HINDSIGHT 2020: CF-104 Starfighter


Welcome to Hindsight 2020!  For this series we will be taking a look at Canada's past fighter purchases and asking a simple question:  "Did we make the right decision?"

We will look at the aircraft itself, compare it to the alternatives available at the time, and determine whether or not Canada picked the right aircraft.  

The CF-104 Starfighter is aptly named.  Its sleek, pencil-like fuselage and razor blade wings give an appearance that would look right at home on the cover of a science fiction novel.  Developed under the supervision of Lockheed's legendary Kelly Johnson; the Starfighter offered the ultimate in speed, altitude, and climb performance.  The first production aircraft to achieve Mach 2, the F-104 immediately set records for speed, climb rate, and altitude.  

The F-104 Starfighter was an impressive fighter.  Designed with input from Korean War fighter pilots, it stuffed a powerful General Electric J79 turbojet into the bare-minimum of fighter.  Its signature small, trapezoidal wings offered exception supersonic efficiency at the cost of fuel capacity and low-speed performance.  This combination of high power, low weight, and low drag made for a serious hot-rod of a fighter.  For firepower, the Starfighter relied on a combination of AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles and the first use of the (now ubiquitous) 20mm M61 Vulcan autocannon.  

Initially developed as an air-superiority day fighter, the F-104 was quickly pressed into interceptor duties for the USAF.  Like other aircraft in the "Century Series", its service life was short lived.  While certainly cutting edge at its inception, technological development and the rapidly changing politics of the early Cold War resulted in the Starfighter falling out of favor with the USAF.  

With underwhelming sales (a meager 296 units) to the USAF, Lockheed began to market the the F-104 to other nations.  Boosted by the Military Aid Program, aggressive marketing, licensed production, and flat-out bribery; the Starfighter found the sales success that had eluded it domestically.  Over 2,500 F-104s would see service in 15 different nations.  

Canada, needing a replacement for it hugely successful F-86 Sabre, was one of those nations.  

Seeing a fighter that offered unmatched speed and climb capabilities, armed with the latest in air-to-air firepower, the RCAF was quick to purchase this high-speed, high altitude interceptor and...

**checks notes**

Use it as a low-altitude nuclear bomber.  


In an attempt to fulfill its NATO role in Europe, the RCAF required a nuclear strike platform.  Lockheed, desperately looking for Starfighter buyers, was all too happy to develop the F-104G variant.  Changes made to the G variant would give it a modicum of ground strike capability.  This model would be the basis for the license-built Canadair CF-104 as well as model purchased by the German Luftwaffe.  

In this role, the CF-104 truly lived up to its nickname as a "missile with a man in it".  Its intended role if the Cold War got "hot" was to scramble into Soviet airspace armed with a single nuclear bomb.  Flying low to avoid radar, the pilot would then drop its free-fall atomic bomb on the intended target, and use whatever fuel was left to reach a reasonably safe bail-out location.  The Starfighter did not carry enough fuel for a return trip.  In effect, the CF-104 was a manned nuclear cruise missile, similar to the MXY-7 Okha or Fi-103E Reichenberg "suicide" planes of WWII.  

Thankfully, this role was eventually discontinued.  Previously removed in favor of additional fuel, CF-104s would have their M61 cannons reinstalled.  Conventional ground attack munitions like free-fall bombs and rockets were utilized, but the Starfighter was limited to a rather paltry 4,000 pound payload.  

Of course, one cannot discuss the Starfighter without mentioning its rather morbid reputation.  Nicknamed "Widowmaker" by the press, the F-104 had a rather poor safety record.  Canada, Germany, and Belgium's accidents were particularly bad.  In retrospect, this should be no surprise.  Here was a lightweight fighter, with a single engine (in a time when jet engines were still new), optimized for high altitudes.  It was already notorious for poor handling characteristics, especially at low speeds.  Despite this, it was loaded with a 2 tonne atomic bomb, filled to the brim with fuel and forced to fly just above the treetops.  The margin of error must have been thinner than the Starfighter's wings.  Even if the pilot did everything right, there was still the constant danger of a bird strike.  

Perhaps the biggest argument that the F-104 Starfighter was not intended to be a low-level strike aircraft is the fact that early models came equipped with a downward-firing ejection seat.  Not exactly optimal at 100 feet about ground level.  

It should be noted that other buyers of the F-104, like Japan and Italy, utilized the Starfighter in its intended role as interceptor.   These air forces have a much better safety record than the abysmal loss rates of Canadian and German F-104s.  

The Competition:

F-105 Thunderchief

This one is so obvious it hurts.  

When the requirement demands a high-speed, low-altitude fighter-bomber capable of delivering a nuclear warhead...  Why not go with the aircraft designed exactly for that?

The F-105 Thunderchief, affectionately nicknamed "Thud" by its pilots, is a very different aircraft than the F-104.  At roughly twice the size as the Starfighter, nobody could mistake the two.  Unlike the F-104, the Thunderchief was designed from the outset to perform the strike role.  With an internal bomb-bay and the ability to carry up to 14,000 pounds of ordinance, the Thud definitely put the emphasis on the "bomber" part of "fighter-bomber".  

Despite the emphasis on the ground attack role, the F-105 was still able to defend itself with the same AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles and M61 Vulcan cannon utilized by the CF-104.  Unlike the CF-104, the Thud did not have to remove these in order to fulfill its strike mission.  This allowed it to actually defend itself if needed.  

The F-105 Thunderchief also managed a slightly higher top speed than the F-104.  This was thanks to utilization of the "area rule" giving its distinctive "Coke bottle" shape and allowing it to reduce drag at supersonic speeds.  

Of course, the F-105 was not without its faults.

Larger, more complex, and more expensive than the CF-104 by sizable margins, the Thud would have been a much more difficult sell to Ottawa bean-counters.  While Canada's Orenda was ready to outfit Canadian Thuds with its Iroquois engine (originally intended for the Avro Arrow), license building the entire aircraft may not have been possible.  Even if it was, Republic may not have been able to compete with Lockheed's aggressive industrial offsets.  

One might be tempted to bring up the F-105's losses over Vietnam as a point against it.  This would be in error, however.  The Thud was tasked with an extremely risky job in a high threat environment under questionable political leadership and systemic issues with an unprepared American military at the time.  When those issues are taken into context, the F-105 is found to acquit itself rather well, proving to be a capable and robust platform.   

In fact, the F-105 Thunderchief can only be seen as a success.  Not only did it spawn the impressive F-105G "Wild Weasel" variant, but it inspired other heavy fighter-bombers like the FB-111 and F-15E Strike Eagle.  

Mirage III

This one is a little less obvious...  But no less worthy of discussion.

While the American "Century Series" churned out multiple aircraft designed around the lessons learned in the Korean War, other nations followed suit.  France, in particular, saw the value of small, single-engine Mach 2 interceptor like the F-104.  Enter the Mirage III.  

Like the the Starfighter, the Mirage III utilizes a lightweight, sleek, aerodynamic body wrapped around a single powerful jet engine.  Unlike the F-104 Starfighter, the Mirage III uses a tailless delta-wing and "pinched waist" configuration that, like the F-105, takes advantage of the area rule.  Those delta wings not only provided more lift than the F-104's stubby aerofoils, but they provided more room for weapons and additional fuel.  This made for an aircraft that, while being only slightly heavier than the F-104, had a substantially greater range and payload capacity.  

The Mirage III was also similar to the Starfighter in that it was developed as an interceptor but would eventually find use as a strike platform.  For the Mirage, this occurred much earlier in its design cycle as a natural evolution...  Not as a desperate attempt to find export sales.  The Mirage IIIE was more of a "multi-role" variant with a lengthened fuselage to accommodate additional fuel and avionics.  Five external hardpoints could carry 4 tonnes worth of ordnance (double that of the CF-104) up to and including a nuclear bomb.  The Mirage III could have carried the same nuclear payload as the Starfighter without foregoing a pair of air-to-air missiles and guns.  

Despite lacking the marketing and diplomatic push of the American Military Complex, the Mirage III would go on to be a resounding success.  Not only would it serve as France's mainline fighter for decades, but its combination of high performance and low cost made it popular in the export market.  Australia, Israel, Brazil, South Africa, Switzerland, and others operated the Mirage III; with licensed production occurring in Australia and Switzerland.  The Mirage III would then go on to become "combat proven" in the Six-Day War, Yom Kippur War, and the Falklands Islands.  

While the F-104 has long been retired, the Mirage III still sees use to this day in the Pakistani Air Force.  Its design has also seen multiple modifications, including the Mirage V, and Atlas Cheetah.  Its design lineage can clearly be seen in the Mirage 2000 and the Rafale.  Ironically, one variant of the Mirage III the IAI Kfir, would be fitted with the same GE  J79 turbojet engine found in the F-104 Starfighter.  The Kfir would then be briefly used by the USN and USMC as aggressor aircraft for TOPGUN under the F-21 designation.

That's right.  The US military was flying a variant of Mirage III TWENTY YEARS after it had retired the F-104 Starfighter.  If that isn't a testament to the platform's success, nothing is.  

Did Canada make the right choice?

No.  Absolutely not.  

Like the CF-5, the F-104 is a fine plane when placed into its intended role.  In this case, a short range, high speed, high altitude interceptor.  Things get hairy when you insist on pounding a square peg into a round hole, however.  The Starfighter's abysmal safety record illustrates this.  

Many would prefer to remember the CF-104 Starfighter with fondness.  This can only be done when removed from context.  Indeed the CF-104 is a sleek, sexy, hotrod of an aircraft.  Like many of its nicknames, "Flying Phallus" is well-earned.  A Mach 2 fighter armed with a nuclear warhead is indeed "big dick energy".  

But what use of it to Canada?

While it showed great promise initially, the F-104 Starfighter ended up being a solution in search of a problem.  Lockheed was desperate to find an export buyer for when the USAF lost interest.  Unfortunately, the Starfighter was an intercepter with too short of a range to be useful for defending a nation as large as Canada.  The solution?  Remove the missiles and gun, strap a nuke on it and call it a "strike fighter".  Just the thing Canada needed to fulfill its NATO requirements...  Barely.  

If Canada was truly serious about the strike role, it would have been much better off to go with the far superior F-105 Thunderchief.  A true bomber in every sense but its "F" designation, the Thud was literally designed for the mission.  

A better option still would have been Canadian built Mirage IIIE.  Similar in size to the Starfighter, yet offering much more versatility, the Mirage has outlived most of its contemporaries for good reason.  Over the years, it has seen countless variants and upgrades; giving it a shelf life far greater than many of its peers.  Hypothetically, a Mirage-equipped RCAF would have little need for the CF-116 Freedom Fighter later on.  Canada could have simply developed its own Mirage variant much like the Kfir or Cheetah.  

A Canadian-built fighter designed by Canadians?  More on that next week... 


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