CDA Institute guest contributor Malcolm Davis, a post-doctoral research fellow at Bond University in Australia, looks at what Australia’s plans to acquire the F-35 can tell us about Canada’s decision to withdraw from the program.
Canada’s plan to replace their 77 increasingly aging CF-18 Hornet fighters from 2025 with the purchase of 65 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs) has been thrown into turmoil with the election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party that opposes such a move. Instead the new government has announced it will purchase a cheaper aircraft through an open and transparent procurement process, with the money saved by scrapping JSF to be re-allocated to boost the Royal Canadian Navy’s ability to face future challenges by acquiring new naval surface combatants and ice-capable vessels.
The operational focus of the new aircraft will be ensuring the defence of North American airspace, with the only credible and current air threat facing the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) being long-range Russian air combat aircraft. The Russian threat is likely to become more acute as competition over Arctic resources intensifies in coming years. The new government has also announced it will be withdrawing from combat operations in the Middle East against the Islamic State, suggesting it will be less willing to consider out-of-area expeditionary combat deployments in the future. So is the decision to cancel the JSF for Canada the correct one, or is the Trudeau government making a major defence policy error as it enters office?
Comparing Canada’s defence environment to Australia’s is useful in this regard, as Canberra will also acquire the JSF. A total of 72 F-35A JSFs will be procured by 2023. Plans call for RAAF initial operational capability to be achieved by 2020 under project AIR 6000 Phase 2A/2B. The possibility exists of a further 25 JSFs being acquired under AIR 6000 Phase 2C (currently unapproved) to take the total Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) JSF fleet up to 100 aircraft by the late 2020s. This latter step would be considered in conjunction with any decision on the withdrawal of the 24 Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets, and any decision would be made sometime after 2016. Debate (here, here, and here) has occurred as to whether this final batch would be F-35B STOVL aircraft for basing on the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) Canberra-class landing helicopter docks. But the government, along with the Defence bureaucracy, has made clear that an F-35B ‘Jump Jet’ is not going to be acquired for Australia.
The case for Australia acquiring the F-35A JSF is built primarily around its advantages in terms of stealth, as well as its ability to fuse data from on-board and off-board sensors to provide the pilot with a ‘God’s Eye’ view of the battlespace. These two factors, stealth and data fusion, combine to give the F-35 a distinct combat edge over older generation fighters. To put it simply, the F-35 pilot will have superior situational awareness over other platforms that lack similar capabilities. In terms of air-to-air operations, this means that the ideal approach for the JSF is beyond-visual range engagement to make full use of stealth and data fusion. The F-35 is not a ‘dog-fighter‘ and would be vulnerable against fourth-generation aircraft such as the Russian Su-35S Super Flanker in a close-in turning dogfight. For Australia’s operational requirement, the F-35 will be critical to the defence of its airspace, with flights of four aircraft working alongside E-7 Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft as a networked team. The RAAF’s F-35A will undertake a variety of other roles, including strike against ground or maritime targets with precision weapons, close air support of Australian Defence Force ground forces, as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.
Yet there exists the possibility that the F-35’s greatest advantage – its ability to generate superior situational awareness, and exploit stealth to gain a ‘first look, first shot, first kill’ capability – may also be its greatest vulnerability. The aircraft is designed around assumptions on stealth and data fusion that are yet to be proven. One assumption is that the stealth capabilities of the aircraft will always be effective and give it an edge. Correspondingly, another assumption about data fusion is that the F-35 will always readily access a range of on-board or off-board sensors via secure data networks to ensure superior situational awareness. Yet adversary advances in counter-stealth radar systems based on road mobile VHF radars such as the Russian 55Zh6ME and China’s DWL002 VHF Radar, as well as other more innovative detection methods, are a reality today, and these asymmetric capabilities will only grow more effective in the future. As Bill Sweetman observes:
It would be reassuring to know that the stealth technology upon which the Pentagon plans to base air dominance for the next few decades has been thoroughly, recently and aggressively Red-Teamed against multiband AESAs [Advanced Electronically Scanned Array] and passive systems. If it has, nothing has been said about it.
Developments in Electronic Warfare (EW) and Computer Network Operations (i.e., ‘Cyberwarfare’) also are beginning to gather pace, to an extent where future peer adversaries such as Russia and China may be well equipped to challenge, spoof, or disrupt critical C4 (Command, Control, Communications, Computers) ISR networks upon which an F-35 pilot is highly dependent. Russia in particular is investing in advanced air- and ground-based EW capabilities, with Russia’s Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA having a sophisticated EW suite that when combined with the T-50s long-range and high speed may give the F-35 some concerns – if ground-based VHF radar systems can defeat its stealth. Even more significant is the ability of systems like the PAK-FA to threaten high-value air targets like AEW&C and airborne refueling aircraft, thereby potentially defeating the F-35 indirectly. Ground-based EW systems, like Russia’s Krasukha-1 jamming system, can according to Russian commentators blind the E-3 AWACS radar, leaving the F-35 pilot “deaf, dumb and blind,” according to Sweetman. Passive detection systems that track a target by its emissions may also constrain the effectiveness of the F-35, if the off-board sensors upon which it depends for situational awareness cannot transmit without revealing their location to long-range interceptors with high speed long-range missile systems or advanced double-digit surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).
In investing in the F-35, Australia is betting on adversary counter-stealth and information denial capabilities not being effective. Yet, were it to follow Canada’s lead and withdraw from the F-35 JSF, it would be left with the choice of buying older aircraft – for example additional FA-18E/F Super Hornets. This does not seem a useful move given that in addition to counter-stealth and sophisticated EW, both China and Russia are pursuing their own fifth-generation fighter programs through the J-20/J-31B and T-50 PAK-FA, respectively. In the end, Australia would still be confronted with the growth of superior air combat capabilities, with more sophisticated platforms and more advanced sensor networks. Canada faces the same dilemma.
The future of air combat is going to be determined by which side wins the information battle and how quickly that success is achieved, as much as it is determined by the speed, range, and combat capability of specific platforms. If peer competitors like Russia and China can use asymmetric approaches to diminish the effectiveness of stealth and data fusion, then F-35, as well as other stealth aircraft like the F-22 and B-2A, are all in trouble and the ability of the US and its partners to wage effective air operations will decrease over time. On the other hand, if these asymmetric capabilities can be quickly defeated, then aircraft like the F-35 can really demonstrate their operational effectiveness. Therefore, to hedge against an unwelcome outcome in this competition, both Australia and Canada must not only invest in the most effective combat aircraft available, but also capabilities that can mitigate the challenge posed by adversary asymmetric threats. They must also accept that the period of unchallenged Western air dominance is rapidly ending, and plan accordingly.
Dr. Malcolm Davis is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in China-Western Relations with the Faculty of Science and Design at Bond University, Australia. His area of research focus is on Chinese military modernization and defence policy, Asia-Pacific security issues, as well as military-technological transformation and the future of warfare. You can find him on Twitter @Dr_M_Davis. (Image courtesy of AAP/Lockheed Martin, Matthew Short.)