Wednesday, 23 January 2013


James Hasik (1) has commented on the situation brought to light by KPMG's audit of the Joint Strike Fighter program (2) as reported by David Pugliese's article, in Defense News.(3)

In brief, it would appear that the F-35 to be acquired by the Canadian Forces will not be capable of “hose & drogue” air-to-air refueling and that as such will not be compatible with Canada’s current fleet of aerial tankers. (4)

"...According to Lockheed Martin, Canada has conducted a study to examine options for F-35 aerial refueling techniques. Lockheed Martin officials were not able to say what conclusions the Canadian study yielded.

Currently, the RCAF employs hose and drogue aerial refueling provided by CC-130H (T) and CC-150 aircraft. If the F-35A is adopted without any change, the Canadian way of aerial refueling would not be compatible. If one assumes Canada will retain its current aerial tanking technique, the options are to keep the current F-35A aerial refueling system and add the hose and drogue refueling piping.

The F-35A apparently has the space to accommodate this addition; however it would add weight to the aircraft, and would change the aircraft's center of gravity to some degree. We are unsure what implication the added weight and change in center of gravity would cause. Additionally, if the standard F-35A aerial refueling piping is retained, there would be maintenance required to keep that system functioning, even if it's not used.

If the standard F-35A aerial refueling piping is removed and only the hose and drogue piping installed, a change in the center of gravity would again need to be addressed and certified.

Regardless of any of these options, it is unknown what costs would be associated to such modifications of Canadian jets...." (5)

Hasik goes on to calculate all the permutations possible in this situation; buying new tankers, reconfiguring our current tankers, relying on our allies and various schemes for renting tanker time. He also points out that many countries do without dedicated air to air tankers. 

None of these seem like practical options. Canada needs an organic air-to-air refueling ability. It is not just a question of being able to support operations in our own, large, country. The truth is that support aircraft are of even more use in coalition actions then aircraft capable of “kinetic” effects. Anybody can show up at the party with a handful of fighter-bombers but it will be air refueling and ISR aircraft that make any actions possible.

To quote from the Department of National Defences’ web site (6) regarding Operation Mobile, our involvement in Libya;

“Operation Mobile has been a significant RCAF effort because we’ve been able to do it pretty much all ourselves,” said Maj. Kettles. “We used the CC-150 tankers to get our jets here.

“Our CC-150s and the CC-130 Hercules tankers, as well as other nations’, have fueled our CF-18s throughout the operation. The CP-140 Auroras have provided intelligence products favoured by NATO, while the CC-177 Globemaster III has been huge in delivering everything from aircraft parts to equipment, which has allowed us to sustain our operation.

“These capabilities have allowed us to have a huge impact within the coalition.”

It would be a serious mistake for Canada to overlook these lessons. When the F-35 was first contemplated it was seen in many ways as an F-16 replacement. (7) In that light it was assumed that a modification for hose and drogue refueling, as currently practiced by every Air Force in the world accept the U.S. Air Force, would be a simple matter. If it is not, if to have the F-35 Canada has to forgo an air-to-air refueling capability, then it is one more reason not to purchase the F-35 and one more reason to look for other ways for Canada to project power.

[1] The Canadian Aerial Refueling Question - 5 January 2013

[2] KPMG's audit of the Joint Strike Fighter program,” Other Potential Acquisition Cost”

[3] Canadian Military Would Need To Outsource F-35 Refueling

[5] Canadian F-35 Aerial Refueling Considerations (excerpt from 'Flying the F-35')

[6] CF-18 pilot flies 50th combat mission during Op Mobile