Thursday, July 13, 2017

CANADA'S NEW GOVERNOR GENERAL... AND HER JSF CONNECTION


CBC has confirmed that Julie Payette will be Canada's next Governor General.  

First of all, this is INCREDIBLE news.  The Queen's official representative in Canada is going to be freaking astronaut!  How cool is that?

Aside from her career as an astronaut, Payette is also a pilot, engineer, able to speak six languages, and has served as a board member of Drug Free Kids Canada.  It is clear that Payette is not some mere patronage appointee.

Oddly enough, Payette does have a connection to Canada's CF-18 replacement.  Her husband is none other than Lockheed Martin test pilot (and PR persona) Billie Flynn.

Billie Flynn
Congratulations to Julie Payette on her upcoming appointment!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

MISSING MISSILES...

Raytheon AIM-9X Sidewinder
On June 18th, 2017, a United States Navy Super Hornet was forced to engage a Syrian Su-22 that had attacked ground troops.  This was to be the first manned aerial combat victory in nine years.  The F/A-18E (the most advanced fighter currently in use by the USN) fired an AIM-9X (the most advanced missile currently in use by the US military)...  And missed.

The Su-22 was eventually brought down using a radar-guided AIM-120 AMRAAM (a missile which has its own issues).  The outcome of this aerial combat was never really in doubt, but how did the AIM-9X possibly miss in the first place?

Su-22 "Fitter"
In this case, the AIM-9X's intended target was an export version of the Sukhoi Su-17 "Fitter" designated the Su-22.  First flying over 50 years ago, this aircraft is comparable to western attack aircraft like the SEPECAT Jaguar and A-7 Corsair II (both mostly retired).  It is not particularly fast or maneuverable.  Built more for the ground attack role, it has no BVR aerial combat capability.  Its only real noteworthy feature is its use of variable-sweep wings.  It has no pretenses towards being a stealth fighter and only carries rudimentary chaff and flares for self defense.  The Su-17/22 stands out as a shining example of Soviet Cold War design philosophy:  Build 'em cheap, build 'em tough, and build LOTS of them.

Most Su-17s and Su-22s around the world have been retired.  Syria is one of its last active users.  The type is mostly obsolete.

F/A-18E
On the other hand, the Boeing F/A-18E is currently the US Navy's newest and most advanced operational aircraft (until the F-35C reaches IOC).  While the aircraft has its detractors, it is a capable fighter in both the air-to-air and air-to-ground roles.  It did replace the USN's "Top Gun" F-14, after all...

Details have been scant on the actual configuration of the F/A-18E that recorded its first air-to-air victory for the type.  It seems unlikely, but possible that the belly-tank mounted IRST was outfitted.  That particular equipment is scheduled for deployment this year.  It was almost certainly outfitted with an AESA radar, however.

While some would argue that the Super Hornet may not be as dynamic as its contemporaries, it is well beyond the capabilities of Su-22.  Any engagement between the two could not be considered a fair fight.  The Super Hornet is faster, more agile, and has sensors and weapons decades more advanced than the Su-22.

And yet it missed its first shot.




It is thought that the Su-22 eluded the AIM-9X using simple flares.  This is not new.  A MiG-21 with a flare dispenser from a Su-25 "Frogfoot" was able to confound the AIM-9P missile when tested in the 80s.  It would seem that American-built Sidewinders are programmed to reject American-build flares.  Russian-sourced flares are built with far less consistency regarding temperature and burn time.

Apparently, this lesson has yet to sink in.

For years, the predominating strategy in aerial combat has been the emphasis on "First sight.  First shot.  First kill.  This latest incident raises a serious question regarding this strategy:  "What happens if the first shot misses?"

In this case, the Super Hornet had little to fear, being able to both outfly and outrun the Su-22.  It was still in danger of falling victim to a lucky shot from the Su-22...  On a bad day.

Imagine, if you will, that Super Hornet encountering a different adversary.

Su-35...  Not as easy pickings as an Su-22.
Consider a hypothetical situation where that same USN Super Hornet encountered a Su-35 Flanker-E instead of an archaic Su-22.  That same Super Hornet would find itself in dire straits upon engaging said Su-35 and missing.

Unlike the Su-22, the Su-35 is more than a match for the Super Hornet.  It is faster, more maneuverable, and carries a substantially more lethal armament.  Upon missing with its AIM-9X, the F/A-18E would not be able to lazily reposition itself for a follow-up shot.  It would instead find itself fighting for its life.  Ideally, the preferable tactic would be to wait for back-up, but that would allow the Su-35 time to strike additional targets or to simply bug-out.

One could argue that the Super Hornet could prevail in combat with Flanker (better radar, etc) but that is not the point.  As the saying goes "If you find yourself in a fair fight, your tactics suck."

F6D Missileer
There is a definite sense of deja vu in all this.  Back in the 50s and 60s, military planners were so infatuated with the missile that they believed the era of the dogfight was over.  Aerial battles would be won thanks to powerful radars guiding long range missiles to their target.  This led to concepts like the F6D Missileer, a concept that was thankfully discarded in favor of the F-14 Tomcat.

It was thanks to this hubris that early variants of the F-4 Phantom II flew without a cannon.  Why bother with all that dogfighting nonsense when you could simply let the missile do all the work?  This design decision that proved disastrous over the skies of Vietnam.

It would seem that after all these years, the lesson has yet to be learned.

Simply put, missiles are fallible.  While they may have become increasingly advanced over the years, so have countermeasures.  While the idea of "first sight, first shot, first kill" is certainly a sound strategy, it is not a guarantee of victory.


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

F-35 LIGHTNING II: STILL TROUBLED AFTER ALL THESE YEARS

Still not ready for primetime...
Fans of the F-35 have had to put up with a deluge of good news and bad news stories the last few months.

First, the good news:

After a troubled development, the JSF has now considered to be in operational service with the USAF declaring its initial operating capability (IOC) in August of last year.  The F-35 can no longer be in "development hell"...  Sort of. 

Costs have gone down as well, with the latest batch of F-35s bringing the unit cost of the CTOL F-35A down to a reasonable $95 million*.  (More on the "*" later.)

As if to perform a mic drop on all this, an aerobatic performance at the Paris air show put to rest any criticisms that the F-35 cannot maneuver, accelerate, or climb.  Piloted by Lockheed Martin test pilot (and former RCAF CF-18 pilot) Billie Flynn, the JSF performed a flawless routine.  It even attracted the attention of zee Germans, who have thus far declined any participation in the JSF program.

Not bad.


Watch the vid...  It syncs up.  Just like Wizard of Oz and Dark Side of the Moon
  

So...  I guess that settles it then.  The F-35 has finally redeemed itself, silenced its haters, and is well on its way to being the uberfighter it was intended to be.  Right?

There is some bad news.

While the JSF may have entered IOC, it is still far from being ready for primetime.  Over the last month, the F-35 has been grounded not once, but twice.

F-35 operations were halted at Luke Air Force base due to pilots suffering from oxygen deprivation.  Unfortunately, the JSF is not alone having issues with its OBOGS (onboard oxygen generating system).  Similar issues have plagued the F-22 Raptor, F/A-18 Super Hornet, and even the humble T-45 Goshawk trainer.

(What is it with American fighter aircraft and oxygen systems?)

If that was not enough, shortly after returning to service, the F-35 was grounded again.  This time, the grounding only affected USMC F-35Bs stationed in Yuma, Arizona. This latest issue was due to a problem with the JSF's Automated Logistics Information System (ALIS).  This problem was resolved rather quickly but it is still problematic that an entire squadron was rendered inoperable thanks to little more than a software glitch.

But what about that lower price tag?

While the plan to lower the F-35's procurement cost down to $85 million per unit may finally seem achievable, this does not include the added costs to develop, test it, and maintain it.  Nor does that price tag include any needed modifications to fix current issues.

Then there is the real kicker.  Procurement costs are only the tip of the iceberg.  The real expense is invoked in the cost to operate.  This includes long-term maintenance, fuel, and other consumables.  Latest (2016) estimates place the F-35A's cost per flight hour at nearly triple that of the Super Hornet.

Buy the razor for $15...  Then buy 4 replacement cartridges for $25.

Lockheed Martin may be on track to replicate the business strategy of Gillette.  In this well-known business strategy, a low entry price (i.e. the razor handle and a couple of blades) entices buyers.  Those buyers are then forced to purchase proprietary (and highly marked up) blade cartridges.

Like your typical five-bladed razor, the JSF utilizes proprietary hardware (and software).  This ensures that all future maintenance and upgrades need to go through them.  F-35 users will be beholden to the brand with little choice once they commit.

Surely it is all worth it to be on the forefront of fighter technology?  Right?

It turns out that all that tech is not all it has been promised to be.  In its latest report, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) cited multiple issues with the F-35's EOTS, DAS, MADL, and just about anything else with a fancy acronym.

At least the F-35 is finally capable of performing in front of a show crowd.  At least there is that.  For comparison, here is a demonstration performed by a Dassault Rafale at the same show.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

BOEING, BOMBARDIER, BLUFFS AND BLUSTER

Almost had it...

In late 2016, Canada's fighter jet saga seemed to finally be reaching a resolution (at least in the short-term) after Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced that Canada would be purchasing 18 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets as an "interim" fighter.  These fighters would fill a "capability gap" whilst Canada pursued a permanent CF-18 replacement.

The move made sense.  The Super Hornet is readily available, affordable, and similar to our current fleet.  Some questioned that the move would give Boeing an unfair advantage going in to a full competition, but whomever said defence acquisitions were fair?  At the very least, the RCAF would finally have some new fighters.

Of course, this being a story of Canadian military procurement, a plot twist was inevitable.  That plot twist came from Canada's own Bombardier.

All this over a little airliner...
To say Bombardier has a controversial history is an understatement.  At any given time it simultaneously a both the worst of crony-capitalism and best of Canadian innovation.  Bombardier is a two-sided coin with corporate welfare marking one side and innovation marking the other.

Case-in-point:  The Bombardier C-Series airliner.

At first glance, the C-Series looks like any other airliner.  The generic tube-with-wings design could be mistaken by the layperson as any sort of Boeing, Airbus, or even Embraer design.  It is certainly no Concorde , nor does it stand out as a "airliner of the future".

So what is the fuss?

The C-Series real innovation comes in its size and layout.  Its size bridges the gap between smaller regional jets (like the Embraer E-Jet and Bombardier's own CRJ) and larger airliners like the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320.  It does this by implementing an asymetric seating arrangement.  Instead of three seats on either side of the aisle (like the A320 and 737) or two seats (E-Jet and CRJ), the C-series splits the difference with three seats on one side and two on the other.

Along with its novel seating arrangement, the C-Series utilizes the first use of geared turbofans on an airliner.  These, combined with lighter construction materials, helps keep operating costs down. The C-Series could very well steal routes (and sales) away from Boeing's 737 and Embraer's E-Jet.

3+2 seating.
Neither Boeing or Bombardier are willing to take this laying down, of course.  Unfortunately, this is the business world:  So if you can't beat 'em...  Sue 'em.

Both Embraer and Boeing have launched legal action against Bombardier on the basis that the C-Series is unfairly subsidized by the Canadian government, allowing Bombardier to sell the C-Series below its actual cost ("dumping").

Both are absolutely correct.  The C-Series would undoubtedly not exist were it not for Bombardier taking advantage of Federal and Provincial financial assistance.  Without a seemingly never-ending supply of government bailouts, the C-Series likely never would have left the drawing board...  In fact, Bombardier itself likely would no longer exist.

Boeing 737 MAX

Embraer E-190
Boeing and Embraer's case against Bombardier share a tragic flaw, however.  Both seem to forget that they are living in glass houses whilst they throw their stones.

Embraer enjoys a subsidy given to Brazilian airlines that favor its smaller aircraft to larger airliners made by Boeing and Airbus.  Embraer also enjoys government subsidies, much like Bombardier.

Boeing, on the other hand, is in an entirely different league.  In 2015, Boeing received an $8.7 billion corporate tax break from the state of Washington.  This made for a total of $13.2 billion worth of subsides.  To put that in perspective, Bombardier's entire revenue for that year was $11.2 billion.

Keep in mind that these subsidies are for commercial operations.  Both Boeing and Embraer's defense divisions enjoy lucrative military contracts as well.   Notable examples include Embraer's KC-390 and Boeing's P-8 Poseidon, both of which are being marketed on a global scale.

This, of course, brings us back to the Super Hornet.

So close?
The Trudeau government found themselves in a tight spot once Boeing implement legal action against C-Series sales.  It had no choice but to take Bombardier's side.  Politically, it would be seen as abhorrent to be propping up Bombardier whilst a the same time purchasing billions of dollars of fighters from the same corporation blocking Bombardier's attempt to gain a market foothold.

Trudeau and company used the most effective leverage they could think of: Threatening to cancel the Super Hornet purchase.

Boeing may regret calling Canada's bluff.  Plans to purchase the Super Hornet are now "On hold" with Defence Minister Hajjan stating that Boeing's actions were “not the behavior we expect of a trusted partner.”

Ouch.

Canadian officials are now meeting with various fighter manufacturers at the Paris Air Show this week, albeit after some confusion.

The winner in all this may in fact be one of the "Eurocanards".  Airbus (part of the consortium behind the Eurofighter) has been strangely silent regarding the C-Series, other than politely declining a partnership.  Saab is hot off the first flight of its Gripen E, and will be promoting it alongside its Swordfish and GlobalEye (both based on Bombardier airframes).  Dassault will undoubtedly have home court advantage in Paris as it awaits Canada's RFP.

Then again, perhaps this entire kerfuffle plays in the Liberal government hands.

The "interim" Super Hornet buy was not exactly met with universal acclaim.  The so-called "capability gap" did not seem to be an issue until the government said it was.  Perhaps the most glaring question was:  "Why bother with an interim fighter in the first place?'  The Canadian government should have more than enough information at this point that it should proceed directly to RFPs (requests for proposals) and let the bidding commence.

Perhaps the Liberal government was beginning to get cold feet?  Boeing's trade action against Bombardier may have been all the excuse needed to back out of the deal while at the same time saving face by appearing tough towards an American aerospace giant.  A sort of "soft reset", if you will.

Full circle?
Despite an election promise to cancel any F-35 purchase, the Trudeau government has not yet closed the door on the JSF.  It has continued to pay its membership dues in order to remain an industrial partner.  It has also been made clear that the F-35 will remain "on the table" as an option to replace Canada's aging F-35s.

Whether this entire process was brought about by happenstance or design is anyone's guess.  If the Liberals truly wanted to back out of the Super Hornet for another aircraft, it would not need the Boeing/Bombardier dispute to do so.  All they would need to do is proclaim "new information has come to light" or some such.

More than likely, this is all nothing more than a negotiation where all the parties have called each other's bluff...  But nobody wants to show all their cards yet.

One year ago, the Boeing Super Hornet was the odds-on winner to become Canada's next fighter aircraft.  Six months ago it was almost a sure thing.  As it stands now, it almost seems to have no chance at all...  Unless Boeing drops its beef with Bombardier and then it will be the frontrunner again.

Confused yet?

Saturday, June 17, 2017

GRIPEN E FIRST FLIGHT!

One for the record books.

The Gripen E (née "Gripen NG") can no longer bed accused as being a "paper aircraft".  On June 15, Saab successfully flew its first JAS 39 Gripen E.

The flight went off pretty much on time, with Saab promising a flight in the second quarter of 2017.  Initial plans were to hold the test flight in late 2016, but Saab chose to delay the flight due to self-imposed software requirements.  Saab insists the aircraft is still on track for deliveries to begin in 2019.


The upcoming years may indeed be the "perfect storm" for Gripen E sales success.  Contemporaries like the Typhoon, Rafale, and Super Hornet have had middling sales success, but are not even close to representing a true sales rival to the F-35.  Simply put, these fighters do not seem to offer enough of a cost and/or performance benefit to entice qualified buyers away from the still troubled JSF.  

But the Gripen E is different.  

Saab is promising the Gripen E will continue its predecessors' low operating costs as well as equipping cutting edge avionics and sensors.  Saab is clearly marketing the Gripen as the most "fighter bang for the buck".

Just the thing for a nation needing to rebuild its military on a budget, hmmm?


Friday, June 9, 2017

Just when I thought I was out... They pull me back in.


Welp...  So much for my hiatus.

Back in March, it seemed like Canada's protracted fighter jet saga was entering a stage of (relative) stability, with an "interim" purchase of 18 Super Hornets pending followed by a open fighter competition.

That was then...  This is now.

Boeing would rather we DON'T sell these...

...Then to sell us these.
The Canadian government has now suspended talks with Boeing thanks to a trade dispute over allegations that Bombardier is "dumping" (i.e. selling below cost) C-Series airliners onto the US market.  Whether this is simple posturing remains to be seen.  As of now, a Canadian Super Hornet purchase appears unlikely...  Interim or otherwise.



The Government of Canada dropped another bombshell this week with the release of its new defence policy (available here).  In it are plans for Canada to increase its defence spending by a whopping 70%.  This would bring Canada's military spending up to 1.4% of our GDP up from its current .99%.   Much of this new spending will go towards new personnel, fifteen new Canadian Surface Combatant ships, more focus on UAVs and cyberwarfare, and (most relevant to this site) 88 new fighter jets.

The plan to buy 88 CF-18 replacements, up from the previous planned 65, is a welcome surprise.  I've argued that Canada needs more than the scant 65 fighters planned under the previous government.  It almost feels like someone in Ottawa may actually be spending time here...

Keep your eyes on the skies for this one...  

In the coming weeks, I will attempt a more in-depth analysis of the Boeing vs. Bombardier spat, as well as a closer look at Canada's new defence policy.  On top of that, it looks as if the Saab Gripen E will soon make its first flight.

In the meantime, enjoy the summer and keep a watchful eye for the beautiful red-and-white CF-18 celebrating Canada's 150th birthday.




Wednesday, March 15, 2017

My work here is done. For now...

It's happening...
On March 13th, the Canadian government sent a letter of request to the the US regarding the purchase of 18 Boeing Super Hornets.  After years of debate, controversy, and outright stalling, the RCAF is now on its way to receiving new fighter jets to supplement the aging CF-18.

While I am unconvinced that the Super Hornet is the best fighter to ultimately replace the CF-18, I do believe it is the only reasonable choice as an interim fighter.  Whether or not Canada should simply initiate a full competition seems to be a moot point at this stage.  For good or ill, the Canadian Super Hornet IS HAPPENING.

This leaves your humble author at an odd impasse.  The Canadian fighter saga is not yet over...   Not by a long shot.  Yet the upcoming months (years?) will have little to discuss until Super Hornet deliveries start and/or a permanent fighter replacement program begins in earnest.

What am I to do during this Limbo?

I could continue to rant about the F-35, its saga is far from over.  Its relevance to Canada has been diminished, however.  There would be little I could add to that particular discussion for the time being.

Instead, I have decided to declare victory...  Such as it is.

When I started this blog (and its progenitor) in what seemed to be an eternity ago, my main mission was for Canada to reconsider its F-35 purchase in favor of a more affordable and less risky alternative.  My hope was that, at the very least, Canada would avoid re-evaluate its commitment to the JSF program to ensure the best possible outcome.

That is pretty much what happened.



In the upcoming years, Canada may decide to stick with the Super Hornet.  It may ultimately decide on the F-35 after it overcomes its teething problems.  Perhaps we will do something altogether different...  Who knows?  The fighter jet market could very well be a much different place five years from now.

As many of you have noticed, my post frequency has dwindled in the last few months.  There just does not seem to be much worth talking about when it comes to fighter jets.  Not pertaining to Canada, anyway.

I will continue this blog into the foreseeable future.  I will have little in the way of new posts, however.  Not until things pick up, anyway.  I will continue to moderate the lively Facebook group and I invite all those who have not yet joined to do so.

I also hope to branch out a bit.  My thoughts lately have been towards that big, orange elephant that now occupies office south of the border.  I have great worries that Trump-style politics will migrate to the north.  I also find myself concerned about the current state of journalism and the rise of partisanship.  To this end, I have started a new blog:  http://liberaltarianmanifesto.blogspot.ca  I welcome all my readers to join me there where I hope to make a case for common sense politics.  (The blog is in its infancy, so please pardon the mess.)

To all of you who have participated in the discussion and tolerated my ramblings over the years:  I humbly thank you.  I had no idea I would garner such a following.  For that I am truly grateful.

Until next time...  Thank you...  And keep fighting the good fight.