Is the F-35 right for Canada?

An F-35 mock-up in Canadian colors.

We will disregard the rather controversial Canadian purchase of the F-35.  As with any big budget project, there are plenty of opportunities for partisan finger-pointing and bickering of petty details.  What really matters is:  Does the F-35 meet Canada's needs?  Is it truly right aircraft for Canada?  Is it the best equipment for our men and women in uniform?  Does it represent value to the overburdened Canadian taxpayer?

The answer, to all these questions, to put it simply is "No."

Built and designed by Canada, for Canada, the Avro Arrow.

As stated in a previous post, Canada needs a fighter to display the "Four Fs".

  • Fast.  For interception duties.
  • Fierce.  Able to detect and engage any potential target.
  • Flexible.  For deployment, within Canada and abroad.
  • Frugal.  Canadian taxpayers demand value for their money.

Is the F-35 Fast?  

Not by jet fighter standards.  With maximum speed of mach 1.6, the F-35 is slower than the Canada's current CF-18 (mach 1.8), which itself was not as fast as its contemporaries, the F-16 (mach 2), F-15 (mach 2.5), and F-14 (mach 2.3).  The F-35 is also slower than potential adversaries based on the Russian Fulcrum (Mach 2.25) and Flanker (mach 2.35) designs, or the Chinese J-10 (mach 2.2).

The Chengdu J-10, capable of mach 2.2.
Top speed isn't everything of course.  What good is a blistering fast top speed if it can only be maintained for a short period before running out of fuel?  For long distance intercepts, a fast cruising speed is much more useful than supersonic dash.  Here again, the F-35 falls short.  A recent (and often touted as a "fifth generation") development in fighter aircraft is the ability to achieve supersonic speeds without the need of afterburner.  As engine technology improves, the number of fighters able to do this increases.  Sadly, the F-35 was never intended to achieve supercruise, despite the fact that many 4.5th generation do.

The Su-35, capable of supercruise, super-maneuver, and equipped with cutting edge avionics.
Without the benefit of supercruise, the F-35 may have issues intercepting invading threats before it is too late.  Hitting the afterburner will severely shorten its range, while making it easier to detect to enemy infrared.  Without a high top-speed dash, the F-35 may have troubles engaging or disengaging faster enemy fighters.  If the F-35 pilot gets in trouble, turning tail and running simply won't be much of an option.

Is It Fierce?

Sort of.

With a AESA radar, 360 degree infrared sensor, data-link capability, and massive computing power, the F-35 has one of the best sensor suites available on a jet fighter.  It is highly unlikely that enemy aircraft will get the jump on the F-35 pilot.  The F-35 is not alone in this department however, as many other fighters, like the Super Hornet, Typhoon, and Flanker, can be equipped with similar setups.

The F-35's most hyped feature, of course, is its stealth.  Stealth promises to allow the F-35 to engage enemy forces before even showing up on their screens.  The F-35 pilot then merely fires missiles or drops bombs from a safe distance, then casually flies away without incident.  On paper, anyway.

Wreckage of a F-117 stealth fighter shot down by a 60s era missile over Bosnia.
The truth is, stealth is fallible.  It requires meticulous care of the aircraft's outer skin, it only works against certain radar wavelengths, and the simple act of maneuvering can change render the aircraft visible.  It also does not render the aircraft undetectable by other means, such as infrared or the "mark I eyeball".    

Stealth also requires the internal storage of any weapons, which further limits the F-35's ferocity.  It can only carry four missiles.  Or, two missiles and two bombs while on a ground attack mission.  The F-35 can carry more munitions on optional wing pylons, but doing so compromises it's stealth to the point that it is no longer a "stealth fighter".

Two missiles, two bombs, internal weapon storage of an F-35.
Thankfully, Canada's version of the F-35, the F-35A, will also carry an additional weapon in the form of a 25mm rapid fire cannon.  Of course, if the F-35 is close enough that the cannon is a factor, something has probably gone incredibly wrong.

Graphic showing the Sukhoi Su-35's fourteen (count 'em) missile hardpoints.
Compare the F-35's four internally mounted weapons to the potential enemy, a Russian made Su-35.  Capable of mounting of total of fourteen air-to-air missiles, the Su-35 has firepower to spare.  The Su-35 pilot has the luxury of firing volleys of missiles, mixing radar guided and infrared guided tracking systems.

Stealth or firepower, but not both.  Graphic showing the F-35s external weapon stores.
To be fair, the F-35 does have the potential of storing up to ten munitions using internal and external pylons, but again, doing so removes the F-35's stealth advantage.  Even fully loaded, the F-35 cannot match the firepower of jets like the Su-35.

If Canada wants to take advantage of the F-35's stealth, it's going to have to buy new missiles.

The KPMG report on the F-35 mentions that, in order to keep total costs down, the ammunition budget for the F-35 will be dropped to $52 million from $270 million used for the current CF-18 Hornet and that infrastructure upgrades will be dropped to $244 million from the planned $400 million.  What these numbers actually mean is anybody's guess, but buying a new fighter jet then skimping on the ammunition would seem rather pointless.  Why buy new fighters without the missiles to arm them?  Canada's current air-to-ground missile, the AGM-65 Maverick, nor the AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles can be carried in the F-35 weapon's bay.  This limits Canada's current choices for the F-35's weapons bay to either the AIM-120 AMRAAM medium range air-to-air missile or guided bombs.  If Canada wants to engage ground targets from a distance it will have to use a lot of that $52 million to buy the Brimstone air-to-ground missile, currently the only air-to-ground missile that fits in the F-35's weapon bay.  If Canada wants to arm its F-35s with short range heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, it will have to purchase the AIM-132 ASRAAM or carry legacy AIM-9 Sidewinders on pylons that compromise the F-35's stealth.

Is It Flexible?

Before delivery, Canada's F-35As will require some changes to current design.  Not engineered for landing on short, icy, or less than optimum runways; the Canadian F-35 will need to be outfitted with a drag chute to reduce stopping distance.  This is nothing new, similar systems were needed for older jet fighters like the CF-101 Voodoo and CF-104.  The CF-18, since it was designed to land on a carrier deck, needed no such system.  Part of the F-35s proposal to Canada was to equip the F-35A with a "probe-and-drogue" system used on the current CF-18 Hornet, as well as a deployable drag chute for short runways.

I wonder if the drag chute is still a go?

But not so fast...  Buried deep in the now infamous KPMG report on the F-35 is a mention how the RCAF won't be able to refuel the F-35 in the air.  Instead, a Canadian F-35 will have to refuel from an "ally" or "private company".  What "private company" offers air-to-air refuelling isn't something one can find in the yellow pages, but apparently such a thing exists.  Either way, Canada's military will need an outside source to keep it's F-35s up in the air.

A RCAF CC-150 Polaris refuels a CF-18 mid-air.

The F-35A and the "flying boom".
Not for Canada.  The F-35B and it's "probe-and-drogue".
Why is this?  Because Canada's choice of F-35, the "A" variant, designed primarily for the United States Air Force, uses what is known as a "flying boom" method for air-to-air refuelling.  This method is preferred by the USAF for a variety of reasons, including it being much faster at fuelling larger aircraft like bombers and heavy transports.

Oddly enough, the other two variants of the F-35, the V/STOL "B" and the aircraft carrier compatible "C" version, both use the more common "probe-and-drogue" method.  Both versions are considerably more costly than the "A" variant and, since Canada doesn't have any aircraft carriers, don't make much sense for the RCAF.

So why not take the "probe-and-drogue" system from the F-35B or F-35C and fit it on the F-35A model?  Lockheed Martin's own literature mentions this and a staffer has stated that it is an easy fix.  Such a design change would likely take time and money to test and develop.  It would also require Canadian F-35s to be "custom" orders rather than "off the lot".

Previous stealth fighter designs have been notoriously maintenance dependent.  The F-117's stealth coating wasn't supposed to get wet, the B-2 required storage in special, climate-controlled hangers between flights.  The F-22 is said to require much less intensive measures, but still requires time consuming inspection of its outer skin between flights.  Any imperfection requires a special glue to repair that takes up to a day to dry.  Marketing for the F-35 promises that it will require even less maintenance than the F-22, but it would be naive to believe that an F-35 would have better combat readiness than a simpler, Gen 4.5 design.  During a high speed test, an F-35 had significant issues with it radar absorbent skin peeling off.  How the F-35 will fare in Canada's cold north has yet to be seen, as the F-35 has yet to undergo cold weather testing.

Any Canadian fighter better get used to the snow.
Remember those internal weapons bays needed for stealth?  They impose a rather stiff penalty when in comes to mounting potential future ordinance.  Designed around the current AMRAAM medium range missile and 2000lb JDAM guided bomb, those weapon bays only have so much space inside.  Weapons like the anti-ship Harpoon missile (currently carried by the CF-18), Storm Shadow cruise missile, and formidable Meteor air-to-air missile simply don't fit inside.  These would have to be externally mounted.

It is important to note that the F-35's Pratt & WhitneyF135 engine is still considered under development.  Developed from the F-22's F119 engine, the F135 is still an unknown as far as real world reliability is concerned.  There have been a few widely publicized reports of the F-35 being grounded due to engine related issues however.  First, it was a specific issue to the STOVL F-35B, but then a crack was found in a F-35A's engine, grounding the entire fleet for investigation.

Being that the F-35 program is the largest military acquisition program in history, training, spare parts and support would undoubtedly be plentiful.  This would, of course, be at the convenience of the F-35's largest backer, the U.S.A.  As currently planned, all Canadian F-35s will be built in America.  Canadian F-35 pilots will receive their training in America, by Americans.  So much for sovereignty.

Is it frugal?

There's the F-35, way over on the left.

The numbers for the F-35 acquisition are more controversial than anything else.  Simply put, we don't know how much the F-35 program is going to cost.  Numbers ranging from $9 billion to $25 billion for 65 fighters have been stated, with nobody really getting a straight answer as to the real "sticker price".

When it comes down to it, the F-35 is still a work in progress.  Since it is still being developed, there is no way to know exactly what the final price tag will be.  The JSF project driving force was to keep costs down, but, as with any military procurement process, specifications are changed, deadlines are missed, and budgets are blown.  As it stands now, the F-35 program as a whole is estimated to be 10 years behind schedule and a half-a-trillion dollars over budget.  Canada has already spent hundreds of millions towards the project, not in exchange for jets, but simply for the opportunity of allowing Canadian firms to bid on manufacturing contracts involved with the program.

During the 2011 Federal election, it was stated that the estimated cost for each Canadian F-35 would be about $75 million.  By American estimates, their cost for an F-35A between $92 million and $135 million.  It is unlikely that Canada would receive the F-35 at such a discount.  The intended strategy would be to purchase the F-35s during "peak production" when economies of scale would be the most beneficial.  The problem is however, as F-35 development lags, so does the "peak production" timeframe, which is currently thought to be in the year 2019-2020, when Canada's CF-18s will be dangerously close to their expiration date.  

A Dutch operating cost analysis, there's the F-35 (JSF) again, way up at the top.

Procurement cost isn't everything however, the real cost of an airplane is its cost per flight hour (CPFH).  Again, the F-35 fails.  Although it was supposedly designed to be "affordable", seemingly every independent review of its operating costs put the costs of the single-engined F-35 as above and beyond that of comparable twin engine fighters like the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale.  Against single engine fighters like the F-16 and Gripen, the cost differences are even more pronounced.

Perhaps anticipating these increased costs, the RCAF has decided that actual flight training time will be reduced in favour of more time spent in cheap simulator training.  This, despite the fact that reduced pilot training was identified as a major factor in the fatal crash of a Cormorant search-and-rescue helicopter in 2006.


Given the F-35's lackluster specs, high price, and limited versatility...  Maybe its time to consider something different?


  1. Just a comment on the slide from the Dutch 2001 evaluation there. As the title explains, it is not a cost analysis, but the results of the multi-criteria evaluation which the JSF won.

  2. Great site - very informative; Australia is having a similar conversation at the very moment. I am surprised that there isn't more 'comparing notes' going on between the two countries.

    My personal view is that Canada & Australia should partner with Sweden to form the nucleus of a non-aligned bloc of middle ranking powers which do not wish to be dominated by either America, China or Russia.

    Cheers, Joe

    Joe De Lede
    Two-Bob Lair
    Amazes me that Australia has so many highly intelligent & articulate people OUTSIDE of the Federal Parliament in Canberra - & yet so may bona fide DILLS inside the 'Talk Shop'.

    This thing is clearly the most expensive & least 'fit for purpose' piece of military kit since Sgt. Bilko's 'Hovertank.' ... yet our pollies keep sleepwalking into Armageddon.

    Could we not riff-off Malcom Fraser's 'Damascene conversion' & turn this snowballing debacle into a 'reinvention' of Australia's role in the World?

    Why not partner with Sweden, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa - perhaps Japan & South Korea even - to develop the Saab JAS 39 Gripen into a 'Joint Strike Fighter' for non-aligned middle powers who do not wish to be dominated by either the United States, China or Russia?

    Lets finish the visionary work of Gough Whitlam and throw off the 'American Yoke' - being anti the american military-industrial complex - epitomized by Lockheed-Martin - DOES NOT mean being anti the ordinary american people, who also have to work for a living just as most of the rest of us do.

  3. Just wondering if the cost estimates are in US or Canadian dollars