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A Mixed Fighter Fleet for Canada? Super Hornets, F-​35s, and the challenge of comparisons

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CDA Institute guest contributor Peter Layton, a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute in Queensland Australia, offers his thoughts on Canada’s potential plan to acquire Super Hornets as a bridging capability.

Every country has an F-​35 story it seems. Both Australian and Canadian force structure planning has been blighted by the aircraft’s problems and long delays. In 2007 Australia opted for a bridging capability – against Air Force advice – and acquired the F-​18F Super Hornet. Canada now appears to be similarly considering a bridging capability, perhaps also against Air Force advice, and possibly acquiring Super Hornets.

Sounds much the same, at first glance. But Australian and Canadian requirements have some fundamental differences, and just as importantly time has moved on. 2016 is not 2007.

For Australia, the F-​18F acquisition has been a good experience; the aircraft arrived on time and under budget. Neither are surprising in that the aircraft was an off-​the-​shelf buy rather than an F-​35 developmental program. The in-​service F-​18A Hornet aircrew found converting to the Super Hornet easy and quick, with the US Navy (USN) training system providing a good head start.

The maintenance and support, however, was a much more complex matter. The current variant Super Hornet technology is considerably more advanced than the 1980s vintage Hornet. In many respects the Super Hornet’s technology is closer to the F-​35 than the F-​18A; it is really more of an F-​35 Lite than a ‘super’ Hornet.

In being more advanced, the Super Hornet’s operating costs are much greater than those of the older Hornet. Apples to oranges comparisons are hard given different fleet sizes and other factors, but are probably more than twice as much per aircraft (see p. 120 of a recent Australian Strategic Policy Institute report). In this, a major project lesson learned by the Australian acquisition organisation is that, while off-​the-​shelf jets can be quickly acquired, “the establishment of a sustainment solution is a challenge and requires early management oversight.” Half the Super Hornet fleet had been delivered within three years but reaching the final operational capability state, when everything is bedded down, took 5 ½ years from government approval.

It must also be remembered that the F-​18 that Australia and Canada bought was developed from the US Air Force’s (USAF) Lightweight Fighter technology evaluation program. The F-​18 began life as an air-​to-​air fighter first and a bomber second. The F-​35 is the reverse with air-​to-​ground the primary requirement and air-​to-​air secondary. By dent of excellent sensors, datalinks, stealth, and millions of lines of code, the F-​35 overcomes the airframe deficiencies that arise from this upbringing, albeit at the cost of great complexity and perhaps a certain operational brittleness.

In contrast, the F-​35 and the Super Hornet are both alike in being originally designed as strike fighters. Unsurprisingly, both offer broadly similar capabilities and neither are highly manoeuvrable dogfighters. In wars-​of-​choice such as fighting ISIS in Iraq the differences between the aircraft in terms of operational effect might be marginal.

Given this, maybe a Canadian Super Hornet bridging capability makes some sense. It would take the pressure off having to make an F-​35 decision – at a time when the aircraft design remains unstable, maintenance systems are immature, operating costs uncertain, and the US’s chief tester is still publishing scary flight test reports. On the other hand, the F-​35 program office is progressively addressing technical issues, unit costs are coming down, more aircraft have been ordered by various countries, and the USAF looks set to declare an initial operational capability this year.

Yet this might not be the kind of capability most want or are expecting. As more becomes known about the software, it seems that the F-​35 might not be fully operationally ready until Block 4 is implemented. This Block may also see some key hardware changes, such as bringing the Electro-​Optical Targeting System (EOTS) up to a suitable standard. Block 4 should be ready early next decade. Buying F-​35s before then might mean expensive upgrades before they even enter delivery flight-​test. Unfortunately for the F-​35, buying later is always cheaper and always brings a better standard aircraft.

In Canada, another consideration is whether there will be a capability gap between the new fighters’ introduction to service and the last old Hornet retiring, by 2025 or even earlier. It should be recognised that the transition period will see a dip in capability and some years when deploying a squadron overseas would severely tax the RCAF, especially on the personnel front. Individuals can’t be at home bringing a new fighter on board while fighting offshore. Moreover 2025 is not far away in major project terms. It took Australia almost six years to fully bed down a technically well-​understood, off-​the-​shelf fighter. The F-​35 is in nothing like the same state; even if contracting this year, meeting the 2025 deadline would be a near-​run thing if Canada wanted a seamless transition from one aircraft type to the other.

But hold everything. The F-​35 program, while too big to stop, may not be too big to fail, at least in the air-​to-​air arena. (Its air-​to-​ground capabilities appear robust by comparison.)

Enter stage left the shadow of the future. Air superiority is becoming contested again in both East Asia and Europe. As the RAND Corporation warns, “continuous improvements to Chinese air capabilities make it increasingly difficult for the United States to achieve air superiority within a politically and operationally effective time frame.” The Centre for Strategic and International Studies, considering China’s full range of defence capabilities – including its rapidly advancing fighter fleet – observes: ” at the current rate of U.S. capability development, the balance of military power in the region is shifting against the United States.”

In this vein, the USAF in Europe commander recently noted: “The advantage that we had from the air, I can honestly say, is shrinking.… This is not just a Pacific problem. It’s as significant in Europe as it is anywhere else on the planet … I don’t think it’s controversial to say they’ve closed the gap in capability.”

Most worryingly, USAF’s head office has determined that the “projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning against …potential adversary capabilities.” The growing fleets of F-​35s in service with America and its allies seems inadequate to ensure air superiority beyond 2030. Future control of the air is in doubt.

What to do is uncertain. Whatever Canada buys now appears unlikely to be operationally viable in the air-​to-​air role beyond 2030 or so. The USAF is suggesting an expedited program to get some suitable ‘system of systems’ into service before then – maybe even 2025 – so air superiority can be maintained long term. What these systems might be remains unknown.

One option is for Canada to ignore this reality, press on and buy F-​35s to replace the Hornets by 2025. This is not necessarily a bad approach. The F-35’s air-​to-​air capabilities might be doubtful long-​term against advanced fighters but should be adequate for contributing to NORAD where the threats will hopefully be meagre. The F-35’s air-​to-​ground capabilities should be suitable for participating in NATO and future coalitions of the willing. In this case, the American alliance will be primarily relied upon to ensure control of the air.

Some will say – probably correctly – that this sounds like spending vast sums of money to buy a second rate air combat force and that ‘hope is not a strategy.’ Yet Canada’s (and Australia’s and most European NATO nations) Cold War fighter contribution was arguably in this vein. But you have to ask if you’re buying a doubtful capability anyway, is there any reason not to go for the lower cost Super Hornet option then.

Another alternative is to buy say 30 Super Hornets now, retain 30 CF-​18 Hornets, and wait until mid-​next decade to decide what to do. By then America’s intentions concerning new air superiority systems will be clearer and perhaps – a big ‘perhaps’ – Canada could buy into a long-​term robust solution. This offers at least a chance Canada may remain an ally important for more than just geographical proximity. If however this air superiority path does not eventuate, is unaffordable, or not releasable to close allies, by the mid-​2020s better and cheaper F-​35 versions will be available to round out Canada’s fighter force in terms of numbers. Importantly, also by then, the F-​35s operating costs will finally be known, allowing a more accurate assessment of whether a mixed fleet really is more expensive than a single type one. It may not be.

The later approach stresses hedging and is suitable for uncertain times but takes a dark view of the future where strategic circumstances are deteriorating. The other option is more of a big bet built on the hope the geopolitical situation in next few decades is better than seems to be likely now. The choice between these two options is not easy but indicates the F-​35/​Super Hornet issue is more complex than it seems at first. Which is more sensible? More pragmatic? Some deep thinking is required.

Dr. Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. (Image courtesy of Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon, U.S. Air Force.)

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  • Guest
    Dave Verbisky Tuesday, 21 June 2016

    Canada First

    .…should be primary, in choosing our new fighter. What fits Canada’s geographical needs, is most important. Overseas concerns are secondary; home concerns are primary. Gripen NG’s & Super Hornet EC jammers, and, an arctic fighter base, are what fits CANADA best.

  • Guest
    Dai Nakawa Saturday, 25 June 2016

    Rebuttal to Dr. Layton

    Dr. Layton tries to make the argument that the F-​35 is a better air-​to-​ground platform, but its weakness in air-​to-​air makes it an equal choice to the Super Hornet. I’m going to deconstruct that argument a little bit, and demonstrate that the F-​35A is superior in both the air-​to-​air and air-​to-​ground arena, and thus the choices are not equal at all.

    “The maintenance and support, however, was a much more complex matter. The current variant Super Hornet technology is considerably more advanced than the 1980s vintage Hornet. In many respects the Super Hornet’s technology is closer to the F-​35 than the F-​18A; it is really more of an F-​35 Lite than a ‘super’ Hornet.“

    It needs to be said that fighter aircraft have a nervous system, the technical term is databus. All avionics capabilities are tied to databus design and performance, because the databus is what allows all the electronics to exchange data and commands. The Super Hornet databus is of the same generation as that of the original Hornet (google MIL-​STD-​1553), and is substantially slower than that of the F-​35 (google IEEE 1394). In personal computing parlance, this results in a ‘bottleneck’ or ‘bandwidth cap’. This means that the Super Hornet, unless completely gutted, redesigned and rewired from scratch, will always be slower than the F-​35. The Super Hornet is therefore at its very electronic foundation not a “F-​35 Lite”, it is in every sense a ‘Super’ Hornet.

    “It must also be remembered that the F-​18 that Australia and Canada bought was developed from the US Air Force’s (USAF) Lightweight Fighter technology evaluation program. The F-​18 began life as an air-​to-​air fighter first and a bomber second. The F-​35 is the reverse with air-​to-​ground the primary requirement and air-​to-​air secondary.“

    It must also be remembered that the Hornet was originally to have 2 versions, a F-​18 (fighter) model and an A-​18 (attack) model. The merging of the 2 separate models into one single F/​A-​18 model would support the argument that the Hornet is equally fighter and bomber in its actual end result.

    Going even further back, the original, original Hornet (google P-​530 concept) was not even suppose to have a radar or much avionics, making it a rather useless fighter in the modern context. It’s not accurate to use “originally designed” to only highlight portions of the design history that fits one’s narrative, while leaving out just as relevant “originally designed” aspects of the aircraft that are inconvienent.

    Please note that the Lightweight Fighter technology evaluation program pitted the YF-​16 against the YF-​17 (F/​A-​18 precursor), and the YF-​16 won. This significant to Dr. Layton’s claim about the F-35’s performance, as we will see later.

    “The F-​35 is the reverse with air-​to-​ground the primary requirement and air-​to-​air secondary. By dent of excellent sensors, datalinks, stealth, and millions of lines of code, the F-​35 overcomes the airframe deficiencies that arise from this upbringing, albeit at the cost of great complexity and perhaps a certain operational brittleness.“

    Dr. Layton is insinuating that the F-​35 (and the Super Hornet) is an inferior fighter than the Hornet because it is designed as a strike fighter. He claims that the F-​35 avionics makes up for its airframe deficiencies, the latter being aircraft flight performance (kinematics). What Dr. Layton left out was the part where carrier aircraft suffer significant weight and performance penalties as a result of having to survive being shot off carriers and ‘crash’ back onboard. The F-​35A, the land-​based model Canada is looking at, is kinematically equal or superior in all major aspects to the Hornet and Super Hornet. We’re not talking about useless airshow/​clean configured jets, we’re talking about loaded to fight. Additionally, the Super Hornet, as part of its design, corrected many of the performance issues with the Hornet (ex. aircraft going out of control, poor control in certain flight conditions), and should not be denegrated as an inferior fighter than the original Hornet.

    The F-​35A is comparable in acceleration to a similarly loaded F-​16, which makes it superior in acceleration to similar loaded Hornet and Super Hornet (neither Hornets being famed for their acceleration, but the Viper is quite famous). The F-​35A is a 9G aircraft, versus ~7.6G for both Hornet and Super Hornet (a limitation of their carrier oriented design). The F-​35A has excellent high Angle of Attack performance and low speed nose pointing (based on Norwegian ex-​F-​16 pilot experiences), at least that of the Super Hornet, which makes it better than the Hornet. The F-​35A even has a higher top speed than both Hornets when loaded with fuel for long range, because the F-​35 carries a great deal of fuel internally, while both Hornets rely on external tanks (wing tanks decrease both Hornet’s top speed to less than that of the F-​35A, see USN NATOPS). To top it all off, the F-​35A is actually 3,000lb LIGHTER than the Super Hornet, while having very similar maximum thrust, giving the F-​35A both better thrust-​to-​weight ratio and better fuel fraction than the Super Hornet.

    And then there’s the fact that the F-​35 has not 1, but 2 sets of IRSTs (infrared sensor for detecting aircraft), 1 set for short range with spherical coverage to support the close-​in fighter, 1 set for forward long range detection. Not even the F-​22 is so well equipped, and the F-​22 is first-​and-​foremost famed for sneaking up and killing opponents before they realize the F-​22 is there, rather than dogfighting.

    If Dr. Layton wants to make the case that the F-​35 and the Super Hornet are equally inadequate choices for air defence based on the presumed flight-​related ‘weakness’ of the F-​35 in the air-​to-​air arena, then that case is not viable at all given the significantly greater weaknesses of the Super Hornet within the same arena.

    “Most worryingly, USAF’s head office has determined that the “projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning against …potential adversary capabilities.” The growing fleets of F-​35s in service with America and its allies seems inadequate to ensure air superiority beyond 2030. Future control of the air is in doubt.“

    The above quote from the USAF’s head office, from Dr. Layton’s link, is provided as follows: “The Air Force’s projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning against this array of potential adversary capabilities. Developing and delivering air superiority for the highly contest environment in 2030 requires a multi-​domain focus on capabilities and capacity. (page 3)“

    Dr. Layton, by omitting parts of the first and all of the second sentence, had created the impression that the USAF is talking about the F-​35. In fact, not only does the section in question not diminish the F-​35 in any way, the following page explicitly states that: “To achieve air superiority against this strategy in support of joint force mission objectives, the Air Force needs to develop a family of capabilities that operate in and across the air, space and cyberspace domains-​there is no single capability that provides a “silver bullet” solution.” The USAF was talking about the complexity of waging a complete operational air war, not just air-​to-​air dogfighting, attributing the challenges of future air war down to the merely the air-​to-​air performance of the F-​35 is the antithesis of what the USAF has actually published.

    Thus, notion that there is no operationally viable air-​to-​air choice for Canada is simply false. There is a distinctive difference between the air-​to-​air performance of the F-​35A and the Super Hornet, they are not equal choices. There is no condemnation that the F-​35 is the shortcoming in USAF’s ability to establish and maintain air superiority, the F-​35 is not the wrong answer for air superiority, it is part of a complex set of answers.

    Now, Dr. Layton might be tempted to cite General Hostage’s claim that 8 F-​35As are needed to do some jobs done by 2 F-​22s. However, there are no F-​22s available to Canada, and in the same interview General Hostage also stated that the F-​35A is stealthier than the F-​22 and at least as maneuvrable as the F-​16. This takes us back to Dr. Layton’s earlier claim that the F-​35 is not a good dogfighter, simply because it’s designed as a ‘strike’ fighter. If we weigh General Hostage’s statements with consistency, then the F-​35A is as good dogfighter as an aircraft designed to primarily dogfight. The latter position is now backed up by testimony from Norwegian F-​35A pilots who are all experienced F-​16 pilots. And the Lightweight Fighter competition that helped produce the Hornet ‘fighter’ was won by? The F-​16.

    “Given this, maybe a Canadian Super Hornet bridging capability makes some sense. It would take the pressure off having to make an F-​35 decision – at a time when the aircraft design remains unstable, maintenance systems are immature, operating costs uncertain, and the US’s chief tester is still publishing scary flight test reports.“

    The name of US’s chief tester is Dr. Gilmore. Here is Dr. Gilmore testifying before the US Congress about 4th gen fighters being already terminally outdated for some years now.

    https://​youtu​.be/​a​h​h​C​g​A​O​O​L​j​s​?​t​=​32​m​49​s

    In fact, when he gives the outdated-​ness as being about half a decade, he is actually referring to the Super Hornet, which he has been calling not fully effective since around 2012 in his annual report on the program. You can find the reports at: www​.dote​.osd​.mil/

    If Dr. Layton wants to use Dr. Gilmore as a source for the F-35’s problem, he must also use Dr. Gilmore as a source for the Super Hornet’s problem. Dr. Gilmore considers the F-​35 immature, but he considers the Super Hornet to have one foot in the grave. Since Dr. Layton pointed out that it takes some years to reach operational readiness with new jets, it’s a matter of choosing the F-​35 and have those years work towards F-​35 growing up, or choosing the Super Hornet and have those years work towards the Super Hornet growing more outdated.

    If Canada has to pick between growing pain and Alzheimer’s, there is no question of what we should pick. And even if one takes the most pessimistic of the cost to operate each aircraft based on the recent Norwegian report, the Super Hornet is not substantially cheaper over its complete lifetime. In fact, as a cost-​capability analysis, we would be paying similar total cost of ownership for less capabilities almost from the get-​go.

    It’s important to note that Dr. Layton is absolutely right in the fact that 2016 is not 2007. The Australians didn’t know in 2007 that the US’s chief tester would declare the Super Hornet to be running out of capabilities in 2012, whereas we Canadians in 2016 have the good fortune of hindsight. What we don’t have in Canada is the robust defence budget of Australia and the luxuary to endure the cost inefficiencies associated with operating 2 different strike fighters.

  • Guest
    Michael Sunday, 10 July 2016

    Re: rebutal

    I can’t say that you are entirely wrong, but you are certainly taking things out of context.

    First databus. Nobody use MIL-​STD-​1553B for high volume, high speed data transfer. But when you need to connect a temperature sensor, it does just fine. And it is extremely reliable and resistant to interferences. It landed on Mars. And any modern aircraft will use a different databus (up to fiber optics) for those high speed transfer, and dedicated if necessary.

    (http://​www​.air​force​-tech​nol​ogy​.com/​p​r​o​j​e​c​t​s​/​f​a​18​/ – super hornet block II )
    “The aircraft is fitted with new mission computers, fibre-​optic network, Raytheon AN/​ASQ-​228 ATFLIR targeting pod, Boeing joint helmet-​mounted cueing system and Raytheon AIM-​9X next generation Sidewinder air-​to-​air missile.“

    (http://​www​.lock​heed​martin​.ca/​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​d​a​m​/​l​o​c​k​h​e​e​d​/​d​a​t​a​/​a​e​r​o​/​d​o​c​u​m​e​n​t​s​/​g​l​o​b​a​l​-​s​u​s​t​a​i​n​m​e​n​t​/​p​r​o​d​u​c​t​-​s​u​p​p​o​r​t​/​S​e​r​v​i​c​e​-​N​e​w​s​/​V​25​N​2​.​p​d​f – C-​130J 1998)
    “Although some instruments and controls are hard wired (conventional wiring), 98% of the wiring has been replaced with MIL-​STD-​1553 data bus cables (twisted pair shielded
    wire). This MIL-​STD-​1553 data bus architecture integrates the state-​of-​the-​art technology via two mission computers. Up to date laser, digital, and software designs have replaced the electro-​mechanical equipment of previous Hercules with the glass flight station of the C-​130J.“

    Then, the RCAF is not USAF. It never had all the capability of the latter, and don’t quite pretend to have so. This is mostly about a first strike capability, which we might not have the money for. How badly do you need that when those green paint coated helicopter are too slow to escort a Chinook? No attack helicopter, no bomber, no capable high altitude surveillance drone.

    While hypothetical, it is reasonable to expect drone to be capable to penetrate those high threat area by 2030. Stealth drone exist as of now, and prototype like BAE Taranis is a few years old now. A super hornet could control them from a distance, the f-​35 from a shorter distance. 2016 is not 2007, but it’s not 2028 either.

    I could be wrong but it’d a mistake to rule 4th generation out right now. It may still be cheaper to wait for the technology to develop/​mature rather than investing for the next 50 years. Those past 2030s threat will require upgrades on the f-​35 as well. I would like to see the canadian industry implicate itself to keep platform like the super hornet technologically up to date, just like we did with the cp-​140 got upgraded. A win-​win, but it won’t be free. Like using organic semiconductor to give that 360 situational awareness on the super hornet?

    By the way, f-35’s infra-​red sensor are less capable than the current sniper pod installed of cf-​18 (as much as 360 degree situational awareness is desirable). It can’t mark a target, it can’t broadcast the video to ground troop either. And all those datalink? Last time I checked we just don’t have the infrastructure to make proper use of it. That too will need investment –regardless of the chosen fighter jet.

  • Guest
    Peter Layton Friday, 01 July 2016

    Back to Dai

    I enjoyed Dai’s interesting comments and considered arguments. Thanks for contributing to the debate; it is an important one.
    To me, there seem two issues in all this: first whether the F-​35 or the Super Hornet is ‘better’ by comparison with each other. Second, is the F-​35 suitable for the envisaged future world.
    If focussing on the later, Dai’s expansion of the USAF’s study quote is quite useful: ““The Air Force’s projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning against this array of potential adversary capabilities. Developing and delivering air superiority for the highly contest environment in 2030 requires a multi-​domain focus on capabilities and capacity.” The F-​35 is part of the USAF’s 2030 projected force structure. In terms of air superiority the USAF study therefore suggests the F-​35 is “not capable of fighting and winning”. It does not matter, whether the F-​35 is better than the Super Hornet in whichever dimension is invoked. USAF doesn’t think it can win the air superiority war with the force structure now planned that includes the F-​35.
    The problem appears that the F-​35 is a normal aircraft, good at some things, less good at others. Some though may have over-​hyped the aircraft. This is a complex issue, some deep thinking (as my post noted) that cuts through the marketing may be needed.
    In this, the last word should maybe go to an Israeli who wrote a post for Lowy Institute today: http://​www​.lowyin​ter​preter​.org/​p​o​s​t​/​2016​/​06​/​30​/​T​h​e​-​F​-​35​-​J​o​i​n​t​-​S​t​r​i​k​e​-​F​i​g​h​t​e​r​-​T​h​e​-​a​n​a​l​y​s​t​s​-​g​r​i​e​f​.​a​s​p​x

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