WHY CANADA'S FIGHTER CHOICE DOESN'T MATTER... EXCEPT IT DOES.
It is time to face facts.
Despite years of debates, arguments, virtual shouting matches, and almost infinite nitpicking... It does not matter which fighter Canada chooses.
This is contrary to the mission statement of this particular blog... But true.
Ultimately, there is no "wrong choice". The selection of one fighter over another will not result in the dismantling of the RCAF or Canada as a sovereign nation. The Government of Canada will not be forced into bankruptcy if it chooses a fighter ends up being more expensive than estimated. Nor will Canada be successfully invaded if it picks a fighter lacking in certain capabilities.
No matter which fighter Canada chooses, life will go on.
There will be issues, of course.
It is almost impossible to find a single military acquisition that has not been plagued by some sort of controversy. Budgets get blown, delivery timelines get missed, and reliability is never 100%. This invariably leads to a great gnashing of teeth from those who think we made the wrong choice.
All this has happened before... All this will happen again...
Canada certainly is no stranger to picking the "wrong" aircraft. The recent "Hindsight 2020" series on this blog was my attempt to illustrate this. Despite some of those aircraft being questionable in hindsight, all are remembered fondly. Also, none have resulted in Canada ceasing to exist as a sovereign nation.
Currently, Canada is spoiled for choice. Of the initial five fighters (JSF, Super Hornet, Gripen, Typhoon, and Rafale) none of them could be dismissed as a "bad" fighter. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, sure... But all of them offer a substantial upgrade to the current CF-18 fleet.
Of course, both the Rafale and Typhoon have been withdrawn from the competition. Some might wonder why this would be case if both fighters are as good as they are claimed to be. The answer is simple: While both the Typhoon and Rafale are exceptional fighters in their own right, neither really stand out when compared to the other three.
Interestingly, Canada is now left with three very distinct choices:
- The F-35 Lightning II as the "high end" option.
- The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as the "low end" option.
- The JAS 39E Gripen as the "something different" option.
Some might argue that the Gripen should be listed as a "low end" option, but the truth is that it will likely have a higher unit cost than the Super Hornet. This is thanks to the Super Hornet's high volume production run. The Gripen's lower cost per flight hour would almost certainly negate this advantage, but CPFH rarely makes news headlines.
For the most part, all three aircraft will have little issue fulfilling Canada's needs. Yes, one might be able to perform certain duties better than the others, but the differences will mostly be negligible in most day to day use. All three are more than capable of intercepting incursions into our airspace or performing Canada's share in any sort of coalition action.
What is distinctly different, however is the philosophy behind each potential aircraft choice.
Allow me to explain.
The F-35 Lightning II represents Canada's desire to be seen on the same level of other major NATO nations like the USA and UK. Simply put, since they are flying the most advanced, most modern, and most expensive fighter available... Then we should too.
We may not have the population, the industrial might, or tax base to support buying top-of-the-line military equipment... But Canada has always "punched above its weight" and our service members deserve the "very best".
Choosing the JSF would send a clear message: Canada is "one of the team". The RCAF would be willing and able to operate seamlessly with it American and other counterparts.
This is a great idea in theory but it falls flat in several areas. The most pressing is that it requires a great deal of political will to pull off properly. A government needs to sell the public on the idea, not only for the initial purchase, but for future operating costs as well. Something as expensive as a fighter aircraft needs to prove its value, lest it be the victim of budget cuts throughout its operational life. Canada's government has certainly had no problem cutting flying hours or even mothballing aircraft early to reduce budgets in the past.
The F-35 Lightning II requires an enormous commitment from the Government of Canada. Not only in upfront cost, but in modifications to existing infrastructure and future costs as well. One hopes that, if chosen, any potential CF-35 will not find itself falling victim to the Canada's fickle political whims.
The Super Hornet was easily the "safe" choice leading in to the competition, but Boeing's recent shenanigans with Bombardier made it politically toxic almost overnight. Even still, the "Rhino" could still be seen as best choice for the risk averse.
Political bickering aside, there are not many strikes against the Super Hornet. Its a proven platform, it will likely have the lowest unit cost, and offers all the capabilities of Canada's much-loved legacy Hornets. For many, the Super Hornet is simply a better CF-18 and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.
Best of all, the Super Hornet does offer many of the advantages of the F-35. It can operate seamlessly with Canada's biggest military ally (the USA) without so much of a hiccup. All that interoperability without the infamous problems associated with the F-35 is certainly an attractive proposition.
Unfortunately, the Super Hornet is almost too mundane. While it does offer a considerable upgrade to the RCAF fleet, it may not be enough to remain competitive for the next 40 years. No built-in IRST, a seemingly unimpressive electronic warfare suite, and kinetic performance that would actually be a downgrade compared to the CF-18 does not spark much excitement.
Choosing the F/A-18-E/F Super Hornet would be simply "good enough"... But not much more.
The Gripen E would certainly demand a new way of thinking from the RCAF. For years, the mentality seems to have been "do what the US does... but smaller". The potential selection of the Gripen E would likely result in some doubtful reaction from some in the RCAF, with more than a few asking: "What the hell are we supposed to do with this little thing?".
The answer to that, of course, is "everything we do with the CF-18... and then some." Unlike previous welterweight fighters like the CF-116 Freedom Fighter, the Gripen offers similar (if not superior) capabilities to larger middleweight fighters. Like any other chunk of engineering, compromises are made; resulting in better performance in some areas (speed and agility) with worse performance in others (payload and stealth).
Where the Gripen really differs from the other two fighters is its origin. Originating from Saab in Sweden, the Gripen is (mostly) detached from the American Military Complex. This is a BIG deal.
Canada's future purchase of 88 represents a very small portion of total F-35 sales, estimated to number in the thousands. As such, Canada's interests in future F-35 development would be treated as an afterthought at best. For the most part, Canada would just be along for the ride. This does have some advantages: Canadian F-35s would benefit from being part of a huge user base, receiving upgrades not possible for a single small customer on its own.
With Super Hornet production currently in the 600s, Canada's share of the "Rhino" market would substantially more than with the JSF. Unfortunately, the F/A-18E/F is nearing the end of its production cycle. Future upgrades would almost certainly revolve around its largest stakeholder, the United States Navy. That turns out to be a rather shaky proposition as the F-35C gradually replaces the Super Hornet as the USN's marquee fighter. Sure, the Rhino will stay relevant for years to come, but the naval JSF variant will always be the priority for future upgrades.
The Saab Gripen will not see sales numbers even remotely approaching that of the F-35. It is possible, though very unlikely, to see its production to approach that of the Super Hornet. In order to do that, it would have to double its current sales numbers. Unlike the other two fighters, Saab's customers tend to order fighter jet by the dozen or less... Not by the hundreds. This makes a potential Canadian purchase of 88 fighters a VERY BIG DEAL FOR SAAB.
At 88 fighters, Canada would be the second largest Gripen customer and the largest for the Gripen E variant. Canada would not only be a customer, but a major partner in the Gripen program.
Consider Brazil, who have made a firm commitment to 36 Gripens with an option to double that to 72. As part of the deal, Brazil's Embraer formed a major partnership with Saab to assemble Gripens in Brazil. Not only that, but Brazil's order has led to the development of a new two-seat variant, the JAS 39F.
As impressive as Brazil's influence on the Gripen is, Canada would have even more.
Canada's large (by Gripen standards) order would be enough, but one cannot stress the added victory to Saab in not only landing a sale to a prestigious NATO member, but stealing a sale away from the 800 pound gorilla that is the F-35. Saab would undoubtedly attempt to capitalize on this to find even more sales.
Moving forward, this would give the RCAF substantial input in future upgrades to the Gripen platform. If Canada has the need to integrate a new weapon or improve avionics, we would not have to wait until the "powers that be" at The Pentagon to deem it okay. Remember, Canada will not have access to the F-35's "source code". The Super Hornet would likely fall somewhere in between the Gripen and JSF for ease of future upgrades, with the Pentagon having the final say.
With all the debating between each fighter's capabilities, it becomes easy to forget the additional nuances to modern fighter aircraft. There is a good reason why these things are called WEAPON SYSTEMS. A fighter is more than its airframe, engine, and avionics; they are an intermeshed system of parts, supply chains, bureaucracies, legal commitments, and handshake deals.
Each fighter option represents its own complete ecosystem. For Canada, part of the choice is whether to be a small fish in a large pond (F-35), larger fish in a small pond (Gripen), or somewhere in-between (Super Hornet).
It remains to be seen if individualism and sovereignty wins out over conformity.