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A Mixed Fighter Fleet for Canada? Super Hornets, F-​35s, and the Challenge of Comparisons

The following article originally published at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. It is republished with permission. It may be read in its original form here

CDA Institute guest contributor Peter Layton, a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute in Queensland Australia, offers his thoughts on Canada’s potential plan to acquire Super Hornets as a bridging capability.

Every country has an F-35 story it seems. Both Australian and Canadian force structure planning has been blighted by the aircraft’s problems and long delays. In 2007 Australia opted for a bridging capability – against Air Force advice – and acquired the F-18F Super Hornet. Canada now appears to be similarly considering a bridging capability, perhaps also against Air Force advice, and possibly acquiring Super Hornets.

Sounds much the same, at first glance. But Australian and Canadian requirements have some fundamental differences, and just as importantly time has moved on. 2016 is not 2007.

For Australia, the F-18F acquisition has been a good experience; the aircraft arrived on time and under budget. Neither are surprising in that the aircraft was an off-the-shelf buy rather than an F-35 developmental program. The in-service F-18A Hornet aircrew found converting to the Super Hornet easy and quick, with the US Navy (USN) training system providing a good head start.

The maintenance and support, however, was a much more complex matter. The current variant Super Hornet technology is considerably more advanced than the 1980s vintage Hornet. In many respects the Super Hornet’s technology is closer to the F-35 than the F-18A; it is really more of an F-35 Lite than a ‘super’ Hornet.

In being more advanced, the Super Hornet’s operating costs are much greater than those of the older Hornet. Apples to oranges comparisons are hard given different fleet sizes and other factors, but are probably more than twice as much per aircraft (see p. 120 of a recent Australian Strategic Policy Institute report). In this, a major project lesson learned by the Australian acquisition organisation is that, while off-the-shelf jets can be quickly acquired, “the establishment of a sustainment solution is a challenge and requires early management oversight.” Half the Super Hornet fleet had been delivered within three years but reaching the final operational capability state, when everything is bedded down, took 5½ years from government approval.

It must also be remembered that the F-18 that Australia and Canada bought was developed from the US Air Force’s (USAF) Lightweight Fighter technology evaluation program. The F-18 began life as an air-to-air fighter first and a bomber second. The F-35 is the reverse with air-to-ground the primary requirement and air-to-air secondary. By dent of excellent sensors, datalinks, stealth, and millions of lines of code, the F-35 overcomes the airframe deficiencies that arise from this upbringing, albeit at the cost of great complexity and perhaps a certain operational brittleness.

In contrast, the F-35 and the Super Hornet are both alike in being originally designed as strike fighters. Unsurprisingly, both offer broadly similar capabilities and neither are highly maneuverable dogfighters. In wars-of-choice such as fighting ISIS in Iraq the differences between the aircraft in terms of operational effect might be marginal.

Given this, maybe a Canadian Super Hornet bridging capability makes some sense. It would take the pressure off having to make an F-35 decision – at a time when the aircraft design remains unstable, maintenance systems are immature, operating costs uncertain, and the US’s chief tester is still publishing scary flight test reports. On the other hand, the F-35 program office is progressively addressing technical issues, unit costs are coming down, more aircraft have been ordered by various countries, and the USAF looks set to declare an initial operational capability this year.

Yet this might not be the kind of capability most want or are expecting. As more becomes known about the software, it seems that the F-35 might not be fully operationally ready until Block 4 is implemented. This Block may also see some key hardware changes, such as bringing the Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS) up to a suitable standard. Block 4 should be ready early next decade. Buying F-35s before then might mean expensive upgrades before they even enter delivery flight-test. Unfortunately for the F-35, buying later is always cheaper and always brings a better standard aircraft.

In Canada, another consideration is whether there will be a capability gap between the new fighters’ introduction to service and the last old Hornet retiring, by 2025 or even earlier. It should be recognised that the transition period will see a dip in capability and some years when deploying a squadron overseas would severely tax the RCAF, especially on the personnel front. Individuals can’t be at home bringing a new fighter on board while fighting offshore. Moreover 2025 is not far away in major project terms. It took Australia almost six years to fully bed down a technically well-understood, off-the-shelf fighter. The F-35 is in nothing like the same state; even if contracting this year, meeting the 2025 deadline would be a near-run thing if Canada wanted a seamless transition from one aircraft type to the other.

But hold everything. The F-35 program, while too big to stop, may not be too big to fail, at least in the air-to-air arena. (Its air-to-ground capabilities appear robust by comparison.)

Enter stage left the shadow of the future. Air superiority is becoming contested again in both East Asia and Europe. As the RAND Corporation warns, “continuous improvements to Chinese air capabilities make it increasingly difficult for the United States to achieve air superiority within a politically and operationally effective time frame.” The Center for Strategic and International Studies, considering China’s full range of defence capabilities – including its rapidly advancing fighter fleet – observes: ” at the current rate of U.S. capability development, the balance of military power in the region is shifting against the United States.”

In this vein, the USAF in Europe commander recently noted: “The advantage that we had from the air, I can honestly say, is shrinking.… This is not just a Pacific problem. It’s as significant in Europe as it is anywhere else on the planet … I don’t think it’s controversial to say they’ve closed the gap in capability.”

Most worryingly, USAF’s head office has determined that the “projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning against …potential adversary capabilities.” The growing fleets of F-35s in service with America and its allies seems inadequate to ensure air superiority beyond 2030. Future control of the air is in doubt.

What to do is uncertain. Whatever Canada buys now appears unlikely to be operationally viable in the air-to-air role beyond 2030 or so. The USAF is suggesting an expedited program to get some suitable ‘system of systems’ into service before then – maybe even 2025 – so air superiority can be maintained long term. What these systems might be remains unknown.

One option is for Canada to ignore this reality, press on and buy F-35s to replace the Hornets by 2025. This is not necessarily a bad approach. The F-35’s air-to-air capabilities might be doubtful long-term against advanced fighters but should be adequate for contributing to NORAD where the threats will hopefully be meager. The F-35’s air-to-ground capabilities should be suitable for participating in NATO and future coalitions of the willing. In this case, the American alliance will be primarily relied upon to ensure control of the air.

Some will say – probably correctly – that this sounds like spending vast sums of money to buy a second rate air combat force and that ‘hope is not a strategy.’ Yet Canada’s (and Australia’s and most European NATO nations) Cold War fighter contribution was arguably in this vein. But you have to ask if you’re buying a doubtful capability anyway, is there any reason not to go for the lower cost Super Hornet option then.

Another alternative is to buy say 30 Super Hornets now, retain 30 CF-18 Hornets, and wait until mid-next decade to decide what to do. By then America’s intentions concerning new air superiority systems will be clearer and perhaps – a big ‘perhaps’ – Canada could buy into a long-term robust solution. This offers at least a chance Canada may remain an ally important for more than just geographical proximity. If however this air superiority path does not eventuate, is unaffordable, or not releasable to close allies, by the mid-2020s better and cheaper F-35 versions will be available to round out Canada’s fighter force in terms of numbers. Importantly, also by then, the F-35s operating costs will finally be known, allowing a more accurate assessment of whether a mixed fleet really is more expensive than a single type one. It may not be.

The later approach stresses hedging and is suitable for uncertain times but takes a dark view of the future where strategic circumstances are deteriorating. The other option is more of a big bet built on the hope the geopolitical situation in next few decades is better than seems to be likely now. The choice between these two options is not easy but indicates the F-35/Super Hornet issue is more complex than it seems at first. Which is more sensible? More pragmatic? Some deep thinking is required.

Dr. Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. (Image courtesy of Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon, U.S. Air Force.)

Textron AirLand’s Scorpion: A Smart Gamble

By David J. Van Dyk

In September 2014, BBC released a report detailing future low-cost fighters, headlined “The low-cost fighters to serve tomorrow’s air forces.” They mention the JF-17 platform co-designed by China and Pakistan, and briefly touch on the Yak-130, developed by Russian aircraft maker Irkut Corporation.

For the rest of the 1,100 word article, it focuses exclusively on the Textron AirLand Scorpion.

Why is that?

For starters, the subsonic, twin-engine jet costs $20 million, and operating costs dial in at around $3,000 per flight hour, according to a BBC report by Russell Hotten.

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For comparison, the efficient A-10 Thunderbolt II, otherwise known as the “Warthog,” costs an initial $19 million and operational costs are estimated at $17,716 per flight hour, though these numbers will vary based on year and modifications. The most expensive weapon in the U.S. military’s arsenal? Say hello to the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, clocking in at approximately $169,000 per flight hour.

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These numbers were provided by a report from the Air Force comptroller’s office, obtained by Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project. In the report, costs are listed for every airframe in the U.S. Air Force, excluding the F-35 Lightning, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, which is currently undergoing final development and testing.

While the Scorpion beats every combat aircraft listed in the report in cost-per-flight-hour, what may prove more impressive is how it was created.

“It is a clean-sheet design. No kidding, I was actually the first Textron AirLand employee,” said Bill Anderson, CEO of Textron AirLand and vice president of Military and Government Programs at Cessna. “I went out and hired people who I thought could bring real value to the design and to the team.

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“A small group of us, about nine people, got together and went through the data we had, and said ‘What are we going to build?’ We did a rapid market survey, did a capability matrix, and we started designing the airplane.”

From that point on, the twin-seat jet began taking on the design the creators had in mind. Evaluating markets around the world, the compact team formed the Scorpion into a platform capable of several roles.

“(The Scorpion) morphed from a light attack airplane into a relatively large ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) attack airplane,” Anderson said, “meaning a 21,000 plus-pound airplane (maximum take-off weight). A very unique feature is the center payload bay that has plenty of power for today’s very sophisticated avionics.”

The Scorpion has three hardpoints on each wing, and can last for seven hours on station without undergoing in-flight refueling.

But the fact the Scorpion was built from the ground up in two years raises eyebrows. By allowing creative thinking and quick decision making, Textron AirLand was able to create a state-of-the-art platform quicker than most major contractors take to decide on a design. Add the fact it was all privately financed and aforementioned eyebrows begin to furrow. Why take such a risk? According to Anderson, the time is ripe for the harvest.

“This summer, we went to nine different countries in seven weeks. We did not change one component except the tires,” Anderson said. “The international reception has been absolutely tremendous. The U.S. Air Force has taken a look at the airplane, and most recently, the U.S. Navy is seriously looking at the airplane for some very definite, good mission roles.”

While the Scorpion airframe is currently not a competitor in the Air Force’s T-X program (Anderson made very clear they are still closely monitoring new developments in that domain), Anderson pointed out the Scorpion’s high capabilities for maritime patrol.

“With its over 9,000 pounds of payload and high endurance, (the Scorpion) is ideal for maritime patrol. Most people prefer multi-engine, and the Scorpion is multi-engine. It is ideal for maritime patrol, coastal patrol and maritime surveillance.”

After the Scorpion’s performance at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) in England, the Royal Navy and Marines in requested the Scorpion to work alongside them for a week of training. According to Anderson, it allowed the program to demonstrate the high-end capability of the Scorpion alongside naval engagements.

While current markets appear favorable, Anderson is also looking long-term, analyzing future engagements and how battles are fought and won.

“There are other airplanes out there that are more expensive than the Scorpion that have higher-end aerodynamic performance, but for the mission sets that we see in today’s security environment and well into the future, we don’t really require those high-end aerodynamic performance packages.”

Anderson is not alone in this thinking of future warfare. Seth Jones, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, offered testimony before the House Committee on Armed Services, Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.

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In the hearing, he highlighted the fact that non-state actors will force us to think outside the box and change our tactics in defeating an unconventional enemy, whether it be terrorist networks operating out of Syria or drug-trafficking groups like the cartels in Mexico and in the jungles of South America.

In battling an enemy who operates within the shadows and tunnels of rough terrain and mountainous expanses, leading scholars have questioned just how effective supersonic, highly advanced jets could be, often incurring high costs of maintenance and unscheduled repairs.

In an age of counter-insurgent warfare, reliability of equipment is gold. Anderson claims to have a trove of it.

“One of the top selling features is exceptionally high reliability,” said Anderson. “So how do you build in high reliability? You use known components. Our reliability, and we’ve accumulated more than 500 flight hours on the airframe, is over 98 percent.”

Anderson is referring to the readiness rate of an aircraft, which essentially means how quickly and efficiently the aircraft can respond to testing, training or an actual mission requirement.

For comparison, the U.S. Marine Corps has run into a snag concerning aircraft readiness, reporting that 19 percent of its inventory was not available for use, according to a Reuters report in April 2015.

An aircraft unavailable, whether due to unscheduled repairs or maintenance, means an acquired target escapes, a hostage waits longer in captivity, or a suspicious vessel eludes authorities.

While the Scorpion has proven it has the right stuff, the trickier part will be selling it. One only has to think of the F-20 Tigershark to cringe at the thought of marketing privately financed military aircraft. In its struggled bid for the fighter contract in the 1980s, the F-5 successor lost out to the more expensive, and flashier, F-16 Fighting Falcon. The RAND Corporation called the F-20 program a marketing failure.

At that point, the axe-wielding Gimli of Lord of the Rings would say “you’ll find more cheer in a graveyard.”

But the team at Textron AirLand has done their homework, and Anderson is confident the interest in the Scorpion will build as time goes on. Already, the production-conforming airframe of the Scorpion is being completed, and discussions with serious buyers are ongoing, according to Anderson.

“With the long endurance (of the Scorpion) for ISR, it being ideal for maritime patrol, and ability to strike a target all from the same airplane, that’s pretty incredible,” said Anderson. “It’s a unique capability, all at a very, very attractive cost point.

“I would say it was a bit of a gamble…a smart gamble.”

David Van Dyk is a graduate of Liberty University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Communications Studies and a member of the Lambda Pi Eta honor society. He is currently pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy with a focus in International Affairs at the Helms School of Government. He can be reached at dvandyk@liberty.edu.

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Sea Control 91 – Falklands War 8 Air Engineering Challenges

seacontrol2Commander Steve George was the Deputy Aircraft Engineering Officer 820sqn RNAS, Sea King squadron on HMS Invincible in the Falklands War. He provides a strong overview of the engineering challenges posed to aviation in the 1982 Falklands War.
He has had a long career since, and included work on the F-35.

Who Is Ahead In Asia’s Carrier Arms Race?

Asia’s maritime arms race has again highlighted the emerging relevance of aircraft carriers. China, India and Japan made significant progress with their flattops. As all major powers in the region run for more and larger carriers, the question is: Who is ahead?

Japan

Japan Unveils Izumo Class Helicopter Destroyer (Light Aircraft Carrier)Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ah-64 sh-60 (1)    First of all, Tokyo, please stop these ridiculous wordplays. Carriers are carriers and not “helicopter destroyers”, no matter what official spokespersons are saying. Back in the Cold War, nobody believed the Soviet’s heavy flight deck cruisers were actually “cruisers”.

Japan’s present fleet includes two Hyuga-Class and one Izumo-Class helicopter carriers (CVH). Lacking a well deck, they have no amphibious role and are only able to operate helicopters or fixed wing aircraft. Such helicopters can either be used for any number of missions, from Search and Rescue (SAR), surface warfare (SUW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW), or troop movements. Moreover, purchasing some V-22 Ospreys is another option for Japan. Recent maneuvers with the US Navy showed, V-22s are able to operate from the Hyugas.

The main issue is whether Japan’s CVH can operate fixed wing STOVL aircraft, in particular Lockheed’s F-35B (STOVL – Short Take-off and Vertical Landing). Japan’s three CVH are not yet ready to host F-35B, though they could easily be converted into smaller carriers to operate V/STOL aircraft. Due to “no obvious technical obstacles“, the only issue left is the political decision.

The the F-35B has been critiqued for the poor performance of its STOVL variant: enormous fuel consumption during takeoff and landing, limited payload, limited range. In the maritime East Asia, distances are not so far that long range would be necessary. The F-35B may be superior to Chinese warplanes as a whole program, because China has presented prototypes rather than a factory-ready mass-produced model of its 5th generation carrier fighters.

Japan’s main obstacle is the complete absence of combat experience since 1945. However, its navy enjoys the opportunity to train with the US and perhaps Britain in the future: countries with proven combat experience. GlobalSecurity.org reports, moreover, that Japan may consider a program for a larger carrier starting in the 2020s. However, there current evidence says that Japan is about to go for STOBAR or CATOBAR carriers. Hence, Japan will play an important role in the carrier arms race. Maybe the F-35B will boost Japanese maritime power, if Tokyo decides to go for it. However, size and nature of Japan’s carrier program will not bring the country into leading position.

South Korea

article-1312184-0B3144C1000005DC-215_964x470Seoul’s flattop program is less developed than Japan’s. The South Korean Navy (ROKN) runs one Dokdo-class helicopter carrier and aims to operate three at the end of the decade. Like Japan, these flattops are said only to operate helicopters, but they could be modified to host F-35B. Drones could also be an option. Unlike Japan, the ROKN’s Dokdo has a well deck and can therefore be used for amphibious operations.

However, even though there are reports about South Korean interests in the F-35B, officially plans for converting the Dokdos into a small carrier have been denied. Such a political move is logical. In the U.S, the F-35B has proved to be a budget disaster and has yet to show its operational capabilities. Fortunately, China has not crossed the threshold of full operational capability; the LIAONING is still relatively green and there are no Chinese indigenous carriers. Seoul has still time to weigh its options.

South Korea will only keep regional military weight if Seoul broadens its pursuit of “blue-water ambitions“. In particular, this means spending much more money on an expeditionary navy to include additional flattops. With its sophisticated shipbuilding industry, South Korea would be able modify the Dokdos to small carriers or develop new indigenous carriers. However, the political consequence would be entrance into the great power competition between the navies of the US, China, India and Japan. The ROKN will definitely not take a lead, but do not count South Korea out. If things in maritime Asia get worse, Seoul made decide to follow the Japanese example.

Australia

2005_S1237_02.JPGThe two forthcoming Canberra-Class LHDs would able to operate F-35B. The ski-jump on prow is credible evidence. However, right now Australia has no intention to go for the F-35B. Needless to say, political landscapes can quickly change. We will see what happens in Canberra after the F-35B has proven its operational abilities and the carrier arms race continues. Australia could also operate UAVs from her carriers.

We will not see high-profile patrols of Australian LHDs in the East and South China Sea. The Royal Australian Navy may use Canberras for joint exercises with the US, Japan, South Korea, or the Philippines. In terms of operations, the use of the LHD will be to underline Australia’s hegemonial role in the Pacific Islands, disaster relief, and potentially in tackling the refugee issue.

Thailand

As long as Thailand does not seriously invest in its single carrier, the Chakri Naruebet will be nothing else than the “Royal Yacht“. Thailand’s carrier rarely operates and the crews have rare practical experience. Do not bet on Thailand. The Thai carrier will only make a difference in disaster relief.


Singapore

Singapore has yet to jump for a flattop. However, due its very limited space for air force bases, the tiny city-state seriously considers an F-35B purchase. In the future, LHD or small Izumo-style carriers could be an option for Singapore. Basing the fighters offshore would save urgently needed space on land. Nevertheless, there is no credible evidence yet that Singapore is really planning to buy warships like the Izumo (if anybody comes across news regarding this issue, please drop me a line). Thus, Singapore remains a known unknown. What would make Singaporean carrier very relevant is its geographic location close to Malacca Strait and southern end of the South China Sea.

Russia

From the four Mistral LHDs Russia’s navy is about to commission, two will be based in the Pacific. There are no indications that Russia is planning to develop a new STOVL aircraft, although the country’s industry would be capable of doing so (Yak-38, YAK-141). Thus, the Mistrals will only be outfitted with helicopters and, therefore, not make a significant difference in the Indo-Pacific’s maritime balance of power.

Moreover, it cannot be ruled out that Russia use the new LHDs in waters other than the Pacific. Recently, the Russian Navy deployed warships from its Pacific Fleet to the Mediterranean for a show of force offshore Syria.

New Russian aircraft carriers are only discussed, but far away from being realized. If the Russians would start to build new carriers, they would first replace the aging Kuznetsov and, thereafter, strengthen their Northern Fleet to protect their interests in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

India

130812065726-01-ins-vikrant-0812-horizontal-galleryThe Indian Navy should definitely be taken into account for a front position. Due to the operational experience of its single operational carrier INS Viraat and its soon to be commissioned two new STOBAR carriers INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant, India is now Asia’s number one in maritime aviation. In the 2020’s, an even larger carrier INS Vishal is in the works; perhaps a CATOBAR design, which would provide far better striking capabilities, and maybe even nuclear powered. While future expansion has yet to be determined, in the present India is going to build up a sophisticated three-carrier fleet. The Indian Navy will be able to maintain always one carrier battle group at sea and to project power in the western Pacific.

However, India lacks access to a carrier-capable 5th generation fighter. There is no carrier-version of Indo-Russian Suchoi PAK FA under development. Joining India’s forces in the early 2020, the PAK FA will only be available as a land based fighter. India’s Mig-29 and the potential Rafale are definitely combat capable aircraft, but surely behind the F-35’s abilities and probably, too, behind China’s J-31. Once other Indo-Pacific powers operate their 5th generation fighters from carriers, India will fall behind in quality if not quantity.

In addition, operating different fighter and carrier models, as India is about to do, increases maintenance costs significantly. Nevertheless, just by the numbers of operational vessels and the operational experience, India will take the lead in Asia’s carrier arms race for this decade and maybe also in the early 2020s, but not longer.

China

carrier_liaoningAs much has been written about China, we keep it brief here. Given China’s “Two-Ocean-Strategy”, seeking to operate always one carrier in the Pacific and Indian Ocean, the PLAN will need up to 5-6 flattops. We have physical evidence now for what everybody knew before: Chinas is commencing an indigenous aircraft carrier program. The hot issue is, for which design China will go. Will they re-build LIAONING‘s STOBAR design? Alternatively, will they go straight for a more advanced CATOBAR design?

Probably the first and second indigenous Chinese carrier will be a conventional powered STOBAR flattop. Thereafter, we may either see conventional or even nuclear powered CATOBAR carriers. Beside military requirements, for political prestige Beijing will not accept its carrier fleet to be behind the level of India. Instead, after the “century of humiliation” China will seek for clear superiority over India, Japan, and other potential Asian naval powers.

Who is ahead?

Right now India is definitely ahead due to operational experience and the number of vessels. Regarding technology, Japan is likely to be number one. However, both will be surpassed by China either at the end of his decade or surely within the 2020s. South Korea, Australia, Thailand, and Singapore are economically too weak to be a maritime game changer. However, it will be interesting to watch how these and other countries are seeking for maritime alliances to balance China. Russia will not play a major role in maritime Asia, especially not with carriers, because its core interests are located elsewhere.

 

After Obama scrapped US foreign policy almost entirely in the last years, what will a weakened America do in the Indo-Pacific? States like Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Australia will rely on US security guarantees. However doubts remain as to whether Obama and his successors are willing to deliver should serious conflicts occur. For a clear message to China, the US needs a credible and increased forward presence throughout the Indo-Pacific. Therefore, Washington should leave theaters like the western Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean to the Europeans as much as possible. If necessary, let Europe learn the hard way that in the Indo-Pacific Century, the times of US military bailouts are over and Europe has to do carry its share of the load.

Felix Seidler is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany, and a German security affairs writer. This article appeared in original form at his website, Seidlers Sicherheitspolitik.