Saturday, April 7, 2012

The F-35 - still a dumb idea

I have thought this plane was a dumb idea for ages.   I pointed out 18 months ago the F-18E/F was a better choice for Canada.  Back in the 1970s we have a serious process in place to decide on which plane to buy.  Last July the Economist pointed out how useless the F-35 was.

The F-35 was first a gleam in anyone's eyes in 1996 as the Lockheed Martin X-35 as their entry into the Joint Strike Fighter Program.   The X-35 first flew in 2000.   This plane then became the F-35 which first flew on December 15th 2006.   Ten years from idea to flight.   The plane is to be in service in 2016, another ten years from first flight of the F-35.

In comparison, the CF-18 Canada now uses and introduced on January 7th 1983 - the first flight was November 18th 1978 and the precursor, the YF-17 first flew on June 9th 1974.   8 and a half years instead of 16 or more years.

Realistically, Canada is not going to see F-35s till 2018 or even later.   The budgeting of $75 - $80 million per plane seems completely out of whack with reality.  In 2005 the estimate was already $112 million per plane.  The US budget has the planes at $197 million for the version Canada would be purchasing.

The F-35 has a significantly reduced ferry range from the CF-18, only 2/3s the ferry range and no improvement in combat radius.    To make use of the F-35, Canada will defacto have to  rely on the US to provide air refuelling. And it is now coming out that the stealthiness of the F-35 is going to be no better than that of the  Eurofighter Typhoon of Dausalt Rafale.

If Canada wants to have a fifth generation fighter, there is little choice but to go with the F-35.   If on the other hand you can live with enhanced fourth generation, there are a number of options for Canada.  Frankly the enhanced fourth generation fighters seemed to be better than the F-35 in any case.

Saab JAS 39 Gripen - They have had sales, but more hit than miss.   They plane is older than the others that could compete.   It only has one engine, Canadian requirements apparently call for two engines to deal with a engine failure over terrain with no nearby airfield.   The range is also a little short.   The cost, at $40 - $60 million is a deal.   We could get 180 Gripens for the price of the 60 F-35s.  I am sure Sweden would also agree to having them largely built in Canada.

Boeing F-18E/F Super Hornet - This is a major upgrade from the existing CF-18s Canada has, effectively a new plane that has the look and feel of the older version.   The cost currently is $67 million.   It has a shorter range than the others on the list here, but it is better than the existing CF-18s.   It is not a stealth fighter, but it is dramatically better than the CF-18 and not radically worse than the F-35

Dassault Rafale - it has been in operation in France for 11 years now but no one else has bought any.  It has two engines and a good range and should work for Canada.   Though they cost about $90,000,000 each and possibly as high was $125 million which is less than the price of the F-35

Eurofighter Typhoon - in service for six and a half years now.   It has been highly rated and considered superior both the F-22 and F-35.  It has the required two engines, it has a decent range, though not as good as the Rafale.   The stealth features are apparently on par with the F-35.   Their cost seems to be in $150 million dollar range.

Looking at the list, it seems to clear to me that any of the last three would be a reasonable choice and in theory Canada could have them much sooner.  The F-18E/F is currently being built and the companies know what they need to charge.   They are also interested in amortizing the costs over more planes.  I suspect that the F-18E/F would be an easier transition for the RCAF as well.

Now all of that said, I do not think there will be any need for a traditional fighter/bomber like the CF-18 in the future.  Drones will be able to do more and do it better than any current fighter.   They will also be cheaper.   Taking the human out of the plane and putting them on the ground changes everything.

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