Saturday, 4 August 2012

Some Thoughts about the F-35 Fighter Plane

For some reason, and I suppose I can blame my father who spent many hours reading a copy of Jane's Fighting Ships from 1938, I am interested in military equipment.

For example, I have somewhat informed opinions about whether Canada should get the F-35 fighter. The short version is that it should not. In 1980 it bought a version of the F-18 instead of a one-engined plane like the F-16 because a vast land like Canada needs a two-engine plane for safety. Since Canada's size hasn't changed, a second engine is probably still as necessary as ever. Need I say it? The F35 is a single-engined plane. Have a look.

In addition, the cost of the F-35 has ballooned. It was originally defended as $9 billion for 65 planes, but the Auditor General has told us otherwise:
His report also showed the department had internal estimates that 65 F-35 jets would cost $25 billion over 20 years, but would only admit to a cost of $14.7 billion. Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino avoided answering questions about the full cost, insisting the jets would be $9 billion, despite months of formal and informal requests.
The cost per plane will only grow as one country after another cuts back on the number of F-35's purchased.  We do have a worldwide recession, after all. This article shows the delays, cutbacks, and cancellations up to April 2, 2012. Even the American military is now saying that any further cost overruns will simply reduce the number of F-35's it buys.

What plane should Canada get instead of the F-35? Well, if the lowest cost for a capable, multirole, generation 4.5 fighter is what we're after, then we were offered a good bargain for the Saab Gripen. (In a brief to the Canadian Parliament, "Saab says they can give away 65 Gripens and maintenance for 40 years. Cost: under $6B." Source here). With prices like these, Canada could afford a larger air force for the 9 billion that we were willing to spend on the F-35. It would also be a stronger air force, based on the the principle that "Quantity has a quality all its own." Here is the Gripen:

If we really want a two-engined plane, the cheapest such plane we could get is also one of the most capable in the world, and stealthy to boot. It is the Russian Sukhoi PAK FA or its Indian version, the FGFA. Unsurprisingly, this has never been evaluated for Canadian use, as I am sure that the Americans would react very badly to a purchase of Russian technology over American. Nevertheless, in a commendable exhibition of independent thought, South Korea is considering its use. Here it is:

The only other two-engine plane on the table, putting aside updates to the F-18 and F-15, is the Eurofighter Typhoon. It isn't very stealthy, compared to the F-35, but it is proven, capable, better than we have, and available for a known price. The Typhoon looks like this:
A comparison of the Typhoon and F-35 is here, one of the Typhoon and Gripen is here, and one of the Typhoon and PAK FA is here.

With prices taken from that comparison site, the price of a single Gripen is $60 million, a PAK FA is $75 million, a Typhoon is $125 million, and an F-35, according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, is $148 million. In other words, we could buy two PAK FA's or two and a half Gripens for the price of one F-35.

In terms of capability, from best to worst, the planes rank like this: PAK FA, Typhoon, F-35, Gripen. In other words, the PAK FA is the best choice for capability.

"Capability," in this context, does not even include stealthiness, since only the PAK FA and F-35 advertise that feature.

Some of the Gripen's good qualities are also left out in comparisons of performance. For example, it is designed to land and take off from roads where airports are not available, have a 10-minute turnaround time from when it lands to when it takes off again, and is designed for easy maintenance.

If it were up to me, the PAK FA would be my ideal choice, followed by either the Gripen or the Eurofighter in second place, depending on what tasks the RCAF forsees for itself.  Whatever plane we buy, we must recognize that we cannot afford to replace our 77 serving CF-18's with F-35's on anything close to a one-to-one basis.

Update (August 20)

I was mistaken when I said that the Sukhoi PAK FA and the Typhoon were the only two-engined planes Canada could consider. There is also the Dassault Rafale, which acquitted itself well in several roles while maintaining a no-fly zone over Libya. The price is about $90 million per plane (fly-away cost). Here is a comparison with the Typhoon.

I also misspoke when I wrote that the RCAF should decide what capabilities it needs. Where and when it is deployed depends on the government, of course.

Update (November 26)

Another two-engined plane that should be considered is the favourite of many who comment on the F-35 purchase: the F-18 Super Hornet. This is a new plane that started serving with the U.S. Navy in 2001. Despite many systems that are in common with Canada's current plane, the CF-18, it is a substantially different plane: 20% larger, with a third more fuel, 41% more mission range, and considerable "stealth" from the front or rear. It would, therefore, be a substantial improvement on what Canada has now, but the flyaway cost (according to the Wikipedia article) is a very reasonable $66.9 million U.S. Not much more than a Gripen, really.

Update (August 15 2013)

There's an article on the F35's development called "How the US and its Allies Got Stuck with the World's Worst New Warplane" by David Axe on a web site called "War is Boring." Its thesis is that the US Marines are obsessed with planes that can land vertically because those are the only ones that will allow it to have its own air cover from its own ships, separate from the navy's. Further, it is "obsessed" with having its own air cover because of its experience without any air cover in Guadalcanal, back in World War II. Additionally, the peculiar requirements of vertical landing forced design elements on the air force and navy (such as the wide fuselage) that compromised the plane for their use.

The article is interesting and, in some ways, well-researched, but I thought that the author's negative opinion on V/STOL aviation in general, including the Harrier, was excessive. The US Marines' interest in V/STOL planes is not some dotty obsession that is inexplicable without reference to a trauma back in 1942, as is provable by a glance at the international response to the Harrier V/STOL plane.

As he briefly mentioned, the Harrier was not developed in the United States, but Britain. It was not originally designed for use from ships at all. Wikipedia tells us, "Historically the Harrier was developed in Britain to operate from ad-hoc facilities such as car parks or forest clearings, avoiding the need for large air bases vulnerable to tactical nuclear weapons. Later the design was adapted for use from aircraft carriers."

As he did not mention, Britain, France, Spain, Italy, India, and even Thailand operated "Harrier Carrier" ships similar to the US Marines'. The Russians built a V/STOL plane--the Yak 38 Forger--somewhat similar to the Harrier, so they could operate it at sea. Despite its weaknesses, and because of its unique strengths such as greater manoeuvrability, the Harrier performed well against conventional planes in the Falklands War of 1982, shooting down twenty with no losses. That, too, could have received a mention in the article.

One other significant omission is that Britain contributed £1.08 billion towards the F35 as an alternative to developing a next generation plane of their own. Although other countries contributed lesser amounts towards the fighter, the British, like the Marines, were particularly interested in the V/STOL version. They will use it on the two aircraft carriers they are currently building. The Italian Navy will also order this plane. There is speculation that the new Japanese ship Izumo was designed to take the F35B, if necessary, which would convert it from a helicopter carrier to an aircraft carrier with no structural alterations.

Update 22 Oct 2013: There's an excellent article on the ongoing problems of the F-35 in Vanity Fair, "Will it Fly" by Adam Ciralsky.

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