Are we asking the right question about the F-35s? There’s plenty of political posturing over the sole-sourced contract for 65 fifth generation stealth fighter jets, the F35 Lightning IIs – meant to replace our aging CF18 Hornets – but is it the right jet for Canada?
The CF18s were selected after a protracted national debate on what kind of plane we needed which did not happen with the F35. This is a pity, because it is a truly remarkable aircraft, by any stretch of the imagination. It is truly the best jet fighter in the world. The question is, however, does Canada require the best jet fighter in the world, or one we can actually use?
The Paul Martin government initially enrolled Canada in the F35 program, then known as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) project. We paid $100 million, like most of our NATO allies, to join the club of countries allowed to bid on development and manufacture of what was intended to be a state-of-the-art low-cost replacement for a host of other fighter jets being used by the various NATO allies.
A sensible plan. It’s far more efficient to have all the NATO air forces flying the same planes, from an operational and a maintenance perspective. Joint operations are easier. Economies of scale allow more aircraft to be built at a lower per-unit cost.
The F35 was to replace others in the US arsenal like the A10 Warthog, a low and slow ground attack aircraft armoured like a tank and bristling with machine guns; the F18 Hornet (our current jet), a high-altitude, long-range interceptor and carrier aircraft; the F16 Falcon, a small, fast and agile strike fighter and bomber suitable for penetrating enemy airspace, the famed AV8 Harrier Jump Jet and the EA6B Prowler, an ancient electronics counter-measures aircraft.
These are all very different airplanes, all designed for very different missions. It may be impossible for one aircraft to not only replace them all, but to improve on them, which is the F35’s mandate.
None of these is a stealth aircraft, as is the F35, and it also has a bigger payload than any other modern fighter. It’s faster and carries more than the A10, it carries more than the F18 (but doesn’t have the range), It’s not as fast as the F16, but more expensive, bigger and carries more, it has far more range, speed and payload than the tiny Harrier, but it can’t jump (yet) and it’s faster but doesn’t have the range of the EA6B.
In order to cope with all these demands, the F35 was designed to fit the missions most commonly being fought today by the US – low altitude, counter-insurgency missions in hot countries. As such, the F35 is a “strike fighter”, optimized to carry a payload into a contested airspace and drop or shoot it at defended targets. It’s called a fifth generation fighter because it can do all this while appearing to be the size of a golf ball to a radar scope.