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Maintaining Our Air Power



Technicians are assembling the first F-35 fighter aircraft, now called the Lightning II, in Fort Worth, Texas.

The story out of Ottawa in December that Canada had agreed to put an additional half billion dollars into the new stealthy F-35 fighter aircraft program caused barely a ripple in the media and was ignored on Parliament Hill. But it was a momentous step nonetheless.

The commitment has put Canada on track to purchase 80 of the new aircraft, assuring that the air force’s ability to deploy modern fighter and attack aircraft will last well into the current century. Given the shrinkage of the current CF-18 fleet, and the question some air aficionados were asking as to whether the air force was being transformed into an airline, the move is good news to anyone who believes Canada must continue to maintain an air combat capability far into the future. It is also a historic move in that Canada has not made such an advanced commitment to purchase absolutely first-line aircraft equipment while it was still, effectively, in the earliest stages of production, since the late 1940s.

The F-35, now dubbed the Lightning II, has been in development since the mid-1990s. Originally called the Joint Strike Fighter, the project aimed to provide a “next generation” fighter/attack aircraft that would exceed the performance of current production types such as the F-16. It is intended to combine traditional fighter performance with a short-takeoff and vertical-landing capability such as the United Kingdom’s Harrier (also used by the United States Marines) and rugged enough for the hard bounce of carrier landings. Of course it will also be equipped with the very latest sci-fi type technology such as a helmet-mounted aiming system, an impressive array of sensors, and even possibly a direct energy weapon such as a laser. It uses stealthy, radar-avoidance design and technology.

The U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines have committed to purchasing the new aircraft as has the U.K. for both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. In fact the U.K. has been a “Level I” development partner almost from the very start. This means that the British are helping to pay development costs and in return, will share the new technologies that are evolved to build and fly the aircraft. The Lightning II will also be designed to meet important British as well as U.S. requirements.

Three versions of the aircraft are planned–a straight all-purpose fighter to replace the U.S. Air Force’s F-16, a short-takeoff and vertical-landing aircraft for the U.S. Marines and both British flying services, and a carrier fighter for the U.S. Navy.

There are two “Level II” partner countries, Italy and the Netherlands, who initially paid $1 billion US and $800 million US respectively. They will have less input into production, but will nevertheless be able to specify certain requirements and share certain technologies. “Level III” partners–Canada, Turkey, Australia, Norway and Denmark–will buy the aircraft off the shelf but will be first in line for one of the three advanced versions of it. Israel and Singapore are also likely to purchase the aircraft.

Although the very first operational F-35 is scheduled to take to the air some time this spring (the USAF will begin operating the fighters in 2011), Canada is not scheduled to receive its aircraft–if it goes ahead with the purchase–until 2017. By that time the current refurbished fleet of CF-18s will have neared obsolescence. So the government’s decision to add a half billion dollars to its initial deposit of $160 million US is a momentous step designed to ensure that, for now, Canada has an early spot in the production line. If the Canadian purchase does go ahead, the government will still need to spend between $43 and $63 million per plane depending on the model chosen.

In making the decision, the government has side-stepped criticism that by the time the F-35 is ready to fly in Canadian markings, manned combat aircraft may have become expensive toys that do little more than the next generation of unmanned combat aircraft will be able to do.

There can be no doubt that unmanned combat aircraft will play an important role in future air forces. Several countries are now at work on a number of serious designs while some of the currently operational unmanned aircraft, designed for observation and reconnaissance, have been successfully used as strike aircraft when armed with air-to-ground missiles. But effective unmanned combat aircraft are probably still far in the future.

There has long been a strong tendency in the militaries of the advanced industrialized nations not only to rely too greatly on new technologies in planning for the next campaign, but to anticipate results that usually prove to be wildly optimistic.

Take the airplane itself, as an example. The air power theorists of the 1920s such as the RAF’s Hugh Trenchard, the U.S.’s Billy Mitchell or the Italian Giulio Douhet were certainly correct in prophesying that bombers would play a huge and important part in future war. But they and their followers–the RAF’s Arthur Harris and the U.S.’s Hap Arnold most prominent among them–were well ahead of their times in thinking that bombers were, in themselves, war-winning weapons. The aircraft, bombsights and navigational aids of World War II were simply too primitive for that. In fact air power is still overrated as a means of fighting wars. The Israelis learned that lesson, and not for the first time, in the summer of 2006. So although unmanned aircraft may well dominate the skies eventually, that eventually is likely somewhat farther away than 10 years from now.

For all these reasons, the government is quite right to put up the money to reserve a spot for Canada to purchase the F-35. The move not only guarantees that this nation will continue to have an air force, but also that Canada will be able to deploy first-line warplanes in support of its land and maritime forces. As a G8 nation with global interests, we can hardly do less.


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