Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Australia buys 58 more F-35s: What Canada could learn from this.

Lightning down under.
To the surprise of pretty much nobody, Australia has formally announced its purchase of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.  This will bring the total number of RAAF F-35s up to 72.

Much like Canada, Australia is in the midst of replacing its legacy F/A-18 Hornet fleet.  Also like Canada, there has been much controversy regarding the sole-source selection of the F-35 with no real consideration over other options available.  Unlike Canada, the Australian Government has proven to be unwavering in their commitment to the JSF.  Canberra has steadfastly committed to replacing its F-111C and F/A-18 fleets with 100 F-35As.  At the same time, the Aussies have accepted the reality that the JSF will not be ready until the 2020s, and has ordered a small fleet of "interim fighters" to bridge the gap.

RAAF Super Hornet.

In 2010, the RAAF started taking deliveries of the Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet.  This would help make up for the early retirement of the F-111C, as well as strengthen the legacy F/A-18 fleet until the F-35 is ready.  Since then, the RAAF has ordered a total of 24 Super Hornets.  12 of those have been designated F/A-18F+, indicating that they have been prewired to accept hardware specific Super Hornet's electronic warfare variant, the EA-18G Growler.  On top of this, the RAAF has now ordered an additional 12 EA-18Gs.

Needless to say, these additional 36 fighter aircraft have taken a significant bite out of Australia's F-35 budget.  While the Aussies originally intended for 100 Lightning IIs, they are now committing to only 72.

What about Lockheed Martin's assertion that the F-35 will sell in numbers well into the 4000+ range?  That's based on the assumption that nations like Australia will go ahead and order their initial planned  numbers.  In effect, this latest announcement confirms that the Aussies have dropped their F-35 purchase from the planned 100.  Sure, 28 aircraft isn't much in the grand scheme of things, but it is still evidence that the F-35 will sell in less numbers than predicted.  The "Zombie Shuffle" continues...

Will and Kate:  Putting the "Royal" in Royal Australian Air Force.  

The winner in all this, oddly enough, is the RAAF.

The are they getting more fighter aircraft than initially planned.  Instead of 100 fighters they are getting 108 (72 +36).  Not only this, but they are getting a much more versatile fleet.  The F-35 offers its stealth, as well as being more "future proof".  The Super Hornet, on the other hand, is a proven workhorse, and the insistence on the F/A-18F two-seater version will likely prove useful for missions like training, reconnaissance, or other high workload missions.  On top of all that, the addition of the Growler brings the benefit of being the only non-US airpower utilizing a dedicated EW (electronic warfare) platform.

It isn't perfect, though.  There is quite a bit of overlap between the Super Hornet and the F-35.  Both are optimized for the attack role, and neither offer similar flight performance to high end Russian jets like the Su-30.

Still, its easy to see the advantages of RAAF's mixed fleet.  I've written about the advantages of mixed fighter fleets in the past, and likely will again.  In the future, the RAAF will have the option of replacing its Super Hornets with some future fighter, like the F/A-XX, while holding on to part of all of its F-35 fleet.

So why doesn't Canada follow Australia's example?  We're both big countries, with lots of coastline to guard.  We're both Commonwealth countries with strong ties to the USA.  We both like our beer.  So why not?

Australian defense strategy.


Geography and politics.

Its location in the South Pacific is just a little bit unpredictable right now.  The Asia Pacific region is the only part of the world that has seen in increase in defense spending since 2008.  The Australian government has no real choice but to keep up.

Australia is also more or less on its own.  While Canada is an entrenched member of NATO, there is no real NATO equivalent in the Asian Pacific.  Any attempt at a NATO type alliance in the region would antagonize China to near "Cold War-era" levels.

So Australia has to be ready to go it alone if push comes to shove.  This is a worst-case scenario, but one that has to be anticipated.  It needs the ability to "bunker down" in the event of a shooting war, protecting itself, while maintaining the ability to launch punitive counter-stikes.

Nobody wants to go it alone, however, so Australia will do whatever it takes to keep in the good graces of its biggest and most powerful ally, the good ol' USA.  Buying American military equipment not only helps its diplomatic standing with the U.S, but ensures that the RAAF will be fully compatible with Super Hornets and F-35s used by the USN and USMC.

It is no coincidence that the RAAF's fighter fleet will be nearly identical to the USN's.


Canada is a little different, however.

Politics and geography make Canadian military involvement in the Asia-Pacific region unlikely.  It is simply too far away and our Chinese relations are...  Complicated.

Canada's location on the globe shows that we protected by the world's largest military to the south, thousands of hectares of inhospitable tundra to the north, and and ocean on either side.  A full-scale military incursion into Canada would be foolish.  At the very worst, there might be the need to aggressively defend land claims over disputed territory.

Potential Canadian military action is far more likely reserved for traditional NATO missions, like the current posting of CF-18s near Ukraine.  A scenario where the Canadian Forces would have to go it alone is nearly inconceivable.  Also, Canada is just as likely to work alongside European nations like the UK or France as they are with the USAF of USN.  This means we are under far less pressure to purchase US made military equipment under the guise of "commonality".

As far as purchasing US sourced military equipment for diplomatic reasons, Canada has no need whatsoever.  Canada actually has reasons NOT to purchase American, actually.

Maybe Canada should follow Australia's example.  Implementing a two fighter fleet would have its advantages.  A mixed Super Hornet/Lightning II fleet may not be the best choice, but it would still be preferable to an entire fleet of one or the other.  Ideally, Canada would adopt a fleet of two fighters spaced farther apart on the performance/price spectrum.  We may not need as many fighters, either.  But then again...







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