Ottawa’s decision to acquire 18 Super Hornets and reopen its fighter competition is trouble for the F-35
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
A Canadian purchase of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters is out the window until at least the early 2020s. Ottawa will instead acquire 18 Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets to augment its aging fleet of 77 CF-18 Hornets, the Canadian Defense Ministry announced Nov. 22.
The stealthy F-35, 65 of which the Stephen Harper government selected to replace the CF-18s, has come under increasing criticism in Canada for its price, repeated delays and mechanical troubles. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed to reopen the competition during his 2015 election campaign.
The competition to replace the CF-18s — a smaller, lighter version of the more modern and heavily-armed Super Hornet — will now reopen. “Because [the CF-18s] were not replaced we now have a capability gap,” Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan said.
This doesn’t mean Canada will never fly F-35s, just not for awhile. There’s a solid possibility that in the next decade, Ottawa will decide to buy them once the program matures. Or alternatively, it could forgo the Joint Strike Fighter completely for more Super Hornets and their advanced sensors.
Canada acquiring Super Hornets because of problems with the F-35 is not without precedent. In 2010, Australia retired its 22 F-111 Aardvark attack planes to pave the way for F-35s. But as the Joint Strike Fighter program dragged on, Canberra bought 24 Super Hornets as a stopgap measure.
The news isn’t good for Lockheed. But for those worried about Canada putting off the F-35, don’t panic — the Super Hornet is an acceptable jet for Canada, which has long preferred twin-engine planes to operate in remote locations over the Arctic.
Of course, the F-35 only has a single Pratt & Whitney engine. The choice of a single engine owes partly to the F-35 being designed in three similar versions for the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy. The Marine Corps wanted a squat, tight aircraft which could take off and land vertically from amphibious assault ships with help from the rotating engine and a turbofan built into the fuselage. This affected the shape and structure of all three versions.
The problem is that the engine’s complex design had led to significant mechanical problems — the engine runs hot and its internal parts rub together. Obviously, an engine failure is more hazardous in a single-engine plane than a twin-engine one … especially over the Arctic.
But plenty of warplanes get by with a lone engine, and the bulk of America’s current fighter fleet remain single-engine F-16s … to be replaced over the coming years by F-35s.
Canada, of course, is not the United States. The structure of its military is different, reflecting military priorities which overlap with — but are not the same as — America’s own.
Ottawa doesn’t have carriers or amphibious assault ships, so the only practical Joint Strike Fighter is the F-35A, the U.S. Air Force’s version. But since there are more options for a ground-based, conventional-takeoff fighter on the market, such as Super Hornets, Gripens, Rafales and Typhoons, the expensive F-35A is a less compelling buy.
Out of these, the muscular Super Hornet makes the most sense, as Canada prefers military commonality with the United States, and it’s not a major departure from the CF-18.
The United States wants an expensive, new, high-tech stealth fighter to penetrate modern air-defenses fielded principally by Russia and China. For this job, the F-35 is pretty good.
Yet Canada, with a much smaller population and defense budget, must instead defend the world’s longest coastline — much of it above the Arctic Circle — and the world’s second largest landmass. Much of the country is uninhabited with fewer places to land compared to the United States including the state of Alaska.
So the F-35 with its single engine is an awkward fit. Twin-engine planes give peace of mind to pilots, as engines can and do fail. The F-35 is also relatively short range since it’s quite heavy, but can extend its range with fuel tanks attached underneath the wings. But this would remove the plane’s embedded stealth capabilities — a feature Canada would pay a premium to have.
Another problem — the F-35 is a logistically demanding aircraft which Canada’s cash-strapped armed forces would be hard pressed to maintain, increasing the likelihood of mishaps over a country that lacks adequate search-and-rescue aircraft.
That is one potentially disastrous consequence of buying the stealth fighters, according to a 2014 report from the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives.
“A pilot forced to eject after a loss of power in the Arctic might have just a few hours to live,” the report added. “For this reason, if Canada were to acquire the F-35, it would have to invest billions of dollars to improve search and rescue — or accept the inevitable loss of pilots to the elements, even after a safe ejection from their airplane.”
If Canada does go to war with, say, Russia, it will not do so alone — and will need aircraft to defend North America’s airspace from Russian bombers. Here, stealth will be useful. But if Canadian fighters deploy overseas, they will likely be a small part of a larger coalition which includes a variety of aircraft, including Super Hornets which the U.S. Navy will keep flying into the 2030s.
Basically, if Canada wants to field the most advanced warplane in the world, then it should buy F-35s. If it wants a more affordable and practical jet that better suits Canada’s strategic requirements over the Arctic, it should shop elsewhere.
To be sure, the U.S. Air Force keeps single-engine F-16s in Alaska as part of the 18th Aggressor Squadron. But these aircraft pose as enemies in war games, and the Pentagon also keeps twin-engine F-22 Raptors in the state. These are better suited for intercepting Russian aircraft which periodically fly near the coast.
Canada is also shaken from its experience with single-engine fighters in the past. In 1961, Canada adopted the speedy single-engine CF-104 Starfighter as its primary jet fighter for the coming decades. Half went on to crash and 39 Canadian pilots lost their lives.
We can’t compare the CF-104 to the F-35, but the trauma of the “Aluminium Death Tube” — as Canadian pilots called it — profoundly influenced Ottawa’s decision to replace its Starfighters with twin-engine F-18s, instead of competing F-16s, beginning in the late 1970s.
The choice of the CF-18’s two engines was decisive, according to CCPA report.
The first F-18s, redesignated CF-18s, began flying in Canada in 1982.
More than 34 years later, these Hornets are aging out and must be replaced during the next decade. Whether F-35s will take over depends on Lockheed and the U.S. military proving that it’d be a wise decision. But patience with the F-35 program, at this point, is running low.