The F-35 and Canada's Aviation Future

September 27, 2007
Written by Ray Canon
365-f35Shortly after the din of the recent federal election had subsided there were discussions between Canadian military fighter aircraft experts and the US with regard to the production of the F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter. This multi-purpose stealthy fighter aircraft has been designed for the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps as well as British RAF and Navy, and was first rolled out on Feb. 19, 2006. Currently, planned production figures will likely exceed 2,000 and, unless another more suitable plane comes on the horizon, the F-35A may well be chosen to replace the current Canadian Forces F-18s when they run out of airframe time, which is expected to be sometime in the next decade.

This seems not to be of much interest either to Canadian taxpayers or to businesses. It should be, for if the F-35 is chosen by Ottawa, it could well be the most expensive project ever undertaken by the Department of National Defence. Even if it is not, production of this aircraft could be a boon to some of our aerospace companies.

At the time of the Second World War, the Hurricanes and Spitfires used in the Battle of Britain cost in the vicinity of $25,000. The price for fighter aircraft has risen exponentially since then to the point where a new jet fighter aircraft could set the government back some $50 million or more. Nor are they cheap to operate once they come into service! It is hard to establish an exact price for the F-35, given that figures from $60 million up to $100 million per unit have been widely quoted. It is not yet clear what exactly can be obtained for this unit price, and it is no secret that cost overruns are normally associated with the development of any military aircraft. It is, therefore, highly likely that the end amount will be much closer to the latter figure.

What makes such aircraft so expensive for the taxpayer? From the F-35’s point of view, just about everything. This is a multi-purpose aircraft; the same basic airframe has to be suitable for a number of duties, not all of which are compatible. The British and US Marine Corps, wedded as they are to the use of STOL technology, want a version along the lines of the current Harrier jet both are using, and which will be known as the F-35B. Such planes can land on the proverbial postage stamp, be the stamp on land or on an aircraft carrier. They require more than one adjustable tailpipe and such tailpipes are all adjustable downward instead of horizontally.

This leads to the engine. As commercial airlines have already demonstrated, jet engines have become much more reliable. Witness the routine use of twin-engine planes to fly the oceans rather than the three- or four engined aircraft of earlier times. But they have also become that much more expensive to produce; hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars go into the creation of any new jet power plant.

Finally, and most expensively, there are the electronics. Guided only by still relatively new ground control procedures, a Spitfire or Hurricane pilot during the Battle of Britain used his eyes to find the enemy; today radar does the job and air-toair rockets can be fired with considerable accuracy at aircraft that are so far away they can be seen only on the pilot’s radar.

The here and now is that any advanced multi-purpose military aircraft will cost megabucks; this can be mitigated to a degree only by a larger production run. For this reason Canada is not the only NATO country that has invested in the F-35 project. Turkey, Britain, Denmark, Holland, Italy and Norway are other member nations contributing financially to the development of the aircraft. Canada was, however, after Britain, the next country to sign on to the project. Ottawa will get, should it decide to buy, a state-of-the-art fighter aircraft that will last for decades. Given the rapid development of UAVs or Unmanned Aircraft Vehicles, the F-35 could well be the last of the expensive manned fighters.

Also involved financially is one non-NATO country – Australia. Interestingly enough, the Aussies share with Canadians utilization of the same aircraft – the F-18 – to be replaced. The others, except for Britain, have aging F-16s to think about.

Because of its larger requirement and its longstanding interest in STOL technology, Britain was the first country to put up money in the F-35 project – no less than US$2 billion. Over a year went by before the next country signed up; this was Canada, with its much more modest US$150 million. After that, the project went through the sound barrier and the other countries joined in short order.

One reason for this plethora of supporters of F- 35 production could well be that the US may at present be the only country financially capable of producing the next generation of fighter aircraft. Sweden, a country renowned for its excellent military jets over the past half century, has decided that its current Saab Gripen, which has been bought to date by South Africa, Hungary and the Czech Republic, will be the last of the Saabs.

France has had absolutely no luck to date in marketing its fine aircraft, the Rafale, currently used by the French Armée de l’Air and Navy. The European Eurofighter, ordered by Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria and just recently Saudi Arabia, does not have a successor on the drawing boards. While the Eurofighter is also a multipurpose fighter, it was initially planned as a point defence aircraft. With the arrival of the F-35 in the British armory, it could be assigned that task, leaving the other duties to the F-35. Other NATO countries, including Canada, cannot afford the luxury of having two distinct aircraft.

On the other side of the military fence as a possible threat to the F-35, the Russian Sukhoi 27-37 series has resulted in excellent aircraft capable of further development – but Moscow is woefully short of money for development of this or any other aircraft. It could well be that Moscow’s main task will be to see how far it can stretch the Sukhoi design to keep pace.

The only other potential rival is China, but again Beijing has had to content itself to date with buying Russian technology and aircraft, including the Sukhoi 30. Its industry is capable of turning out excellent versions of Russian aircraft but the jury is still out as to its capability of designing and producing one in the same class as the F-35.

India, the other major power in the area, has tried its hand at designing military jets but without too much success. It has therefore contented itself with buying a mixture of Russian and western – British and French – aircraft. Given its current closer rapport with Washington, it could well get in line for the F-35. Its navy already employs the Harrier.

Back in Canada, our fighters are a mixture of the F-18 A/B, the earliest production run of the aircraft. The Americans are now in the process of putting into service the latest version, the F- 18E/F/G, and these are scheduled to serve alongside the F-35. Ottawa may decide that this aircraft rather than the F-35 is more within its military budget. Then again, there is an outside chance that the choice could be the latest American interceptor fighter, the F-22 Raptor, the first squadron of which has just been put into service with the US Air Force. It has, however, a much shorter production run and may not still be in production when our F-18s come to the end of their useful lives.

The $150-million Canadian investment will not go down the drain if Ottawa does not choose the F-35. Canada not only got in early with financial help in developing the aircraft, but hi-tech firms in the Canadian aviation sector have been able to bid successfully on a number of contracts. It is in our aviation industry that our greatest potential for development exists.

While a well-known company such as Pratt & Whitney Canada is involved, other lesser-known Canadian hi-tech aviation corporations have also enjoyed success in bidding for contracts Even small size need not be a limitation in the bidding. A small firm in Trail, BC, Firebird Technologies, with just 16 employees, was successful in obtaining a contract to provide base materials for the infrared sensors in the American aircraft. Given the competition for contracts with this project, this is testimony to the high quality of the research carried out by Firebird.

The federal government, after making the initial $150 million investment in development of the F-35, has not left Canadian aerospace companies to fend totally for themselves. One company, NGRAIN (Canada) Corp. in Vancouver, has received a $5- million grant from Technology Partnerships Canada to help it develop three dimensional software technologies that can be utilized in the F-35. NGRAIN has already done work for both the Canadian and the American military as well as for CAE, the well known and respected producer of flight simulators.

We thus have a potential boon for the Canadian aerospace industry as well as a possible replacement for the F-18. The competition in the former area will be intense since all nine countries want to see as many contracts as possible come their way. Canada, as the first nation to throw its hat into the ring after Britain, is in an excellent position to benefit even more from this action, especially if our country’s subcontractors are among those chosen when final decisions are made by Washington on the make-up of the mass-produced version of the F-35. The investment of $150 million could well be one of the most telling made by the federal government in our aerospace industry.

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