CDA Institute Blog: The Forum
CDA Institute Research Fellow Charles Davies provides an overview of the potential fighter aircraft candidates in five years, when the government says it will select a permanent replacement for the CF-18s.
With the government’s decision to acquire 18 Boeing Super Hornets as a gap-filler, and take up to five years to competitively select a permanent fighter replacement, it is useful to briefly look ahead to that eventual decision point to consider how the options will appear then. Leaving aside the politics of the question, which of course will continue to trump everything, will the delay be worth it in terms of clarifying the technical, operational and industrial merits of the respective contenders for a replacement aircraft that will serve for perhaps forty years (i.e., to roughly 2065 or later)?
Assuming that the government will not decide to aim substantially lower in terms of fighter aircraft capability – say by selecting an armed trainer – or consider a Russian or Chinese aircraft, and given that there are currently no new advanced fighter aircraft known to be in development in the West, the list of potential candidates five years from now will not likely be much different from today. We’ll look at those in turn.
Boeing Super Hornet. The Super Hornet design will be at least 25 years old in 2021 and the aircraft will likely be approaching the last half of its US active service life. For Canada, this means that from perhaps 2045, even if aircraft performance can stay relevant (a major area of uncertainty), Super Hornet supportability and interoperability with our NORAD partner may become a serious issue. Secondly, whether new-build aircraft will even be available in 2021 is uncertain, since recent sales to Kuwait and now Canada will likely only extend production through 2019 unless Boeing is able to obtain additional new orders or further slow production. A Canadian order in 2021 may therefore require restarting manufacturing – if that is possible. Finally, in terms of potential industrial benefits, total Super Hornet production will top out at approximately 635 aircraft based on current orders, and the vast majority of these have already been delivered. Industrial offsets would therefore have to come from Boeing’s other programs, which may or may not include the kinds of leading edge technology development seen in advanced fighter programs.
Dassault Rafale. The Rafale is a contemporary of the Super Hornet and will also be at least 25 years old in 2021. Current plans are for France to operate the aircraft until at least 2040, but that would not even be the mid-point of the service life of the CF-18 replacement. The naval version of the Rafale has successfully operated from a US aircraft carrier, demonstrating some level of interoperability, however whether this is adequate for the NORAD mission and can be sustained in later life is uncertain. Later-life supportability will certainly be problematic. Known current orders and options amount to around 300 aircraft, of which well over half will have been delivered by 2021, although it is likely to still be in production then. Meaningful industrial offsets will likely have to come from Dassault’s other programs, which are not known to currently include a follow-on fighter development program.
Eurofighter Typhoon. The Typhoon is a contemporary of the Super Hornet and Rafale and will be at mid-life in 2021. The same later-life supportability and interoperability concerns will apply to it. Over 480 of the approximately 600 Typhoons so far ordered have been delivered, however it is likely to still be in late stage production in 2021. A particular challenge when it comes to industrial offsets is the fact the Eurofighter is a multinational consortium established for this specific program, and there is a delicate balance in the member nations’ work sharing arrangements within it. Negotiating Canadian industrial offsets will be complex.
Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II. If the history of past complex aircraft programs is any guide, by 2021 the F-35 program will very likely be hitting its stride, production costs will be contained, and most of the residual technical issues will have been dealt with. The US plans to operate the aircraft until 2070, so support and interoperability will not be an issue at any time in its service life if Canada buys it. Production is expected to exceed 3,000 aircraft and run beyond 2035 or 2040, and as a member of the development consortium Canada already has preferential access to development, production and support contracts. It would lose this access if it does not buy the aircraft.
Saab JAS 39 Gripen. The Gripen is another contemporary of the Super Hornet, Rafale, and Typhoon that will be at or slightly beyond mid-life in 2021. Similar later-life supportability and interoperability concerns will therefore apply to it. Approximately 250 have been produced to date and, apart from aircraft to be license-built in Brazil, continuation of production through 2021 is uncertain. Saab has a number of development initiatives for improvements to the Gripen but is not known to be considering a follow-on new fighter program, so industrial offsets will likely have to come from the company’s other programs.
This very simple review does not, of course, provide a complete picture of the fighter competition playing field five years from now. However, it does offer insights into two key trends. First, by 2021 four of the five contenders will be approaching or past the half-way point of their planned operational lives, and five years closer to obsolescence. This has major implications for any country considering their purchase, including the fact that keeping a fighter capability based on any of these four aircraft relevant and viable through to 2065 or beyond will be very difficult. More likely, the aircraft will have to be replaced much earlier. Conversely, by 2021 most of the fog, misinformation, and uncertainty around the F-35 program will have cleared and the aircraft will be just at the start of a service life planned to extend to 2070.
Secondly, in terms of opportunities for industrial benefits, Canada can undoubtedly extract its traditional dollar-for dollar return out of the purchase of any of the five aircraft in 2021. However, the F-35 program will still offer far greater opportunity for Canadian industry than any of the others, both in terms of quality and quantity. Qualitatively, the aircraft incorporates significantly more numerous and more highly advanced technologies than any of the older candidates. Quantitatively, the program will deliver five or ten times the number of aircraft than any of the others. Also, by 2021, production of the F-35 will still be in early stages whereas all four of the others will be at or near the end. This means that offsets for the purchase of them will have to come from other, often smaller, programs that are unlikely to match the F-35’s technology exploitation opportunities.
These two trends, especially the first, will only worsen with time in terms of the viability of the four older contenders. Given this, one wonders what an open, fair, and transparent competition among the five aircraft in 2021 will look like.
Colonel Charles Davies (Retired) is a CDA Institute Research Fellow. (Image courtesy of Petty Officer 1st Class David Mercil, U.S. Navy.)