Fighter Replacement

15 February 2016

The Need for a Statement of Requirements

There is no doubt that Canada needs a replacement for its ageing CF-18 fleet – the airframe, avionics and weapon systems are getting old and obsolete. What are our future needs? Have new technologies and threats been considered? Can we make the replacement program a success story for Canada’s economy?

The CF-18 was a ground-breaking (should say air-breaking) feat of technology when it was selected. A force multiplier, its multi-role capability is still impressive by today’s standards. The same order of magnitude of technological leap that was achieved in the early 80s is non-existent in 2016.

When we hear about manœuverability, agility and ease to fly, our military pilots express their “want’’ for a single seat aerial sports car, not a military system. Nowadays the pilot is the limiting factor in air-to-air combat as he/she is limited to pulling an 8g turn; a few will admit it. Think of all the hardware and systems needed to interface with and keep a pilot alive: cockpit, stick, throttle, pedals, visual instruments, ejection seat, liquid oxygen, redundant systems... A pilot on board means much more weight and drag for a given design; it makes the fighter jet inefficient and very expensive. Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) do not have these restrictions, they can be built at a much lower cost and can easily outturn and defeat any manned aircraft.

Highly skilled pilots are needed to command the platforms but not necessarily to be inside the platforms. Consider this scenario: Upon detection of an air threat in the Canadian Air Defense Identification Zone (CADIZ), C-130sC-17s or other aircraft take off from various Canadian air bases. Each aircraft carries multiple UCAVs which they launch as they approach the interception point (in a best case scenario, the UCAVs takeoff on their own from small airports near the CADIZ, thereby cutting response time). Airborne intruders will see UCAVs coming at them from all azimuths, each pinging with their radars, each having multiple “all aspect’’ missiles on board locked-in for the intercept. That is a deterrent that would be fatal to ignore.

This is akin to the Bomarc tactics but the nukes are replaced with a swarming and cooperative engagement artificial intelligence capability, sophisticated communication systems, long-range detection and identification sensors and very smart and precise guidance software.

Would that scenario fulfill the NORAD air defence role? Definitely, yes.

The required technology and expertise already exists in Canada for design and construction of such a solution. Maybe a non-stealth, remotely-piloted F-35 variant with no cockpit and vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capability is the answer.

The element of surprise can be advantageous. The F-35 does not have long range capability in the Canadian context but we could deploy many of them near our border in very isolated, very camouflaged shelters from which they would take off vertically; the “shell game” tactic would be very hard to counter as no conspicuous runway is needed. VTOL fighters could be a real tactical advantage. We are about to buy F-35s without that capability. Why?

That brings me to the question of stealth. Stealth aircraft are needed for invasion, for deep penetration strikes where destruction of enemy air defence and ground assets is the primary goal. That is why the B-2 and the F-117 were developed. Does Canada need a stealth aircraft? Not unless our defence strategy includes invading foreign nations.

The primary operational role for Canada’s F-18s is NORAD air defence: the sovereignty of our airspace and borders. The enemy should see many of us coming at them fast and from far away outside the CADIZ, with the right weapon: that is the deterrent. There are many excellent options in operation around the globe. Let the discussion be about the sensors, speed and range and other capabilities of the platform, and about the weapon’s performance and quantity, not about showmanship.

Why is there a machine gun on the F-35? It does not fit the air defence scenario. The “sport’’ connotation springs again. All that is needed is a long range missile for intercept and, for self-defence, an all-aspect missile that can engage an enemy on its tail.

Ok, we have NATO and coalition requirements for ground support where only a pilot in the cockpit can make the fast decisions required by its counterpart on the ground, the Forward Observer Officer. In this mission scenario, having a big machine gun, a large number of bombs and some agility and survivability are a big plus. So why not get the drawings and build, in Canada, a bunch of A-10s with modern avionics? That would be formidable! Such designs do not require export-forbidden and foreign-owned technology like stealth and “smart skin’’, which means there is no reason we cannot build 100% of it here.

In my opinion, the F-22 Raptor is the best air-to-air combat aircraft. If we still need a manned air-to-air superiority fighter for visually identifying a commercial aircraft in distress or an unknown intruder, let’s buy a few Raptors to do that mission.

Aircraft, and all its components: engines, airframe, software, avionics, can be designed and built – right here in Montreal. Companies here produce the best military simulation and training systems in the world. All the required competencies are in our own country. We must design and build it here in Canada to own the capability and cost-effectively support platforms throughout their long life cycle. Not just in Montreal, but everywhere in Canada where the skilled labour is available.

In summary, the operational requirements for replacing the F-18 fighter jets have to be reviewed with future missions in mind. I am convinced that once completed, the Statement of Operational Requirements (SOR) will have effectively torn down the barriers preventing design and production of the platforms and weapon systems here in Canada.

Canada needs an effective air-to-air defence platform and some manned ground support fighter jets, like a modernized A-10 and a very few Raptors for exception handling (a mixed fleet mostly designed and built in Canada but only the best in class for each tactical scenario).

The focus of replacing the CF-18s should be about our safety, the health of our economy and, correspondingly, about Canadian pride.

Richard Cayouette is the President of Martello Defence Security Consultants Inc., based in Bromont, Quebec.