There are no alternatives to the F-35
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/05/2011 (4227 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
ZURICH, Switzerland — Canadians are missing something when it comes to their debate over the purchase of the joint strike fighter, also knows as the F-35: two unprecedented shifts are rocking the global arms market for fighter jets.
First, there’s a quasi-revolution taking place in fighter jet technology. We are now entering a period that will be dominated by “fifth generation” aircraft, fighters which will have “all-aspect” stealth abilities with internal weapons systems, integrated avionics at the pilot’s fingertips, and “supercruise” capabilities that greatly enhance flying performance. There’s no question that when it becomes operative, the F-35 will be the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world.
While opponents of the F-35 argue that Canada’s aging CF-18 Hornets can be replaced with fourth (and “fourth+”) generation aircraft, they’re missing the broader point. Upgraded fourth generation aircraft — like the F-18 Super Hornet — will be able to fly future combat missions, but that won’t stop them from becoming increasingly obsolete. It won’t happen overnight, but eventually fourth-generation aircraft will go the way of third- and second-generation aircraft — to the dump.
The F-35 will have a qualitative edge over older aircraft models no matter what the upgrade. The only comparable fighter is the F-22 Raptor, flown exclusively by the U.S. Air Force. But Washington has already phased out the Raptor’s production, having placed all of its bets on the F-35. Our allies have gotten the message: Britain, Australia, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey and Norway will all be flying F-35s by 2020. Israel, Japan and others are likely to follow.
If Canadians want to equip their air force with the best available tools, they need to focus on next generation technology. There’s little point in looking backwards. The future rests with fifth, not fourth, generation technology. The risk in spending a lesser fortune today on a suped-up version of the CF-18 is that Canada will find itself replacing outdated hardware before long. That’s an expensive proposition.
Second, the fighter-jet industry has become increasingly polarized. The Americans, the Russians, and the Chinese are tomorrow’s heavyweights. While some Canadians find it suspicious that no alternative bids were entertained when selecting the F-35, in reality, there are virtually no competitors.
When a government decides to purchase military hardware from another country, it isn’t only thinking about improving the quality of its armed forces. It’s also thinking about the political and strategic signals it’s sending to others. The arms trade can be a political minefield. Ideally, Canada will buy its fighters from an ally. In doing so, we’ll avoid sending an unintended message with our purchase and we’ll pre-emptively grease the wheels in the event spare parts are needed during periods of crisis. It’s important, too, that Canada signs off with a manufacturer that will survive over the long haul. That will ease with maintenance, upgrades and future developments.
Where does that leave Canada? We could approach the French or the Swedes. Both have sophisticated options in the Rafale and Gripen but, like the Super Hornet, these planes rely on older technology. And given the huge investment needed to leap into the next generation, both countries are likely to eventually close shop. It’s possible that a European consortium, like the one behind the Eurofighter Typhoon, will emerge in the future, but it’s a long shot. Several European partners have already invested in the F-35 project, so they won’t be inclined to support another risky venture. Like it or not, the era of the European fighter jet is coming to a close.
That leaves Russia and China. Both countries are actively developing next generation fighters to rival the F-35. Russia began testing the PAK-FA a year ago, while China unveiled its J-20 in January. But are Canadians really prepared to fly Russian or Chinese jets into battle? The political and strategic ramification would be monumental. What would our allies think? What would Moscow and Beijing think? Neither option will do.
While the F-35 deal isn’t perfect, it’s the only deal in town.
Alex Wilner is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies, ETH-Zurich, Switzerland. Marco Wyss, also a senior researcher at the centre, collaborated in writing this piece for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy.