Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Another alternative to the F-35

Why is Canada looking at purchasing the F-35?  What role is the plane really intended to fulfill?

From the end of the Korean war to 1990 Canada needed fighter planes to protect the country during the cold war.   These planes were not in combat but spent most of the time ready to go into combat if a war with the Soviet Union did occur.   In the cold war Canada had three distinct eras of fighter planes:

In the 1950s Canada had around 1100 fighter planes because the assumption was that the planes would be engaging in dogfights.

In the 1960s this dropped to 300 before rising to just over 400 by the end of the decade which is where the country remained to the mid 1980s.   The majority of these planes were nuclear armed and intended to shoot down Soviet bombers.

Since the mid 1980s Canada has gone to a single fighter type, the CF-18.   As of 2014 103 CF-18s remain though only 79 in operational service.  

From the end of World War 2 Canada has used the following fighters:

Vampire             86 1948-56 (1953-1956 in reserve only)
CF-86 Sabre        800 1951-63 (a Canadian version of F-86)
F2H Banshee         39 1955-62 (RCN fighter carried by the Bonaventure)
CF-100 Canuck      329 1955-62 (a full Canadian designed plane)
F-101 Voodoo        66 1961-84 
CF-104 Starfighter 238 1961-85  
CF-5               135 1968-88 
CF-18 Hornet       138 1982-current

The CF-18 was purchased as a cold war fighter/bomber to replace the CF-5, F-101 and CF-104 in all of their roles.   The reality is that the CF-18 only replaced the CF-5 on a one to one basis.

The CF-18 has been the first Canadian fighter plane to see combat since the end of World War 2.  It was used in 1991 in the Gulf War, in 1999 bombing Serbia, and in 2011 in Libya.  All three times they were bombing countries without any useful air defense.   Canada is not alone in this pattern.  Since the end of the cold war almost the only combat any western fighter planes see is bombing much weaker opponents.

So if bombing countries that can not shoot down our airplanes, what would be wrong with using an older airframe design with new avionics?   Why do we need to go to the F-35 if it is unlikely we are going to be in any air superiority combat situations?

My suggestion is that Canada look at a modernized version of the CF-5.   The CF-5 was a small an inexpensive aircraft when Canada acquired them in 1968.    It proved to be easy to maintain and was reasonably rugged which meant lower operational costs.  It also did not suck back the fuel like other fighters, which once again made it cheaper to operate.

The airframe is well proven and has been shown it can last for more than 40 years - some of the old CF-5s are still flying in other air forces.   A modern version of the plane would need new avionics and potentially engine updates, but neither of these is rocket science.

Comparing the CF-5 to the F-35:

  • The CF-5 is 40% of the surface area of the F-35 - this matters because stealth depends on radar signature and smaller starts off better.  A new CF-5 ariframe with some alterations could easily be as stealthy as the F-35
  • Empty the CF-5 is 30% of the weight of the F-35 
  • Fully loaded the CF-5 is 40% of the weight of a fully loaded F-35 - lighter load means less fuel consumption and therefore cheaper to operate.
  • Both the CF-5 and the F-35 have two engines - this is considered a must have by the RCAF
  • The CF-5 thrust to weight ratio is the same as the F-35 - this means the F-35 can not climb or accelerate faster than the CF-5 can
  • The CF-5 has a smaller combat radius than the F-35, about 40% less
  • The CF-5 could carry about half the armaments as the F-35 can, but much if the F-35 carries any of the armaments externally it losses most of its stealth.

So if the main role is a ground attack airplane and not really air superiority fighter, something like reviving the CF-5 would seem to make some sense.    Certainly the cost per plane would be much, much cheaper to buy and then to operate.

Right Canada is looking at purchasing 65 F-35s.   This is not a lot of planes and means that realistically Canada would only ever be able to call on about 40 of at any given time.   This means there would be fewer qualified pilots in the RCAF and fewer qualified ground staff.   A few badly timed retirements in conjunction with illness or other reasons for people to be off work could leave Canada with almost no combat aircraft available.

An updated Canadian designed and built CF-5 would likely be possible for about $25-$30 million per plane.   This means for each F-35 Canada could acquire about six new CF-5s.   Canada could acquire 200 new CF-5s for the half the cost of the planned 65 F-35s.

The updated CF-5 suggestion is only one more lateral idea on how Canada might be able to deal with fighter planes needed to do what the country needs them to do.  

What it all comes down to, what is the role the F-35 is expected to fulfill and is there a cheaper and more effective way to accomplish it?  

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