Canada’s F-35 procurement saga

Flight International’s Canada special was released today. Our cover story is about Canada’s military aircraft procurements and focuses on that nation’s quest to replace its ageing fleet of 78 Boeing CF-18 Hornet fighters with the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Read the full story here. You actually will have to register for access to read the whole thing, but it’s free and takes less than five minutes.

cf18-comox.jpgIn recent months, the Canadian government has been saying it will review the program and potentially run a formal competition if need be. Basically, the consensus amongst Canadian defense experts is that any contest will boil down to the F-35 and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

Anyways, here are some extras that had to be cut from the feature due to space constraints.

The within visual range combat capabilities of fighter aircraft relative to each other anyways draws significant interest on here. So this is what Dan McWilliams, who flew the CF-18 Hornet for 10 years with the Canadian Forces, has to say about the F-35′s close in within visual range combat capabilities. The caveat here is that he’s basing his opinion on what a military F-35 test pilot said–basically that the jet flies like a clean C-model Hornet.

I would assume the test pilot was comparing close combat performance based on the upgraded F/A-18 engines (EPEs), which produce about 20% more thrust than the CF-18′s engines (non-EPE). If so, performing like a clean legacy Hornet puts it in an elite class of fighter, with very good performance. How important this is depends again on the role and the requirements. Some contenders like the Rafale and the Typhoon may have better performance when clean, but they degrade when loaded up with external stores (more drag and weight). Super Hornets are bigger and heavier than legacy Hornets, but some engine upgrades may allow them to perform nearly as well (again, when not loaded with external stores).

There is always a debate about how important this close-in turning performance is. With advanced data links and good teamwork, it becomes less critical, because identification of threats and targeting can be done well before close-in performance becomes necessary. Weapons also make a difference. A good sensor/weapon combination can make turning less important, since it can be launched many degrees off boresight. Imagine, in the fantasy world of James Bond, the ability to launch a weapon at a threat in the rear quarter; turning would become far less important in that theoretical case! Helmet-mounted sights and AESA, paired with other types of sensor, can make a fighter able to launch at threats well off the nose.

Here are McWilliams’ thoughts on just how robust an airframe is needed for operations in the Canadian Arctic:

The airframe does not need to be particularly robust for NORAD ops. Missions are quite benign in terms of G loading, and runways are runways. What could matter is how well does the airframe handle icing conditions in cloud. Prolonged flight in icing conditions is not permitted with a CF-18, due to danger of ice ingestion into the engines, causing damage to engine compressor blades. A question for the JSF is how robust is the aircraft skin, especially when dealing with icing and runway contaminants in winter conditions? The recent question of arrestor hook is also germane – sometimes we depended on the cable to stop us when runways were short and icy, which is not likely to change.

Range is one area where the CF-18 is not very good for NORAD missions. Many of the candidates go further and/or have more time on station, thus are better suited to NORAD, as are JSFs. Air refueling support is essential for most NORAD wartime scenarios, and even for some peacetime intercepts. When the Bears are well off shore (as the cruise missile carrier variants are usually), the CF-18 is quite limited in the amount of time it can escort or shadow them before having to turn back to base.cf-18verical.jpg

 

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