During the recent federal election Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau announced that his party would scrap the F-35 program should they form the government. At that time the Liberals promised that, if elected, they would launch an "open and transparent competition" to buy more affordable planes to replace Canada's CF-18 jets. Trudeau said the money saved by scrapping the F-35 procurement would go primarily to increasing spending on the Royal Canadian Navy. At the same time the Liberal leader indicated that he believed that the primary mission of our fighter aircraft is the defence of North America.
In the aftermath of the Liberals election triumph, even in the light of recent events in Paris, there is no reason to suppose that they will not follow through on these promises. The decision to try to find a more affordable alternative to the F-35, and spend any savings on the Navy, is a perfectly reasonable one in that it implies an attempt to set priorities and spend accordingly.
Richard Aboulafia, the well regarded Teal group analyst has been quoted as saying that
"It was form fitting function — it's not about if it's a good fighter, but, rather, if this is a role Canada should have," Aboulafia noted that "The F-35 is the perfect plane if Canada is going to be part of coalition warfare. If they just want something that provides air protection for sovereignty, something else fits just fine”.
The fact is that coalition warfare is important to Canada; it could even be argued that it is the Canadian way of war. However, it is not necessary for Canada to procure the F-35 to be able to be a part of future coalitions. In fact providing “kinetic” effects, which can be defined as “killing people whose deaths we believe will advance our goals”, is not the only way in which Canada is currently contributing to the military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Operation Impact is the name of Canada's contribution to the military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Joint Task Force-Iraq currently consists of approximately 600 CAF personnel who provide planning and liaison personnel to work with the U.S. and other coalition partners as well as command and control, logistics and an air task force. That Air Task Force includes six CF-18 Hornet fighter aircraft, one CC-150T Polaris aerial refueler to support coalition air operations and two CP-140M Aurora surveillance aircraft to contribute to coalition intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
Clearly there are other assets, beyond the provision of F-35’s, that Canada could acquire which would be valuable to potential coalition partners as well as being of use to Canada in purely national terms.
One way in which Canada can contribute to coalition engagements with assets that are also appropriate to National defence that does not involve purchasing F-35s would include the provision of increased ISTAR capabilities. ISTAR is the ability to link information, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance together to assist a combat force in employing its sensors and managing the information they gather. Some of these attributes are currently being provided by CP-140M Auroras.
Saab recently announced an order for two Airborne Early Warning aircraft from the United Arab Emirates. The Swing Role Surveillance System (SRSR) will incorporate the company’s Erieye radar and other sensors aboard two Bombardier Global 600 business jet platforms. Saab promises air-to-air, air-to-ground and air-to-sea modes and functionality on the new system, which will become part of its product portfolio and will be made available to other potential customers.
The use of Bombardier platforms could make this system of particular interest to Canada. This is not the only use of a nationally produced aircraft used in a sophisticated sensor role. In the UK the RAF operates the Sentinel, an airborne battlefield and ground surveillance aircraft based on the Bombardier Global Express ultra long range business jet.
In RAF service Sentinel can be used for domestic tasks, for example a Sentinel was used to map the scale of flooding in Southern England during a national emergency. As a national asset it supported the British Army in Afghanistan. For coalition service Sentinel is interoperable with other allied systems such as JSTARS and the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system. Its role above Libya in 2011 was described as "pivotal" by the head of the RAF. Sentinels were even used to assist in the search for the 223 schoolgirls abducted by the Islamic militant group, Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Another high value capability perennially found to be lacking in coalition activities is aerial refueling. Canada currently uses the Airbus CC-150 Polaris as its primary air-to-air refueling tanker. Two of the five CC-150s have been converted to air-to-air refueling tankers for the CF-18 fleet as CC-150Ts.
The RCAF also uses converted C-130s, RCAF designation CC-130H(T), for tactical air-to-air refueling but these platforms are limited when deploying CF-18s overseas which is better suited by a Strategic air-to-air refueling platform such as the CC-150Ts.
The conversion of the Polaris aircraft was part of a Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) program, initiated because of a German Air Force requirement, which provided a cost effective solution for the Canadian Forces. It would be relatively simple for Canada to take advantage of the existing technology to convert more, or all, of our aircraft to the same standard to provide enhanced capabilities for our own forces as well as those of allies.
It has even been suggested that a purely national solution is available for at least part of the aerial refueling role. Bombardier CSeries aircraft could economically form the basis for a Theater Support Tanker/Transport capability which could support operations of a more regional nature. The ability to operate all across North America, that is to say having sufficient range to operate from Canadian airfields to the Arctic, the Caribbean, as well as from Pacific to Atlantic would insure that it is a capability that could be used abroad as well as domestically.
The simplest way for Canada to procure cheaper air defence assets and at the same time retain a useful capability to bring to the coalition ‘table’ would be to field a force of E/A-18G Growlers, the electronic attack variant of the Super Hornet. Growlers would increase operability and survivability in contested environments and would be compatible with a purchase of new Super Hornets to meet the continental air defence requirement
This is the route chosen by the Australian Air Force. At a cost of $1.5 billion the Australian EA-18G Growler purchase includes the aircraft, required mission and support systems, training, and ongoing support to effectively develop and operate a Growler capability. Defence plans to achieve Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in 2018.
The 12 EA-18G Growlers will be based at RAAF Base Amberley and will operate in conjunction with air, land and sea forces with the capability to reduce the risk to their forces and improve situational awareness.
It is true that the Australians plan to operate F-35’s as well as Growlers, but there is no question that these aircraft will be capable of providing, by themselves, electronic warfare support by disrupting, deceiving or denying a broad range of military electronic systems, including radars and communications. As well, the Australian Forces believe that the aircraft will be able to support the full spectrum of defence tasks from peacetime evacuations to major conflicts.
As an interim measure should Super Hornets be acquired to meet the needs of the new fighter program they could be purchased with Growler wiring so that they could be converted to the Growler configuration in the future if Canada should wish to do so.
The addition of any of these non F-35 capabilities to the Canadian Armed Forces would not only greatly enhance the ability of the Defence establishment to deliver domestic security, they would increase the options available to any Canadian government when confronted with the need to support allies and engage in coalition warfare.
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