Tuesday, July 19, 2016

[OPINION] Canada needs more than 65 fighters.

More than this...
Sixty-five fighters.

That is the minimum amount the RCAF has stated it needs to fulfill its duties.  This is a sharp decline in the current 77 CF-18s Canada currently operates.  Sixty-five fighters would also be less than half of the total 138 CF-18s procured by the RCAF over the years.  It should be noted that the RCAF also operated the CF-116 (CF-5) Freedom Fighter at the time as well.  

Why so few?

For one, the end of the Cold War has supposedly brought on a "peace dividend" in which military spending can be cut as the world becomes a safer place.  

There is also the argument that a modern, advanced fighter like the F-65 offers so much capability, performance, and reliability that less are needed.

Initially, RCAF brass requested 78 F-35s to replace the CF-18s on a 1:1 basis.  This was reduced to 65, likely to get the purchase price under a $9 billion limit.

While one cannot expect the RCAF to match the USAF in terms of fighter strength, it is all-too-obvious that 65 fighters seems like an awfully low number.  That is because it is.  

In terms of defence budget, Canada slots in between Turkey and Taiwan.  

Turkey (until recent events) has planned on procuring up to 116 F-35s.  In the meantime, they will make do with 240 F-16s, 49 F-4Es, and 59 F-5s.  (348 fighters total)

Taiwan has been left out of the JSF club for now, but is upgrading its F-16 fleet of 115 aircraft to the F-16V standard.  This is alongside 47 Mirage 2000s and 23 F-5E/RF-5Es.  Taiwan also utilizes 102 copies of its indigenous AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo.  (287 fighters total)

The RAAF plans on procuring 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets as well as 72 F-35As.  That's 96 cutting-edge 5th and 4++ generation fighters.  

Even Brazil, a nation infamous for its depressed economy, poverty, and poor living conditions; is planning on acquiring 100 Saab Gripen E/Fs.  This is in addition to their 31 A-29 Super Tucano and 47 AMX light attack aircraft.  


Closer, but not quite...
When put in perspective, Canada's current and planned fighter fleet is quite frankly embarrassing.  Yes, some air forces are in worse shape, but that hardly excuses it.

Canada ranks as the 10th strongest economy in the world.  We have the enviable advantage of being in one of the most stable socio-political stable regions of the globe.  Our closest ally happens to wield the worlds largest military.  We are in an enviable position that allows us to take the moral high ground and look down our noses at military spending.

That is all well and good, but if Canada wants to do more to contribute to our own safety and the safety of others around the world it will have to step things up.

Since Canada is large nation surrounded by water on three sides and a powerful ally on the fourth, it goes without saying that airpower and naval power are paramount.  Luckily, Canada has the economy to support both a powerful navy and air force...  If it chooses to.  While we may not be able to match nations like the USA or China, we should be able to afford a blue water navy and a expeditionary air force.

Canada's air force is already quite impressive in most respects.  We have a superb tactical and strategic airlift capabilities.  Our CP-140 Auroras are still world-class ISR/ASW aircraft despite their age.  With any luck, new maritime helicopters and FWSAR aircraft will be finally arriving any year now.  That leaves our rapidly aging fighter fleet as a "sore point".

With the CF-18s replacement still very much up in the air, now is a good time to question not only what kind of fighter Canada needs; but how many.  


Now your'e getting it...



Allow me to make an argument why Canada should purchase more than 65.  Much more.




Geography

We will get the most obvious reason out of the way first.  Canada is big.  Really big.  You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is.  Only Russia is bigger.  Much of that territory is sparsely populated and inhospitable wilderness.  That means much of Canada's sovereign territory is accessible most easily by aircraft.  

Currently, Canada's CF-18 fleet operates primarily out of two airbases (Cold Lake and Bagotville) with rotations in three more (Comox, Goose Bay, and Greenwood).  That is not a lot of airbases to cover a massive amount of airspace.  

It could be argued that Canada is at very low risk for an aerial invasion.  Any conventional attack (not coming from the south) would require a massive investment in recourses like long-range bombers, aircraft carriers, and tanker aircraft.  The one exception to this would be a 9/11-style terrorist attack using civilian airliners.

The Dassault Rafale's Reco NG (AREOS) reconnaissance pod.

Versatility

When one pictures fighter aircraft, images of tense aerial dogfights or precision bombing runs often comes to mind.  Modern multi-role fighters are capable of much more than that, however.  Advancements in radar and other imaging sensors have made them impressive reconnaissance aircraft, especially when outfitted with a reconnaissance pod.  While a single or two-manned fighter would never be able to replace a dedicated spy plane like the CP-140, an armed fighter has the ability to go into contested airspace and defend itself while it performs its duties.  

With a myriad of various pods, missiles, and fuel tank options; a modern multi-role fighter can often be whatever is needed at the time.  Loaded with air-to-air missiles it can act as defensive interceptor.  Loaded with guided bombs and external fuel tanks it becomes a long-range bomber.  Depending on the load out, a fighter could be tasked anything from close air support to long range "bunker busting".  Better still, a modern fighter could perform a ground attack mission then transition to an air-to-air mission once it jettisons its heavy bombs.  

One could go even a step further and look at the example set by the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.  With "buddy" refueling pods it becomes an aerial tanker.  With extensive modifications it becomes the specialized EA-18G Growler electronic warfare craft.    


Anytime, anywhere...  With a little support.

Deployability

Fighter aircraft, by their very nature, are mobile machines.  At a moment's notice, they may need to be scrambled to defend home turf.  They are also able to deploy to just about anywhere in the world with short notice.  Once there, fighter aircraft can operate out of a friendly airbase (sometimes not even that).

This is not to say that fighter aircraft are easy things to deploy from a logistical standpoint.  When fighters are sent, they need the support of pilots, maintainers, spare parts, fuel, and other materials and support staff.  When compared to other heavy military equipment (tanks, helicopters, etc) however, the fighter jet is incredibly mobile.  It does not need a strategic airlift to carry it overseas.  

When the Swedish Air Force assisted in the NATO-led mission over Libya, it was able to support a force of eight JAS 39C/D Gripens with a single C-130 Hercules.

CT-155 Hawk

Training

The more aircraft available in the fleet, the more training hours can be made for both new and experienced pilots.  When those aircraft and training hours become sparse, the effect can be felt for years.   

Whenever budget cuts need to be made in military spending, training hours should NEVER be on the table.  Doing so not only reduces the effectiveness of our forces, but it is dangerous.  Pilots need to fly, simple as that.  Not out of some spiritual need, but in order to stay proficient.  Lack of training hours can be deadly.  Modern simulators are good, but they still do not completely replace actual seat time.

A well-trained force is an effective one.  Proper training requires time spent with the equipment to be used in wartime.  Unfortunately, unit-hours are often a precious commodity due to low fleet availability or an abundance of airframe hours.  More airframes mean more flight hours should be available, leading to more training hours.  

Safety

While it may seem unheroic, modern warfare is all about having an extreme advantage over your enemy.  You fight them on your terms, not theirs.  

Needless to say, a pilot flying 30,000 feet above at subsonic speeds is in an enviable position compared to the ground troops stuck down in "the suck".

Since its introduction in 1983, not a single CF-18 has been lost in combat action.  This, despite being deployed to several combat zones (Bosnia, Iraq, Libya, etc).  While contributing to the ground action in Afghanistan, the Canadian military lost 132 of its members to enemy action, with another 27 killed by "non-enemy action" (suicide, friendly fire, accidents, etc.).

While no war can be won strictly from the air, nor can a modern war be won without air-superiority.  Canada does have the means to offer up air support in lieu of ground troops.  At the risk of sounding cynical and callous, I believe most Canadian would prefer Canadian soldiers to die defending their country instead of someone else's.  

At the very least, Canadian ground troops may take more comfort that their air support is being provided by Canadian aircraft...  Instead of someone else.  

Before the Snowbirds...  There was the Golden Hawks.

Demonstration Team

Lightening things up a bit, Canada is not only in need of new combat fighters, but new aircraft for the Snowbirds demonstration team.  

Currently, the Snowbirds fly the CT-114 Tutor, a Canadian-made trainer/attack aircraft that first flew in 1960 and has not been produced since 1966.  Currently, the Tutor is used strictly for Snowbird duty as pilot training duties have passed on to the CT-156 Harvard II and CT-155 Hawk.  Canada also operates a CF-18 Demonstration Team.  While the continued existence of either team may seem superfluous to some, we will not get into that argument here (stay tuned).

Unless the RCAF wants its demonstration team to consist of FWSAR aircraft, airlift aircraft, or helicopters, it is going to need either fighters or trainer aircraft to make up the Snowbirds.  This would suggest either the CT-156 Harvard II, CT-155 Hawk, or whatever Canada's new fighter will be.  Given that Canada's current Harvard II and Hawk fleets are leased, they may not be the best solution.  

Instead, the RCAF may choose to emulate the USAF Thunderbirds and USN's Blue Angels demonstration teams and "upgrade" to its workhorse fighter.  This may raise concerns about operating costs, but these could be mitigated by fleet commonality, reducing the team size, and choosing a fighter with low operating costs.  This is not without precedent, as the CF-86 was used in the precursor to the Snowbirds, the Golden Hawks.


Make the RCAF great again...

With a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the CF-18's replacement, now is the time to seize the opportunity to revamp Canada's fighter fleet.  Instead of merely "making do" with the minimum amount of fighters, the RCAF should be provided with a first-class fighter fleet with ample equipment and training.

What fighter we ultimately choose to replace the CF-18 may not be nearly as important as how many. Whether that solution includes an "interim" fighter, a mixed fleet, or even UCAVs; the RCAF deserves to have enough combat aircraft to do its job at anytime and anywhere in the world.  This can only be done if there is enough inventory.  Hand-wringing over airframe hours or part availability should never be an issue.  

While some would prefer Canada procure a smaller number of bleeding-edge aircraft, the wiser solution may be to select a more affordable fighter (or combination of fighters) in much larger numbers.  Remember, it is not the fighters that matter as much as pilots flying them.  

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