With the report on replacing the CF-188 Hornet due soon, and the rumours that a purchase of the F-35 without competition will be the conclusion, I feel it is time to write an alternative option for Parliament and Canadians to consider for the RCAF. The current level of political management and national debate on defence issues is appalling for an area that could mean national survival or national extermination. Allowing the little debate that does go on to be about costs or hijacked by spin doctors puts Canadians at risk. Saving a bit of treasure isn’t worth losing any blood for.
With the Hornets’ retirement Canada will no longer have a capability to control what goes on in Canadian airspace. Many critics have outlined why the F-35 is the wrong option for Canada, or anyone else, to purchase. In terms of controlling Canadian airspace 65 F-35s will not be enough at their current level of air combat capability and readiness. In fact I doubt 600 would be enough to have routine air patrols, training mission and deployments. The number 600 is approximately the number of fighter planes Canada kept for domestic defence during the 50s and 60s, each as capable or more capable than the F-35 is reported to be.
Despite what sales people and the general public believe the primary function of an airforce is not to fly around dropping bombs, nor is the hardware the most important element. People; flight crew, ground crew and support crew are the most important element of any airforce. If the RCAF doesn’t continue to attract a high quality of people and reach an elite standard of training it would be more honest for Canada to disband the entire organization. Combat pilots need 30-45 hours a month of in combat training to maintain proficiency and have a hope to survive. Ground and support personnel also need constant training to be efficient like Formula 1 crews and also to be capable as infantry to defend their base from ground attack or airborne assault. By contracting out to private concerns or not training RCAF personnel as ground troops we will need many more infantry battalions to defend our air bases, thus throwing away any savings.
People and their training should be the biggest components of the RCAF budget but they will need hardware until we learn to fly like superheroes. All of Canada’s Federal, and possibly other levels of government, should be through a single purchasing system possibly as part of the Treasury Board. Everything for the Canadian Forces should be Arctic capable, rugged, cheap, plentiful, modular, easily maintained or upgraded and get the crew home. Components should be swappable with other systems and even other services and allies. Every piece of equipment should also be suited for remote, high tempo operations over prolonged periods. Procurement should be getting the best kit for the lowest price and not designed for industrial benefits, bribing voters in certain ridings or supporting failed businesses. If we’re going down those roads again, might as well nationalize the entire domestic defence industry and save by not having to pay profits.
The primary function of any airforce is to control domestic airspace and for this an interceptor is needed. The interceptor Canada needs does not exist, in fact none of the proposed combat aircraft in this post exist at present. The interceptor should be a maximum takeoff weight of 15,000kg or less, have two high powered jet engines, large wing surface area and control services for agility, and be capable of supercruise at Mach 2.5. The sensors should be a passive array radar with active burst capability, long range passive infrared sensors, and both military and civilian radio systems. Weapons would be limited to beyond visual range (BVR) radar seeking air to air missiles, visual range heat seeking missiles, and a high speed, reliable cannon with ten or more kill shots. This aircraft would be used only for racing to the edge of Canadian airspace, identifying a contact, then either escorting it to safety or shooting it down depending on who it is.
Air defence, like all defence, is better layered. As most of the Canadian population is concentrated in the south of the country a single engine reserve fighter/trainer would be ideal to protect the main population centres. The maximum takeoff weight would be less than 10,000kg but otherwise would be a scaled down version of the interceptor without as many hard points for missiles. This dedicated dog fighter would have a two seat version to be the initial jet training aircraft of the RCAF. A few regular RCAF squadrons could be maintained with this model for expeditionary forces.
As the last two aircraft do not have a capability to be used in the strike/attack role a third airframe should be added. This larger twin engined aircraft should have a takeoff weight of around 25,000kg as an upscaled version of the interceptor. The primary mission of this plane should be the destruction of enemy air defence networks through standoff weapons, air to ground radar seeking missiles, integrated radar deception systems and other electronic warfare equipment, air to air missiles and its cannon. The secondary role would be anti-shipping with a tertiary role of precision bombing missions from high altitude.
The RCAF for decades has lacked the capability to support the Canadian Army with adequate ground attack abilities. With helicopter gunships being vulnerable to air and ground attack and jets expensive to operate the best option would be turboprop aircraft. There should be two army cooperation aircraft for this role both having the old tail dragging design to allow for more weapons and fuel load, and be well armoured to survive a high threat environment. A single engine armed scout/observer aircraft with bombs, anti-tank missiles, short ranged heat seeking air to air missiles, and machine-guns. It would also guide the artillery on target or other attack aircraft. The second plane is a twin engined tank buster plane with a 30mm cannon, bombs, anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missiles and airdrop cargo pods to resupply cut off units. Both designs would have ground scan radar and lidar, Army radios, laser range finders and thermal imaging cameras.
The RCAF also needs to support the Royal Canadian Navy with its combat missions. The main combat of functions of aircraft at sea are to hunt submarines, anti-shipping, and protecting ships from small vessels. Helicopters are currently used for sub hunting and dealing with small vessels, amongst other duties. Canada could use a new version of the Sea King with Twenty First Century manufacturing techniques, avionics, sensors and weapons to replace the replacement which might be a myth. The current fixed wing sub hunters, the CP-140s, are just in need of replacement airframes with the latest equipment and manufacturing methods. The laws of physics haven’t changed so neither should reliable airframes.
Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance or ISR missions are needed by all three services and choosing a common, turboprop airframe to host the similar missions would save on costs. Either using the same airframe as the CP-140 remake or some other airframe, the modular components should be capable of being swapped out to provide more of the version a mission requires. Using the same airframe a tactical version of the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) would benefit expeditionary units and be cheaper than operating more of the big jet powered version shared with NORAD and NATO.
As most of the RCAF’s transport needs are adequately met there is really no need to replace what is working. There is a gap for use in Search and Rescue (SAR), Arctic sovereignty, and supporting the Army with a short takeoff or landing plane (STOL). Purchasing new Twin Otters, Buffalos and possibly upgrading the Griffin helicopters to the new United States Marine Corp version might be the best options. For Search and Rescue missions any of the above aircraft with sensors for use on land or at sea would be useful for searching, the problem is in the rescuing once found, and much of that problem could be solved redeploying current aircraft to where they’re most needed. It shouldn’t take 18 hours for a sub hunter or SAR helicopter to get to the Arctic when they should already be there.
Since the unveiling of the F-35 as Canada’s next fighter I’ve been studying military equipment, theory and strategy. I confess I’ve been heavily influenced by the Straus Military Reform Project’s work and the Pentagon Labyrinth and its supporting resources. Weapons as complex, expensive, difficult to maintain or replace as the F-35 are rarely risked and become expensive show pieces. When looking at air combat I’d recommend watching the Battle of Britain, ask yourself will the F-35 be capable of as many missions per day for weeks as the Hurricanes and Spitfires were? No matter how improbable Canada and the RCAF have to prepare for all types of scenarios. Luckily, the ‘Hun in the Sun’ is now on our side.