Addressing Canada’s fighter ‘gap’
by James Fryer (feat. Al Stephenson)
March 30, 2018
When asked if a second supply ship for the Royal Canadian Navy could be ordered from Davie Shipbuilding – a move that would restore re-fueling capability to both coasts and head off job losses at the Quebec shipyard – Transport Minister Marc Garneau declared: “We cannot artificially create a need for something that doesn’t exist.”
How ironic that a member of the federal cabinet should make this bold remark when there is a broad consensus that this is exactly what the Trudeau government is doing in the case of the alleged fighter capability gap. No fewer than 13 former chiefs of the air staff (with about 400 years’ worth of experience between them), as well as the Senate of Canada and most informed defence analysts, all agree that the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) is not deficient in fighter capability (though they are certainly due to be replaced).
Insofar as the ‘gap’ is concerned, former fighter pilot Alan Stephenson has argued convincingly that it has been manufactured for political reasons – namely to impose unnecessary delays on the replacement of the CF-18 fleet, and put distance between a notional Trudeau government circa 2021 and its ill-considered 2015 election promise to buy anything but the much-maligned F-35.
Gap? What gap?
Certainly last year’s defence policy roll-out did nothing to add to the public’s understanding of why an interim buy of fighters is suddenly necessary to ensure Canada’s security. On page 38 of the policy – named Strong, Secure, Engaged (SSE) – the government did not specify how the security landscape had changed to such a degree that extra planes are required now. Nor has the government justified why an initial plan to fill the ‘gap’ with 18 modern F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets could be so easily aborted in favour of buying highly-used legacy Hornets from Australia. If national security is so well served by the latter, why it wasn’t considered as the first (and demonstrably cheaper) option?
Nor is there evidence that either NATO or NORAD have pressured Ottawa to up its game and put more fighters into service. Such a demand would likely have made it into the public domain, if for no other reason that NATO’s budgetary and force development targets are publicly known. Yet not a word from either about a fighter gap. The government continues to insist that such a thing exists, but is it pedalling ‘fake news’? Again, where is the evidence of a gap that would silence the legions of doubters?
And with the formal announcement (12 December 2017) of a process to replace Canada’s legacy fleet, many are left wondering why a seemingly straightforward competition should take until 2025 to deliver the first machine.
It is instructive, if not a little ominous, that the government claims so much time is required to consult with industry on what it has to offer. Belgium has just received ‘best and final offers’ from two bidders in a process that began barely a year ago with four candidates, and will begin taking delivery of a replacement for its F-16s in 2023.
While the RCAF requirements may have been tweaked for political reasons on 12 December (perhaps discounting low-observability as a key requirement), but can the requirements be so profoundly different from what they were toward the end of the last government’s tenure? Indeed, with virtually every major country transitioning to low-observable fighters (Russia to the SU-57; China to the J-20 and J-31; much of NATO to the F-35; Japan, South Korea, and even Turkey announcing their intent to build stealthy designs) there seems to be little doubt as to where the future lies. Does the Trudeau government have some special insight into the future of air warfare that has eluded ally and non-ally alike?
Obfuscation, naïveté, or both?
What are we to make of the need for another round of industry consultations that will culminate in a list of suppliers? Consultations began with the previous government – the results of which were written up by the National Fighter Procurement Secretariat (NFPS) and presented to the Harper government in June of 2014. Surely this information could be leveraged to reduce the duration of the recently-announced competition. Yet to listen to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s convoluted response to a question from the assembled media on 12 December, it is as if the NFPS and its peer-reviewed study never existed.
Not to be outdone, Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough stated in the same press conference that bidders should bear in mind that their current or prior dealings with Canada could be weighted against them during the bid evaluations. If a bidder was perceived to have inflicted harm on Canada’s economy, that would play against them in a competition – a none-too-subtle swipe at Boeing for launching a failed bid to impose punitive tariffs on Bombardier’s C-Series airliner. When asked if this would only add more time and complexity to the procurement (given that the definition of ‘harm’ could be quite subjective and therefore open to legal challenge), the Minister said she hoped it would not. As a novice cabinet minister, she might be forgiven for her naïveté.
Yet the broader government cannot be so easily excused. It should be obvious to anyone that when it comes to defence procurement in Canada, hope is not a method. One suspects that Minister Qualtrough will soon learn that painful lesson. For one thing, the government’s timetable for the fighter project puts delivery of the first jet in 2025 – precisely when the lead ship in the Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) project is supposed to be floated out. Superimposing the fighter and warship replacements upon each other is a sure-fire way to over-tax the insufficient project management capacity residing in the relevant federal departments. It has long been argued (and accepted) that a lack of trained and experienced civilian and military procurement staff are to blame for delays in delivering on core projects. Should not the two most complex and costly projects of our times be staggered so as not to interfere with each other? (There was a four-year gap between the acquisition of the final CF-18 in 1988 and the arrival of the first Halifax-class frigate). Herein lies the danger of not proceeding immediately to a competition.
Yet perhaps the grand prize for obfuscation should go to Liberal MP Steven MacKinnon, the parliamentary secretary to Minister Qualtrough. On a CTV News panel discussion in December he boldly proclaimed that it was an “exciting time” for the RCAF, lucky as it was to be acquiring used Australian Hornets as an interim measure. It may not have occurred to him that acquiring 30-year-old planes may actually be a disincentive to recruiting and retention. A would-be aviator is unlikely to be attracted by the prospect of climbing into obsolescent aircraft. And with the airlines trolling for experienced pilots and technical tradespeople, what message is sent to the current crop of air and ground crew by investing in the past rather than the future? Side-note: the latest batch of television recruiting adds no longer feature the fighter capability – perhaps a veiled admission that featuring obsolete kit does nothing to incentivize recruiting.
When asked about the fighter gap, MacKinnon claimed that the government’s defence policy had dealt “at length” with the issue. As noted above, no explanation – lengthy or otherwise – has been forthcoming in the policy about how the aerospace environment has changed to such as degree as to mandate a gap-filler. Either Mr. MacKinnon did not even read his own party’s policy document, or he banked that his co-panelists (not to mention the viewers) could be easily duped.
Timing is everything… isn’t it?
Aside from the danger of having to manage two mega-projects simultaneously, the timing of the fighter replacement raises another serious issue: technological obsolescence. Put simply, the longer Canada takes to decide, the narrower our options become.
Reviewing public statements by European governments, militaries, and aerospace officials regarding the future of their fighter aircraft fleets, it is clear that the Europeans are looking ahead to the next-generation of aircraft to replace Tornado and Typhoon (UK, Germany, Italy), as well as Rafale (France) and Gripen E (Sweden).
In the US, manufacturers such as Northrop are already musing about 6th-generation technologies. Worried by what it sees as Russian and Chinese advancements, the US Air Force is looking at advanced aircraft, weapons and sensors for introduction circa 2030.
The current leading-edge (4.5-/4.75-generation) aircraft in service in Europe are being upgraded, but officials from Airbus (Typhoon’s manufacturer) state that even with upgrades their design is not viable against capable adversaries beyond 2040 and that planning for their replacement should begin now if Europe is to retain the requisite design/manufacturing capability. The French and German governments have begun discussing collaboration on the next-generation fighter. The Rafale is likely in the same boat as Typhoon (obsolescent by 2040), since it and all the other canard-winged designs date back to the 1990s.
The relevance of this for Canada is clear. If there is any inclination by the current or future government to buy an advanced 4th-generation aircraft – either from Europe or from Boeing – we will not be able to treat is as we have the CF-18. The new platform will not remain combat-viable for 35-40 years after its purchase because all ‘established’ candidates are fast reaching the end of their upgrade potential.
In effect, the RCAF’s ‘new’ 4.5/4.75-generation aircraft would function only as an interim, or inter-generational, aircraft for a period of about 15 years – or until new-generation machines emerge from European or American production lines in early 2040s.
Even if European plans slip by 5 years (to the mid-2040s), the writing is clearly on the wall for fighter aircraft of the 4th generation. Pushing Canada’s fighter replacement into the mid-2020s puts Canada out of step with the pace of fighter replacement. Minister Sajjan was correct that we should have moved ahead on this file a decade ago, with a replacement in service today. Yet we now find ourselves in the position that if we choose one of the many ‘established’ candidates, we will likely have to go through the procurement process again after only 10 years to avoid the fleet obsolescence that our allies have now admitted to.
The F-35 might be the only candidate with a technological growth path beyond 2040. But if it is not chosen, Canada should not delude itself that the other candidates will enjoy significant design longevity. Choosing one of them means lots of money for a very questionable return. As US Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson observed, “Buying a new version of something that was revolutionary 30 years ago doesn’t take us to a more competitive future.”
Creative thinking needed...
Clearly Canada cannot wait until late 2030s to replace the full fleet. Are there other options? One is to take a chance on the F-35, as many allied and partner nations have done. All partner nations remain committed to it, and the aircraft has won orders in Israel and Japan where these allies face capable rivals and would not think of entrusting their security to yesterday’s technology. (South Korea and may soon follow suit.) A Canadian order would seem logical given that potential bidders were told during an ‘industry day’ on 28 January 2018 that Canada needs an aircraft that could last until 2060. By simple process of elimination, the F-35 is the only possible choice. Why then does the government fetishize competition when there are arguably no viable competitors?
A second option is to go with a mixed fleet of 4.75-generation aircraft available now, backed up by a mature 5th-generation candidate when available. Aside from the training and logistical challenges this will cause, there is the distinct possibility that once the former is acquired, this or a future government could balk at Phase 2, leaving Canada behind the technological curve after only a decade. It would also befuddle DND and the RCAF how to decide what portion of 88 planes – the numerical requirement articulated in SSE – can be drawn from each generation.
Another possible way forward is to make a choice between a European design or Super Hornet (Block 3), then re-scope the temporal dimension of the fighter project to last only 20 years (i.e., delivery of the first airframe until final disposal) rather than the 50 years currently envisioned for the CF-18. Again, such an aircraft will by design be an interim or ‘inter-generational’ aircraft.
There may be a political advantage in going this latter route. Since the government is required to specify the cost of acquisition and ownership over the lifespan of the airplane, the overall cost of a 20-year program should be considerably lower than a 40-year program since operations and maintenance costs will be halved. Sceptics will note (rightly) that DND will have to come back to Treasury at the 10-year point in order to buy a replacement aircraft. But 10 years is a long time in politics. Plenty of room to blame the situation on long-gone predecessors.
To be sure, a truncated fighter program may force the government to amortize the costs into a shorter timeframe. But if Canada is comfortable with an interim capability, choosing Saab’s Gripen E – undoubtedly the least expensive option – may have merit. Its single engine need not be a factor given the RCAF’s readiness to procure the F-35; and its advanced technology (electronically-scanned radar, internal infra-red sensor, advanced cockpit) represent an improvement over the CF-18.
…and less politicking
One more factor might need consideration: the new and somewhat bizarre requirement that a successful bidder demonstrate that its business dealings do not harm the Canadian economy.
If it is hard to see how Saab, Airbus, or Dassault could have done harm to the Canadian economy, it is equally hard to see how they could provide the lasting benefits that Boeing or Lockheed have bestowed on Canada over the decades. While some have argued that the so-called ‘Boeing clause’ is meant to put the screws to the US giant in its dispute with Bombardier, the corollary is that Boeing already has rendered significant industrial and technological benefits to Canada – something not lost on the 1,700 workers at the company’s Winnipeg facility. This cannot be overlooked by the government’s bid evaluators. Thus even after calculating the net ‘benefit-to-harm’ ratio, Boeing (or Lockheed) may still offer more politically-attractive partnerships than the three European firms. (Dassault or Saab could, however, attempt to court political favour by offering to assemble their jets in Canada.) Yet with the Super Hornet coming to the end of its development pathway with the Block 3 version, this again would seem to leave Lockheed Martin and the F-35 as the only viable choice – assuming that the government is indeed considering a long-term solution to the RCAF’s needs.
With the government stubbornly clinging to the false premise of a fighter gap, with the addition of highly subjective conditions for bidders, and with the apparent deletion of stealth capability as a requirement for the new aircraft, it is clear that the fighter replacement issue has become monstrously politicized. After promising sensible defence procurement reform during the last election, the Trudeau government seems to have acquired a distaste for simplicity and efficiency, not to mention evidence-based analysis. The politically-motivated cancellation of the EH-101 helicopter, followed by an 11-year ordeal to choose a (still non-operational) replacement, should have served as a cautionary tale of letting what should be a straight-forward matter morph into a political football to be kicked around endlessly. Yet no such lesson seems to have been learned. What’s worse is that the government cannot deliver a cogent response to the question of why it is doing what it is doing. Perhaps it feels that it doesn’t need to. After all, it’s only national security and billions of dollars that are at stake.
Any fighter replacement program needs to be viewed through the lens of operational capability, logistical supportability, and cost. But timing must also play a part, and the government has set itself and DND up for a significant managerial, technical, and financial challenge by not exploiting the work done by the NFPS and de-conflicting the fighter purchase with other major procurements. Minister Sajjan seemed to at least partially recognize the former when he said on 6 December 2017: “These [air force] requirements are not only about having an aircraft for now, but we need to make sure this aircraft is there to serve us in the future.” The Americans and Europeans have given ample indication that their legacy fighter designs have a limited shelf-life. Canada should listen to them and act accordingly.