The Buzz

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Is More Than Just Stealth: It’s a 'Flying Antenna'

The Danish fighter competition is over, it would seem, as the parliament has officially approved a program for 27 F-35 Lightning IIs. As I noted last week, the purchase price remains indeterminate, so the Danish Defense Ministry may be seriously unprepared for the final bill, if it’s really taking seriously the source-selection team’s calculations. As I wrote earlier this week, it's hard to see how F-35As will cost to procure and fly than F-18Es. In Canada, the Trudeau Government seems sharply opposed to the F-35, strongly preferring the F-18E, and largely on cost. In the long run, though, it’s just possible that pursuit of the Joint Strike Fighter could be a low-cost option for air forces. Seriously—read on.

As recently as this May, the Canadian Department of National Defence may have been wondering whether the F-18E would even be available. That’s one reason why Ottawa is moving quickly. In Defense News earlier this week, David Pugliese reported that the Trudeau Government had decided to buy Super Hornets as an “interim” replacement for the plain-old-older Hornets. Competition would be pushed off to the mid-2020s, and participation in the JSF program preserved. That stratagem follows the approach of that other Commonwealth realm, Australia, in its interim purchase of F-18Es, Fs, and Gs. If the plan sticks, it may prove a politically deft move that sidesteps Canada’s very strict federal statutes on competition in contracting. The F-35, the prime minister asserted to the Commons this week, is “an aircraft that does not work and is far from working,” so an emergency purchase under emergency rules is essential to keep the RCAF flying. And to be fair, the Harper Government did similar things to keep the Canadian Army in good shape in Afghanistan.

A Canadian Super Hornet deal still could pose a challenging industrial problem for the manufacturer. As Byron Callan wrote for Capital Alpha this week, if the RCAF needs a squadron set of perhaps 20 F-18Es, “the trick for Boeing would be to make these aircraft available in the 2018-19 timeframe in order to retain an annual build rate in the low-to-mid-twenties.” That would be enough to maintain a credible commitment to NORAD as Canada’s least airworthy CF-18As retire. As the Liberals’ held during the recent federal elections, “the primary mission of our fighter aircraft should remain the defence of North America, not stealth first-strike capability.” In the near term, keeping Tupolevs from flying in over the Arctic requires some range and perhaps a long-range missile. Low-observability may be optional—for now.

That gets back to capabilities. As I described it back in 2010, the F-35 is something of a flying antenna, whose electronic capabilities may provide its single pilot with great awareness of his battle space. As I wrote, it may also prove “a great stand-off interceptor, with its electronically scanning radar, infrared tracker, and [eventually pair of] AMRAAMs”. The Stillion Thesis holds that sensors and missiles will matter more than dogfighting skill and maneuverability, so seeing and shooting first may be not just important, but essential, for success in aerial combat. Could a future Russian bomber wander over Canada with its own long-range air-to-air missiles? That big target might also bring a really big radar, perhaps affording the intruder that critical first shot.