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Last Updated: Mon Jan 27 11:18:09 UTC 2014

F-35 JSF: Can It Meet Canada's Needs?

Air Power Australia - Australia's Independent Defence Think Tank

Air Power Australia NOTAM

   19th October, 2010

Dr Carlo Kopp, SMAIAA, MIEEE, PEng,
Head of Capability Analysis, Air Power Australia

Contacts: Carlo Kopp
Peter Goon

Mob: 0437-478-224
Mob: 0419-806-476

(Image © 2010 C. Kopp).

The ongoing controversy in Canada over the bureaucratic decision to procure the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, in preference to conducting an open competition to select a replacement aircraft for Canada's fleet of obsolete and worn out CF-18A Hornets, bears careful scrutiny. The parallels between the bureaucratic behaviours observed in Canada surrounding the F-35, and like behaviours in the Canberra DoD bureaucracy, are remarkable. The mismatch between the F-35 and Canada's strategic needs is fundamentally no different from the mismatch between the F-35 and Australia's strategic needs. Both nations are gravitating into a black hole which will see their respective air forces emasculated and unable to perform their primary mission of protecting national airspace from foreign air forces1.

This also means the Australian Defence Force will not meet the strategic directives of successive Australian Defence White Papers, and will not achieve air superiority in the regional environment.

The F-35 is an aircraft which was defined as a battlefield interdictor, intended to attack and destroy hostile battlefield ground forces, once opposing air defences have been stripped away by the much more capable, and now cheaper F-22 Raptor. The JSF aircraft was defined for a very narrow niche role, and its intended performance and capabilities were constrained to avoid overlapping other US Air Force capability niches, such as “deep strike” occupied by the F-15E and F-22A, and “air dominance”, occupied by the F-22A.

The actual F-35 aircraft, as it has “devolved” through a problematic and protracted development process, shows all the signs of falling well below the promised and mediocre performance targets set in the original definition document. This is largely the result of cumulative and failed efforts to control weight and unit procurement costs, and also the failed effort to achieve high commonality between variants intended for radically different deployment regimes2.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is now a prime example of a poorly defined design which is being poorly implemented. It remains a funded program primarily due to incessant political protection by the United States OSD (Office of the Secretary for Defense) which has for the last several years shielded the program from proper scrutiny, while systematically working to shut down production of every possible alternative design being built by US industry, including the vastly superior and far more cost effective F-22A Raptor.

The behaviour of the OSD in relation to the F-35 program is clearly irrational from the perspectives of maintaining US and Allied strategic weight in air power, and maintaining essential diversity in the industrial base. However, it is the well understood behaviour of a bureaucracy that has blundered badly and wishes to protect itself from criticism. Such is the power of Janis' Groupthink, in organisations where it is actively fostered and promoted by the leader, in this instance the Secretary himself. By all conventional measures applied in project management, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter clearly and unequivocally qualifies in all respects as a “failed project”, but survives as the political credibility of the OSD and its Secretary have been wedded by prior actions to the survival of the project.

What is remarkable about the Canadian government decision to pursue the F-35 is that it occurred during a period where the failure of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is patently obvious, well documented publicly, and provable by reading a myriad of US and non-US public documents. While Australia's dysfunctional Canberra DoD bureaucracy wedded itself to the F-35 program in 2001 - 2002, primarily through the actions of a small internal cabal of civilian and some uniformed senior bureaucrats, when only the failure of the F-35 JSF definition could be proved, Canada's DND bureaucracy has improved upon this by doing exactly the same when the failure of the program's implementation is also provably obvious.

That there has been intensive domestic public criticism of the Canadian decision should come as no surprise, as many Canadians do read overseas publications and are prepared to think critically about their nation's future. A number of Canadians have complained privately to APA about the behaviour of their DND bureaucracy, and its unwillingness to put long term national defence needs above the very short term political needs of the Washington OSD.

Contemporary Foreign Capabilities Canada's Fighters Must Defeat


Tu-160 Blackjack launching a Kh-55SM from its aft bay. Russia is currently expanding its fleet of these formidable strategic bombers (Russian MoD).

The Raduga Kh-55SM (above) is a Russian analogue of the never deployed AGM-109 air launched Tomahawk. It was reverse engineered by the PLA to develop the CJ-10 Long Sword (below), an air launched variant of which is expected (Russian Internet, Chinese Internet).

The Chinese PLA almost acquired refurbished Russian Tu-95MS Bear H and Tu-22M3 Backfire C aircraft post 2001. The funding was later diverted into the Xian H-6K turbofan Badger and development of an aircraft carrier fleet (Tupolev bureau image).

Advanced SAM systems are now proliferating globally. The Russian S-300PMU2 / SA-20B and S-400 / SA-21 (above 5P85TE2 common TEL) outperform the US MIM-104 Patriot in most key performance parameters, while China's HQ-9/FD-2000  (below) is based on Russian S-300PMU technology (Almaz-Antey, Zhenguan Studio, © 2010 Air Power Australia).


Second prototype of the Su-35S Flanker. This fully digital fighter is a deep redesign of the mature T-10 Flanker family, and outclasses all Western fighters other than the F-22A Raptor. Russia's KnAAPO intends to export hundreds of these long range fighters (KnAAPO image).


The stealthy supercruising PAK-FA was developed to directly compete against the F-22A Raptor and will outperform the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in all key parameters. Its highly refined stealth shaping indicates that its stealth performance will be similar to  that of the F-35. Like the Su-35S, it is intended for volume exports (KnAAPO image).

This begs the question of “What are Canada's national strategic needs in air power?”.

The geostrategic realities which Canada confronts today are in many respects no different from those during the Cold War period, in the sense that Canada is a geographical buffer space between the CONUS and any nations which choose to compete against the US and are located on the Asian continental mass.

During the Cold War the Soviet Union threatened massive air attacks, to be flown by strategic bombers over the Arctic wasteland to hit targets in the CONUS. Canada, as a closely allied nation, would have been treated by the Soviets no differently to the US. The imperatives during that period, for the RCAF, were to provide a robust air defence barrier to keep Soviet bombers away from Canadian and CONUS air space. A secondary imperative during that period was for the RCAF to support NATO forces in Europe with reinforcements, in the event of war with the Warsaw Pact.

While the Soviet Union is now gone, the geostrategic considerations remain. Russia continues to operate its fleet of Tu-95MS Bear H and Tu-160 Blackjack A nuclear armed strategic bombers, and recently authorised assembly of additional Tu-160 aircraft from stockpiled production components to build up its fleet size. These bombers are armed with the Kh-55SM strategic cruise missile, similar in design to the US Tomahawk cruise missiles, but may also carry high yield free fall nuclear bombs where target value is considered high enough. The Russians have in recent times resumed aerial alert patrols by the strategic bomber fleet, and have repeatedly tested NATO air defence response times. The Russian Bear may no longer be driven by Soviet ideological agendas, but it has not lost any of its strategic teeth, nor its appetite for confrontational behaviours3.

The bigger “grand strategic” consideration for Canada is China's evident intention to become a strategic peer competitor to the United States in the Asia-Pacific region. China has been conducting a major and deep restructure of its military force structure, investing heavily in capabilities to strike high value targets with nuclear and conventional munitions, to a radius currently of around 2,500 nautical miles. This is intended to put at risk existing US basing infrastructure across the Western Pacific region.

China has yet to invest in true strategic air power, in the manner the Soviets did, but have repeatedly flirted over the previous decade with the Russians over the purchase of Tu-95MS Bear H strategic bombers, and refurbished Tu-22M3 Backfire C “sub-strategic” bombers. The Backfire C would have been operated now by the PLA-AF, had it not been hobbled by domestic aerospace industry lobbying to continue development of the extended range H-6K “turbofan Badger” and PLA Navy lobbying to fund aircraft carriers. So at this time China lacks the strategic bomber fleet required to hold at risk CONUS and Canadian territory, in the manner the Soviets did, and Russia continues to do.

Whether the PLA-AF deploys a strategic bomber fleet along the lines of Russia's Dal'naya Aviatsia remains to be seen, and will depend on future perceived strategic priorities in Beijing. China clearly has the capability to reverse engineer Soviet era designs, and could develop a capability in the medium term based on legacy Soviet bombers, or indigenous technology. China already manufactures a diverse range of “Tomahawk-like” cruise missiles, largely based on Soviet Kh-55SM technology, illegitimately obtained from the Ukraine though a covert operation, the subject of major controversy in the Ukrainian parliament some years ago. Any future PLA strategic bomber fleet would fly profiles against the CONUS over the northern Arctic region as this presents the shortest great circle distance from northern Chinese basing sites. Geography will drive the PLA into the same game plan the Soviets played to.

What is clear is that Canada's long term strategic needs in air power will be dominated by capabilities to provide robust air defence against strategic bombers and especially their cruise missile payloads, accepting that strategic “needs” may be diametrically opposed to DND bureaucratic “wants”.

In terms of secondary strategic priorities, expeditionary warfare campaigns supporting the United States and/or British Commonwealth nations will produce an ongoing demand for Canadian air component participation.

In supporting expeditionary campaigns, needs become much less clearly defined in comparison with the protection of Canada's landmass and territorial ocean areas.

Expeditionary campaigns can be broadly divided into two categories – those where the opponent is an underdeveloped Third World “failed state” where the fighting force are insurgents unable to contest control of the air, and those where the opponent is a nation with an air force and air defence system, and the capability to contest control of the air.

The former category encompasses Iraq, Afghanistan, and various African nations, where fighting is exclusively limited to COIN (COunter INsurgency) operations. Aircraft which are simple, rugged, easy to deploy and support from remote sites, and capable of delivering good firepower and endurance with a robust sensor payload work best. The best performers in the United States fleet, in COIN operations, have been the A-10 Thunderbolt II or “Warthog”, the F-15E Strike Eagle, and the heavy B-52H Stratofortress and B-1B Lancer.

Expeditionary campaigns in the latter category are now becoming problematic due to the global proliferation of advanced Russian fighter aircraft such as the T-10 Flanker series, T-50 PAK-FA, and advanced Surface to Air Missile (SAM) systems such as the S-300PMU2 and S-400. In time, this collection of potent Russian technology will be added to and further diversified as China exports advanced modern systems like the HQ-9/FD-2000, based on the Russian S-300PMU series, and the J-10B Sinocanard and J-11B Flanker B+, based on modern Russian fighter technology4, 5, 6, 7.

These advanced systems are now available to any buyer with the funds, other than Iran, the latter due to the recent UN embargo. They are, in basic technology, comparable to American and European weapons designs, but often outperform their Western competitors in key areas, especially kinematics and/or radar power.

As a result, defining a strategic need for Canadian expeditionary force capabilities is a more complex problem, as the need depends fundamentally on what types of expeditionary campaigns the Canadian military is intended to participate in. If Canada only wishes to partake in COIN campaigns, fighter capability choices would be driven by costs primarily, whereas if Canada intends to partake in a wider range of expeditionary campaigns, fighter capabilities become absolutely critical.

There is one more consideration which applies to Canada's strategic needs in fighter re-equipment, which is that of evolving doctrine and fighter capabilities in non-Western nations.

Russia is now in the early production phase of the Su-35S Flanker E+, and in the flight testing phase for the T-50 PAK-FA stealth fighter. The Su-35S is a formidable conventional fighter, which outperforms all US and EU types other than the F-22A Raptor, and is intended for high volume exports. The PAK-FA is Russia's answer to the F-22A Raptor, which is expected to aerodynamically outperform the F-22A in key flight regimes, but will not match the stealth performance of the F-22A. The PAK-FA will almost certainly match the stealth performance of the much inferior F-35.

Both of these Russian fighters are built to achieve an unrefuelled combat radius of around 1,000 nautical miles, and can be refuelled by a tanker aircraft. As a result, both could be used to escort other aircraft into defended airspace.

Stated Russian and Chinese strategic bombardment doctrine has yet to incorporate the use of fighter aircraft to escort heavy bombers. As the escort of heavy bombers by long range fighters is a practice dating back to 1943, the notion that the Russians, Chinese or any of their clients would not deploy fighter escorts when in possession of long range fighters like the Su-35S or PAK-FA and aerial refuelling tankers is simply naïve.

If Canada does deploy the F-35 JSF as its primary fighter aircraft, the Su-35S and PAK-FA could operate in and fly through Canadian sovereign airspace with complete impunity.

If we take a hard analytical perspective on what Canada's long term strategic needs in fighter aircraft are, as distinct from DND bureaucratic “wants” in this area, several considerations become prominent:
  1. National air defence will require a large twin engined fighter with superlative supersonic performance, superlative radar performance, and a large missile payload to defeat strategic bombers and their cruise missile payloads;
  2. The proliferation of advanced long range fighters such as the Su-35S and PAK-FA will put a premium on combat agility for both beyond visual range (BVR) and within visual range (WVR) engagements, supersonic agility, and stealth performance;
  3. Expeditionary campaigns into “contested” airspace will require the ability to survive against advanced SAM systems such as the S-400, S-300PMU2, HQ-9 and planned S-500, putting a premium on high stealth performance;
  4. Expeditionary campaigns in COIN environments will require the ability to operate from shorter airfields, with high endurance and large, varied weapon payloads.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, by both definition and design, is fundamentally unsuited to any one and every one of these basic needs.
  1. The F-35 lacks the range, missile payload, radar performance and especially supersonic performance to be effective in the strategic air defence role, and with a single engine puts the lives of Canadian pilots at unnecessary risk in harsh Arctic conditions.
  2. The F-35 lacks the supersonic performance, missile payload, radar performance, agility and stealth performance to be effective in combat against the Su-35S Flanker E+, and has no ability to compete with the Sukhoi PAK-FA. This makes the F-35 ineffective in strategic air defence, if fighter escorts are deployed, and ineffective in expeditionary campaigns where the opponent operates such fighters.
  3. The F-35 lacks the stealth performance to penetrate modern air defence systems armed with weapons such as the S-400, S-300PMU2, HQ-9 and planned S-500, especially if these SAMs are supported by modern “counter-stealth” radars operating in the lower radar bands.
  4. In uncontested COIN operations, the F-35 lacks the payload and endurance to perform well, does not have the ballistic survivability for Close Air Support (CAS), and the CTOL variant demands long runways for operations, limiting choices in deployment sites.
Against each and every one of these clearly identifiable strategic needs for Canada's future fighter force, the F-35 JSF is an abject failure.

Which aircraft currently in production meet Canada's strategic needs?

The only single type of fighter which can meet all of these needs is the F-22A Raptor, which Canada can clearly afford to procure, given that the DND is quite happy to fund the much inferior F-35 JSF at a similar or higher unit cost. Canada was identified a decade ago in a US Air Force study by Molloy as one of the nations to which the F-22A Raptor could be safely exported8.

Are there any genuinely credible alternatives for Canada, other than the F-22A Raptor?

If Canada wishes to limit its future air force roles to COIN and strategic air defence against unescorted heavy bombers and cruise missiles, then a derivative of the F-15E with the APG-82 AESA radar could fill such a requirement. It would however leave Canada vulnerable in any air defence scenario where Su-35S or PAK-FA fighter escorts are present, and would deny Canada participation in expeditionary campaigns where these advanced fighters, or advanced SAMs are deployed.

If the “Gates Doctrine” of stripping the US Air Force down and optimising it for COIN operations persists beyond the Obama Administration's term of office, then Canada will not be able to rely on the Americans providing upper tier F-22A wings to supplement Canadian air defence units, or protect Canadian fighters from advanced SAMs and fighters in expeditionary campaigns, since the US Air Force will not have enough F-22s to perform even its own basic missions.

In this respect Canada is confronting the same fundamental strategic problem which Australia confronts. That is, advancing threat capabilities leave only the F-22 Raptor as a viable aircraft in contested airspace; yet, under the “Gates Doctrine”, even the US Air Force is to be denied sufficient numbers of the these aircraft to be effective in anything other than the smallest of contingencies. Just as Australia's Canberra DoD has failed to study and articulate national needs properly, so it would appear that the Canadian DND has fallen into the very same trap.

Canadians therefore need to ask some very serious questions about the DND's performance in assessing fighter needs, and some equally serious questions about why Canada appears to be espousing the completely bankrupt and intellectually dishonest “Gates Doctrine” for air power planning.

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1 Please refer http://www.ausairpower.net/notams.html#TOP
2 Please refer http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-2009-01.html;
3 Please refer http://www.ausairpower.net/region.html
4 Please refer http://www.ausairpower.net/sams-iads.html for technical details of the S-300PMU2, S-400 and HQ-9/FD-2000 SAM systems and supporting radars.
5 Please refer http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-Nebo-SVU-Analysis.html
6 Please refer
7 Please refer http://www.ausairpower.net/flanker.html for details of the Flanker and PAK-FA fighters.
Please refer https://research.maxwell.af.mil/papers/ay2000/saas/molloy.pdf 
9 Third party imagery reproduced in accordance with 17 U.S.C. §107, this  material is distributed for non-profit research and educational purposes only.

© 2010, Carlo Kopp

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