Canada's Fighter Plane Woe's, We Can't Have Nice Things
After a very long and embarrassing affair for Minister of Defense, Peter McKay, the Government of Canada has reopened its evaluation for a next-generation fighter plane to replace the aging flock of F-18's. The Harper government is only now cooperating with a procurement audit into the process that lead to the the Lockheed Martin F-35 being selected as that next-gen fighter BEFORE anyone did their homework.
The F-35, Lockheed-Martin's prodigal son.
It's common knowledge now that essentially what went down is the Ministry of Defense made their decision to spend billions of dollars (after low-balling the purchase, lifetime future maintenance etc costs of these jets) and then simply went through the motions of a selection process. With eyes ravenously fixed on the sexy new American-made fighter, they glazed over other candidates like the Eurofighter, which has turned out to be a far more appropriate option for Canada.
Sometimes, the "hot new military product" turns out to be a dog....one with a bite.
It soon emerged that in addition to ballooning costs, even if the F-35 was the perfect fighter for Canada, it has become apparent that even before the first plane is scheduled for delivery, it won't be easily adaptable to roam the airspace of the Arctic Circle AND it's facing tons of costs overruns and production issues in the U.S.
But why the Canadian Government's infatuation with the F-35? Canadians have a long and rich history in aviation, especially with fighter planes. They made up the second highest number of Spitfire pilots in the Battle of Britain, flew the seriously dodgy F-104 Starfighters (nicknamed the Widow-makers because they were more like sketchy missiles with wings), and today fly one of the most highly skilled aerobatic formations, the Snowbirds at airshows all over North America.
And at one point, we held the future of supersonic fighter technology in our Tim Horton's coffee-stained mittens. We designed our own fighter, the Avro Arrow, but our Prime Minister at the time was persuaded to rely on U.S. missiles for northern defense and had the prototype fighter scrapped. Lewis MacKenzie, a retired Canadian general and critic of the F-35 procurement received mixed applause and scorn when he suggested that the best fighter for 21st Century Royal Canadian Air Force would be a revived Avro Arrow.
The Canadian Defense Minister continues to drink the F-35 Kool-Aid because the U.S. has always intended it to be the standard fighter that all NATO nations will adopt. However, there's an Achilles Heel, err several heels in fact plaguing the jet. For instance, the F-35 cannot achieve air superiority and is not a fully stealth fighter, relying on support from an F-22 or 117 Nighthawk to clear the path for it to operate.
The best contemporary plane for Canada would be the F-22 on all counts but it's too expensive to operate. Another reason the U.S. has pushed for the F-35 is because it would be the first attack craft that could be adapted to be used by all branches, Navy, Air force, Army, and Marines. It would be the first of it's kind in that respect.
However, despite the instinct to raise one's eyebrow with incredulity at General MacKenzie's suggestion, the Avro Arrow would still be a cost-effective option and would perform closer to the F-22 specs. How could a design from the 1950's be useful today? Well, two words, B-52, not the plastic-disco pop group, I'm talking the bomber from Dr. Strangelove, the Big Ugly Fat Ffffffellow...
"It's a BIG Airplane!!"
The Arrow was designed with the same approach as the B-52 Superfortress. Both are products of the 1950s yet the B-52 remains the primary (and one of the most sophisticated) bombers on the planet even aside the supersonic B1-Lancer. Why is that? Because as a platform, like the Arrow, it's a simple, robust frame designed to accommodate an infinite range of upgrades and modifications. Every ten years the USAF would gut all the electronics and computer systems in the B-52 and upgrade them. That's why this big bomber is still the top dog more than a half a century later.
The Arrow was designed with the same philosophy, easily strip it down and rebuild as new technology becomes available. The design is close to the Eurofighter and could incorporate contemporary technology.
He was big and mean and grey and old...
The Arrow can be whatever you need to be in a few weeks of redesign, it's a massive plane the size of the F-22 that can be refit with VTOL or vector thrust nozzles like the F-35, a huge payload of weapons housed inside the fuse, like the F-22, and could be easily reconfigured with the same radar defeating material as the F-22.
In summary, the F-22 is what the Arrow would have evolved into anyway, only for less the cost. That is one reason the U.S. was not about to be put in a position where a foreign power --at the dawn of the Cold War, in the midst of a battle for technological superiority -- would be selling America a superior fighter plane. Had the fighter been produced in effective numbers, as the General is making the case now, it would have been the last fighter built in North America for half a century, the B-52 of supersonic jets.