons bay.

Simply put, the Avro Arrow was an incredibly expensive fighter that was dependent on multiple technologies that simply did not exist at the time.


The Avro Arrow shares many similarities with another the jet interceptor, the Saab 35 Draken (Dragon).  Like the Arrow, the Draken was developed as a supersonic delta-wing interceptor by a nation with a modest defence budget.  Unlike the Arrow, the Draken made it to production.  Not only that, but it managed to secure a few export sales.  Its success has carried on to the Saab 37 Viggen and Saab JAS 39 Gripen.

So why did the Draken succeed where the Arrow failed?

The Draken was a much less ambitious aircraft.  Instead of huge twin-engined aircraft capable if Mach 2+, the Draken's speed requirement was a modest Mach 1.7.  Its defining characteristic was that it could operate from public roads and improvised air bases.

Apart from its ground-breaking "double-delta" wing design, the Draken was a fairly conventional design.  It was closer in size to smaller interceptors like the F-104 Starfighter or F-106 Delta Dart.  With a MTOW (maximum takeoff weight) of 12 tonnes it was less than half the Arrow's size.  This meant the Draken could get by using a single engine instead of two.  Better still, and unlike the Arrow, the Draken utilized a current design, the Rolls-Royce Avon.  This engine, produced under license as the Volvo Flygmotor RM6C, would later see improvements that would take the Draken to Mach 2.  The Arrow, which never got its Iroquois engine, never made it past Mach 1.98.

The Draken's weapon systems were also much simpler.  Instead of relying on internal weapon carriage, the Draken used simple pylons.  This allowed it to mount much the much more accurate IR-guided AIM-9 Sidewinder as well as the crude radar guided AIM-4 Falcons of the time.  If all else failed, the Draken still carried up to two 30mm cannons.


The Avro Arrow is often heralded as being "well ahead of its time".  This is an accurate statement, as the Arrow incorporated technologies that would not see maturity until much later on.  Internal weapon carriage, dependence on radar-guided missiles, and fly-by-wire control systems are the realm of modern fighters like the F-35.

Being ahead of its time is not always a good thing, however.  Radar guided missile proved nearly useless over Vietnam.  In an alternate timeline where the Arrow saw production, it might not have been a useful platform until the advent of the AIM-54 Phoenix or possibly even the AIM-120 AMRAAM.  It had the potential of following a similar evolution to the MiG-25 Foxbat/MiG-31 Foxhound, but it would take years, even decades meet that potential.


The Draken, on the other hand, was right fighter right out of the box.  One could even say it overdelivered.  It went from first flight to operational status within five years.  Despite being intended solely as an interceptor, its double-delta wing gave it the maneuverability of a dog-fighter.  Danish Draken's were modified to function as strike aircraft.  While the Draken could not be considered a true multi-role fighter, it came close.

The Draken would remain in combat service until 2005, outlasting contemporaries like the F-104 Starfighter by a substantial margin.  The Swedish Air Force Historic Flight team continues to fly two airworthy examples.

The success of the Draken is not simply due to its simplicity, but from political will.  Sweden's commitment to neutrality and self-sufficiency ensured that indigenous fighter design was neither a luxury nor a point of national price, but a necessity.  This philosophy has carried on to the present day, although it may not last for much longer.

Still, the biggest difference between the Arrow and the Draken were basic design philosophies.  The Arrow was intended to "best in the world"...  While the Draken was simply intended to be the "best for Sweden".

Sometimes "good enough" is more than enough, and "the best" is too damn much.

Monday, February 11, 2019

F-15X?



Here we go again...

After finding out that nobody was interested in its "stealthy" F-15SE Silent Eagle, Boeing is now promoting yet another F-15 variant, the F-15X "Super Eagle".

Those of you not familiar with the "Silent Eagle" can be forgiven.  Boeing concocted the idea when it realized it was running out of fighters to build.  The F-15SE was a valiant effort.  Building upon the much loved F-15E Strike Eagle, the SE updated the platform with modern avionics, sensors, and even stealth improvements.  Aimed towards current F-15 operators, the Silent Eagle promised a happy compromise between the F-35 bleeding edge stealth and the F-15's performance and reliability.

Unfortunately for Boeing, the Silent Eagle never found a buyer.  The closest it came was South Korea's FX-III competition, when its competitors (Typhoon and F-35) failed to meet budget targets.  In the end, South Korea decided on a reduced number of F-35s instead.

One can understand the ambivalence directed towards the F-15SE.  As good the Eagle is, it is definitely not a stealthy plane.  Even the F-15SE's marketing materials only state a "reduced" radar cross section on the front aspect only.  The Silent Eagle proved that you cannot "add stealth" to an existing design.  If a buyer insisted on stealth, the F-35 is still the only way to go.

F-15SE:  Never meant to be.
Despite the lack of orders for the Silent Eagle, Boeing still has confidence F-15 platform...  And so do others.  It was recently revealed that the USAF intends to order new build F-15s, now dubbed the F-15X.

So what makes the F-15X different than the F-15SE?  Why would it not suffer the same fate as the Silent Eagle?

For one, the F-15X less risky than the F-15SE.  Forgoing any promise of stealthiness, the F-15X is a simple update to the existing F-15C/D template.  While a new radar, updated cockpit, and bigger payload are nothing to scoff at, they can be incorporated easily and cheaply.

Secondly, the F-15X is billed as a much needed replacement to the F-15C and D.  Since it is not based on the Strike Eagle, the F-15X would have limited ground attack capability.  This is a plus in the eyes of the Pentagon, which does not want to present a viable alternative to its big budget F-35 and B-21.

Third, the USAF would simply be getting a fighter it already knows and loves, but fresh off the assembly line with modern radar and avionics.  The F-16V "Viper" has already demonstrated that this can be a good thing.  Training is a snap, infrastructure is already in place, and capabilities are already well known.  The Eagle is still among the best fighters in the air today, why mess with a good thing?

Possibly the most attractive feature of the F-15X will be its price.  Boeing is offering it for under $100 million per unit using fixed-price terms.  This offer (similar to the KC-46 Pegasus) leaves Boeing responsible for any potential cost overrun.  Boeing is also promising a cost per flight hour roughly on par with the F-35 ($27,000/hr) and a whopping 20,000 hour service life.  That is A LOT of fighter for the money.


So...  The inevitable question:

F-15X for Canada?

Even dismissing Boeing's recent anti-Canadian practices, the answer is a resounding "NO".

Unfortunately, the F-15X is unsuitable for the same reasons the original model was.  It is simply not a "multi-role" fighter.  While the RCAF would have a serious upgrade to the CF-18 in terms of air-superiority, it would be giving up a great deal of strike capability in the process.  That alone makes the F-15X a non-starter.  The role requires a fighter that is just as adept at ground-pounding as it is interception.

It would be tempting to alter the RCAF's mission to focus more on air superiority, but this would be a hard sell given the CF-18's history of participating in high-profile coalition actions.   Throughout its life, the CF-18 was far more likely to drop a bomb in anger than an air-to-air missile.

The F-15X is one of those fighters that works great as part of larger whole, but not so much by itself.  The USAF plans to use these things primarily alongside the F-22, F-35, B-21, and the evergreen B-52; not exactly a "jack-of-all-trades" application.

If Canada had bought the F-15 instead of the F/A-18, then the F-15X would indeed be a tempting choice for sure.  Instead, it will likely be one of those "what could have beens".



Saturday, February 9, 2019

WHAT? THE JSF IS STILL TROUBLED?



Forgive me if this post seems a bit like a rant.  I've been fighting both a gastrointestinal infection and a lung infection for the last few days and the meds are only helping me so much...

The United States Government Accountability Office recently released its yearly report on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.  This 2018 report is of importance because the decision to enter full production will be made in October this year.

Spoiler alert:  Despite being in development for over 17 years, there are still major deficiencies in aircraft performance, longevity, and even safety.  Even with the current problems, the US Department of Defense "plans to defer resolving some critical deficiencies found in testing until after its full-rate production decision in October 2019, even though DOD’s policy states that critical deficiencies generally will be resolved before then."

It would seem "concurrency" is the gift that keeps on giving.  Why mess around recalling and retrofitting dozens of fighters when you can recall and retrofit hundreds...  Possibly thousands?


All this might be understandable if these "deficiencies" were all minor or well on their way to being fixed (like switching the HMD display from LCD to OLED for less light bleed).  They are not.

Some of the more glaring issues yet to be resolved include (but are not limited to):


Any of these issues by themselves would be a huge red flag.  Put together and one wonders how anyone in good conscious could recommend full-rate production.  Instead, The Pentagon is happy to cut the JSF even more slack, deeming late deliveries as "on time".  


Not sure if Michael Bay made the F-35 better or worse...

Of course, Lockheed Martin responded to these criticisms with the usual boiler-plate corporate jargon.  They state the program "continues to improve" and that they "remain confident" in the aircraft.  They are quick to point out that unit cost has dropped under the $90 million mark.  This is small comfort when each aircraft still requires thousands of man-hours of fixing post-delivery...  Not to mention the additional cost needed to upgrade aircraft to the Block 4 standard.

What cannot be emphasized enough is the fact that the F-35 IS STILL IN DEVELOPMENT.  It still needs to be tested "under realistic combat conditions".  Cold weather testing (kind of important for Canada)  Col After over a half-billion dollars worth of improvements, Eieslon Air Force Base in Alaska will house its first F-35 squadron next year.  At least we know the planned drag-chute works okay.  

So what does this all mean?

For Canada, this validates the decision to drag our feet and ultimately restart the fighter selection process.  While spending $500 million on used F/A-18s is far from optimal, it sure beats unintentionally hitting cost overruns measured in the billions.  

Even if the F-35 is still very much in contention, there is no reason for Canada to rush into a risky decision.