Friday, March 4, 2016

POLITICAL PROBABILITIES


Aviation buffs always get caught up.

When the talk centers around fighter aircraft, they debate the merits of each by comparing top speeds, payload capability, wing-loading and such.  By using these empirical measurements, they can argue for their favorite based on hard facts.  Much like buying a car or a microwave, the selection usually comes down to choosing the right balance of features and price.

Multi-billion dollar military procurement contracts do not work that way, however.

In my last post, I focused on the government ministers whom will be ultimately responsible for Canada's next fighter aircraft acquisition.  Why?  Because politics determine fighter sales far more than stealth or the ability to supercruise.

Putting aside each aircraft's performance and other capabilities, how politically palatable are the CF-18 replacement contenders?

F-35, no longer a near-certainty.

F-35 Lightning II:  Down but not out.

Five years ago, Canada's purchase of 65 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II was almost a forgone conclusion.  Now...  Not so much.

The JSF is still as controversial as ever.  The USAF recently cut their order, even Israel is having second thoughts.  Prime Minister Trudeau even campaigned on the promise to end Canada's purchase.    The F-35 is certainly down, but not out.  The stealth fighter has not yet been completely ruled out and Canada is still a member of the JSF Industrial Program.

Despite the campaign promise, expect the F-35 to still feature heavily in the CF-18 replacement process.  Despite lowering their JSF acquisition rate over the next few years, the Pentagon is encouraging other nations to participate in "block buys" too keep production numbers up.  Expect Canada to be on the receiving end of some external political pressure to "keep with the program".

F/A-18F Super Hornet, the new front-runner?

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet:  The new favorite.

Most mainstream media (I hate that term) sources label the Super Hornet as the odds-on favorite to replace the CF-18.  The reasoning is simple enough, it is the only obvious American alternative to the F-35.  It is also seen (right or wrong) as an "upgraded" version to the current CF-18.

The Super Hornet is bound to be the most popular choice.  It is cheap (as modern fighters go), capable, twin-engined, and will see service in the US and Australia well into the 2040s.  The "Rhino" is certainly the safest choice.

It helps that both Boeing and the Pentagon would very much like to keep the Super Hornet's assembly line going.  That can only happen with new orders.  With the JSF being the priority right now for the USA, those orders are going to have to come from non-American buyers.  This is easier said than done however.  Expect the USA to push the Rhino with almost the same fervor as the F-35 if Canada passes on the latter.


Eurofighter Typhoon...  Easy sell?

Eurofighter Typhoon:  Obvious choice or "also ran"?

On the surface, the Typhoon would seem to check all the right boxes to replace the CF-18.  Great performance, two engines, and even a historic name make the Typhoon seem like a popular choice.

Unfortunately, the Eurofighter's convoluted and controversial history do it no favors.  It also has a reputation for being both expensive and temperamental.  This has had a negative impact on training and availability.

Like the Super Hornet, the Eurofighter consortium has been aggressively pursuing new buyers.  A push for increased trade with the European Union may sweeten the deal even further.  

Dassault Rafale. Too French? 

Dassault Rafale:  A great aircraft, but that's not enough.

Like the Typhoon, the Rafale seems like a suitable fit for the RCAF.  Designed as an "omni-role" fighter, the Rafale is well suited to act as a nations one and only fighter.  From a technical standpoint, it would seem to be a perfect fit for the RCAF.  

Too bad we do not live in a perfect world.

Everything (and I do mean everything) built into the Rafale is of French manufacture and design.  The Rafale is as French as true champagne.  Unlike the other fighters, which are offered by multinational corporations and/or have multinational parts, the Rafale would see a political push by a single government.  A government that, while having historic ties to Canada, serves only as our eighth largest trade partner.  

The Rafale's political attractiveness may be further stymied by long, convoluted Indian purchase agreement.  A deal that was initially meant for 126 Rafales (most built in India) eventually devolved into 36 French-built aircraft after disagreements about cost and liabilities.  

Saab Gripen

Saab Gripen:  The dark horse that could surprise.

The biggest obstacle concerning a possible Canadian Gripen centers around the the fact that Saab withdrew the Gripen from consideration when it seemed as if the F-35 was a foregone conclusion for the RCAF.  Saab did so promising to "re-evaluate this decision" as things moved along, keeping the door open if things changed.  Since then, change has certainly happened.

Unlike the Rafale, the Gripen's Swedish origin is not a huge handicap, thanks to a melting pot of subsystems.  Its (E/F version) GE-F414 engine is of an american origin, its Selex-ES radar is Italian, and other subsystems originate from Britain, Germany, and even Canada.  Saab's recent deal with Brazil will see that nation added to the mix as well.  

Saab has also chosen the Bombardier-built  Q400 and Global 6000 as the chosen platforms for its Swordfish multi-role maritime patrol aircraft (MPA).  Saab also uses the Global 6000 as the basis for its GlobalEye AEW&C aircraft.  Given Bombardier's current predicament, this should certainly give Saab some "good will".  

[NOTE:  If Saab is already using Canadian aircraft for some its upcoming platforms...  What will they be willing to offer for offsets?  Saab has already partnered with Brazilian Embraer, could we see a possible Saab/Embraer/Bombardier partnership to take on giants like Boeing and Airbus?]

F-15E Strike Eagle 

F-15SE Silent Eagle (or variation thereof):  Too many "ifs".

Many would like to see Boeing offer its Silent Eagle along with, or instead of, the Super Hornet.  The F-15 is a much more formidable fighter than the Rhino, capable of faster speeds and larger payloads.  Boeing seems to be content with offering the Silent Eagle solely to current F-15 operators, possibly due to the Eagle's high operating costs.   

It is hard to imagine the Silent Eagle having much chance in Canada, even if Boeing was to offer it.  It is a 60s era design with an operating cost is even higher than the F-35's.  It would require modifications to adapt to our current probe-and-drogue style aerial tankers.  

All-in-all, the Silent Eagle's Canadian chances are pretty slim.  If Boeing is unable to keep the Super Hornet line going, it might offer the F-15SE.  The Silent Eagle would then have to prove to be a superior value to the others.

Avro Arrow...  Let it go.

Avro Arrow:  Can we bring it back?

No.  

Stop it.  Let it go.  It is not going to happen.  

Don't.




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