I am not trying to shy away from writing but the opportunity to talk on the ‘Fighter Pilot Podcast’ series with Vincent ‘Jell-O’ Aiello was too good to pass up. I love this podcast and the many diverse airplane stories that have been posted. I am always learning something new and as an airplane geek, I love the trivia and often the context that is given to subjects I know little about. I wanted to join Jell-O to fight off the F-35 haters yet again. His audience is full of aviation enthusiasts and seemed like the perfect group to share perspective and context with. The pet peeve of Canada and the F-35 is never far from my mind since it is the ‘gift that keep on giving’. I wish I was employed to be somehow compensated for how long this saga drags on…the salary would be like a lifetime pension since there seems little hope that this decision will be resolved any time soon.
This spring, Laurie Hawn, former CF-18 Commanding Officer and former Member of Parliament, participated in a 3-way debate about Canada’s fighter competition with Boeing test pilot and friend of many of us, Ricardo Traven, and someone else talking on behalf of the Saab Gripen. During that briefing, Laurie used a slide that was passed from Lockheed Martin (LM) and is part of an unclassified briefing based on a once classified battle analysis. The scenario is essentially us (Blue Forces) outnumbered 3:1 against a Red Force. That adversary, logically either Russian or Chinese, would fly 4+ Gen fighters and would be up against different scenarios of good-guy fighters (Blue).
We start with 40 Blue fighters against 120 Red fighters. We assume 80% availability of our jets and that they fly once a day. We also assume the very best of capabilities for the advanced 4th Gen fighters that we use for Blue forces, likely more capable than a Canadian Super Hornet or a Canadian Gripen could ever be. We assume that if we lose 20 of our Blue fighters, we have lost the battle. The tool used is a US Government war game with a ‘Lanchester Assessment’ war gaming analysis which uses real world assumptions for how this battle would be conducted. Neither Lockheed Martin nor the F-35 Program Office invented this data. It comes from US Government assessments and was released for public viewing by LM (hence how it came to be sent to Laurie Hawn).
The Red Force is the best of our adversaries’ capabilities. In the scenarios, the Blue Force starts with only 4th Gen fighters…and they only take out 6 Red before 20 Blue jets are lost. When 5th Gen starts to be introduced, the exchange ratios improve with growing amounts of 5th Gen versus 4th Gen. When 75% of the 5th Gen fighters in the Blue mix, all 120 adversaries are destroyed but there are still 19 Blue losses. Only when there are exclusively 5th Gen fighters for Blue, does the Blue force neutralize all the adversaries while losing 9 fighters of their own.
So, what does this war game mean? Who really understands or cares about military war gaming? The lesson is stark even for politicians to see. If Canada buys 4th Gen Super Hornet or Gripen fighters and ever encounters the adversary that we face across the polar icecap or off the Western coast of British Columbia, Canadian fighters will get shot down, pilots will die. I read often that Canadians don’t expect to be sent in on Day 1 of the War. Ask the Canadian pilots who flew in Desert Storm in 1991, ask the pilots who flew in Operation Allied Force in 1999 and ask any of us who have been deployed in combat operations whether the Canadians were going to be sent in last when the real fighting was over. That assumption is absurd; there is no second string in combat…everyone is going into battle. If Canada elects to buy a last generation fighter to replace the CF-18, then expect the risk of losing Canadian pilots in combat to be extremely high.
I usually stay away from the fear mongering when talking about F-35 or other fighters. I heard it too often from my Boeing friends how Canadian fighter pilots are going to lose an engine in a single engine fighter from the ‘goose that didn’t get the memo’ and then crash and die in the arctic, never to be found. All that rhetoric gets old especially as so much of it is taken wildly out of context.
The classified version of this briefing is more elaborate and was offered to Canada’s Standing Committee on Defense. At the time, MP Stephen Fuhr (Liberal for Kelowna-Lake Country), who was once a CF-18 pilot and was head of that committee, repeatedly refused to receive the classified briefing about this analysis. If he and other members of the committee had been briefed, they would have been compelled to honor the analysis and realize the potential consequences of pursuing a 4th Gen replacement for the CF-18. As a stanch Boeing supporter, Fuhr was never going to permit F-35 to be given a forum where Super Hornet and 4th Gen fighter lack of survivability would be questioned. Although he has since failed to be re-elected and returned to civilian life, the effect remained. Canadian politicians were never briefed on what other nations’ leaders knew about the F-35 and future wars. Today, in the last stages of this round of Canada’s fighter competition, no interaction with politicians is permitted and this briefing cannot be given to them. Perhaps someday, decision makers will get to hear this information much as I have passed on a watered-down version in this blog.
It would be more effective if all Canadians could hear this assessment. No one in Canada would ever allow Canadian fighter pilots to be sent into combat where their survivability would be at risk. Forget the politicians, public opinion would be strong enough to dissuade a 4th Gen fighter from being selected.
Fear mongering…maybe there is a place for it in Canada.
I really enjoyed listening to your perspective on the FPP. I definitely agree with you that the F-35 provides capabilities the Super Hornet and Gripen can’t.
One question I have, though, that I don’t think I’ve heard asked. Is there a risk associated with most western air powers putting all their eggs in the F-35 basket? Would adversary nations be able to focus on neutralizing the F-35’s specific advantages? Especially since China was able to steal F-35 data through industrial espionage. Or do we need to accept that we’re too far down this path and can’t afford to wait for other VLO platforms to come online?
The answer is two part. Use the parallel of history with the F-16 and consider how interoperability is so important in how we conduct operations today and in the future. The F-16 became the ultimate 4th Gen multi-role fighter and its commonality for European Air Forces with the USAF allowed F-16s to fly almost seamlessly in large coalition attack packages regardless of the nations that participated. Everyone had the same capability. Now advanced the logic to 5th Gen. We want seamless interoperability with all forces so that they can communicate across the same networks, sharing the battle space amongst F-35s. Legacy airplanes like Typhoon, Gripen, Super Hornet will not be able to join these networks and will be left at the back of the pack.
Finally, China did not steal F-35 intel or secrets. China does not have Western stealth technology, engine technology or anything else of true value from F-35. I am uncertain of what journalist source suggested this but they remain decades in capability behind the West. It is true however that their inferior capability will be offset by the vast number of airplanes that they will send up against us. Quantity has a Quality unto itself.
Everyone believes in the VLO capability of the B-2 bomber and the F-22 Raptor. I find it hard to understand why the VLO capability of F-35 which is is newer is questioned. VLO means lethality, effectiveness and survivability. I am certain every nation wants that from their next fighter.
Decision makers must have all the pertinent information regarding the F35. The F35 is the best of the best. In view of the fact that God limited the intelligence of man, it seems unfair that He did not limit his stupidity.
“China did not steal F-35 intel or secrets. China does not have Western stealth technology, engine technology or anything else of true value from F-35. I am uncertain of what journalist source suggested this but they remain decades in capability behind the West.”
Here’s an alternative view on that:
China does know a lot about the F-35. They may not have the ability to design or manufacture the engine of the F-35, or reproduce its stealth capabilities, but they do have the ability to reproduce its electronics and many of its weapons capabilities. Some of the information they got may be out of date, but they are constantly surveilling to get more information about the F-35 and any other advanced system being built.
The F-35 is chock-full of reprogrammable field programmable gate arrays that would allow it’s EO/IR, stealth configurations, and weapon systems to be reconfigured and upgraded. Any country who buys the F-35 can take advantage of this. That’s propbably why Japan, the UK and Switzerland have bought in on the F-35. They all are expert at developing systems on FPGAs.
Whatever secrets China got, I think these countries are hoping they can out innovate and out design China using the F-35’s reprogrammable capability.
Something to think about: Most of the most advanced semiconductor fabs in the world from which these FPGAs are built are in China (SMIC) and Taiwan (TSMC).
China may not be able to match on engine or stealth technology, but it is definitely at the leading edge on semiconductor capability, and perhaps even on algorithmic capability.
China probably knows a lot about the Grippen and the F/A-18 Super Hornet as well.
For Canada, regardless of the aircraft it ultimately chooses, what’s important is that it improve it’s capabilities to upgrade its own fighter aircraft, and protect these upgrades from intellectual property theft.
It should probably also revisit it’s semiconductor global supply chain strategy, which has become increasingly dependent on China in the last twenty years.
Most of the commercial SC materials come from foreign sources, because the vast amounts of US SC manufacturers are filling exclusive DoD contracts with barriers to entry that can’t be overcome by foreign sources.
The first barrier to entry is the quality of the SC materials, particularly when it comes to HEMT TRM components used for AESAs.
Cracking the code for consistent wafer manufacturing that meets the specs for electron mobility and thermal mitigation is easily said, but not done in the Asian companies. Again, we pioneered these technologies, spent decades perfecting them with aggressive pressure placed on the labs and facilities that make them, with people who are unique in being problem-solvers as opposed to replicators with no organic problem-solving abilities.
Go do a research paper on how many US SC companies there are, vs Asian, and who their customers are. Canada is also in this market already, with certain boards being made for the JSF program for many years now.
Chinese spy scientists and engineers who have been sent to penetrate these programs certainly know that far superior chips and boards are being made within the exclusive DoD contractors in the West, but getting all the secret sauce together from the production level that requires hands-on technicians and engineers is not something you can download, and compartmentalization in organizations makes gathering all of these decades of OJT basically impossible.
If you built an industrial espionage campaign that seeded enough operatives throughout all of the jobs to gather that experience, by the time they compiled their collective collection products, we would be 2 generations ahead on new SC materials and QC on them. Just look at the jump from GaA to GaN.
Just a few years ago, it was said GaN was too expensive due to defect rate loss on the surfaces. Now we’re installing them by the scores on Canadian and USMC rust bucket F/A-18A+++ fighters. Next question is, what’s going into the JSF priority supply side?
You’re really comparing an article from national interest to Billie Flynn??? I suggest you go read his bio…….Plus, being a Test Pilot with the program for many years. I think he has both access and knowledge to what China likely knows about the program. In addition Lt. Gen. Christopher C. Bogdan (Ret) the former Executive Officer for the JSF Program. Is quoted as saying China never gained access to classified materials on the F-35.
“Most of the commercial SC materials come from foreign sources, because the vast amounts of US SC manufacturers are filling exclusive DoD contracts with barriers to entry that can’t be overcome by foreign sources.”
No. By far, the largest demand for CMOS chip manufacturing comes from commercial non-military sources. Chip manufacture quality and cost reduction depends on *volume*. Without volume, advanced node CMOS chip manufacture would not be cost effective or manufacturable. The military requirements for CMOS integrated circuits are minimal compared to the commercial demand. Instead, the US military demand for CMOS integrated circuits leverages the volume of commercial demand and piggy backs off it.
Since the 1990s, both the US and Canada have increasingly under invested in the true cost of CMOS chip manufacture and have been happy to instead use a globalized model for chip manufacture. CMOS FAB investments in Europe, Switzerland, China, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan have been used to manufacture the chips in our cell phone, our audio systems, our internet, our vehicles and our military aircraft.
“The first barrier to entry is the quality of the SC materials, particularly when it comes to HEMT TRM components used for AESAs.”
Most of the electronic systems on the F-35 are not built with HEMTs or GAN HEMTs. They’re built with CMOS devices. Field Programmable Gate Arrays and all advanced microprocessors are built in CMOS (not in InP HEMTs, GaAs HEMTs or in GaN HEMTs).
InP and GaAs HEMTs are used for specialized electronic systems like very sensitive and high dynamic range receivers and low noise amplifiers. GaN is primarily used for power electronics and for specialized wireless electronics such as power amplifiers. These specialized systems account for a tiny fraction of the total amount of electronics on a system like the F-35.
Most of the electronics on the F-35 are in CMOS.
The most advanced CMOS FAB in the world is headquartered in Taiwan. TSMC is unmatched in their ability to manufacture highly integrated advanced node CMOS integrated circuits.
SMIC in China closely matches what is researched and developed at TSMC. While TSMC tries very hard to prevent intellectual property theft, it is hard for them to prevent employees from being poached away by SMIC.
The level of integration of a microprocessor, an AI system, a field programmable gate array, or any complex electronic system, depends on the number of devices that can be integrated on an integrated circuit. That depends on the size of the CMOS device. TSMC currently makes the smallest devices at the highest yield in the world. SMIC isn’t far behind.
Currently, at the leading edge, TSMC is coming up on production of 5nm CMOS:
SMIC is at 7nm.
For further reading, see “Regaining the edge in US Chip Manufacturing”:
As well, Win Semiconductor, also in Taiwan, is one of the most advanced HEMT manufacturers in the world. They supply both the US and China with HEMT electronics.
It really doesn’t matter any more if China did or did not “steal” F-35 trade secrets from the US. What matters is that in electronics, China can either manufacture or gain access to manufacture of electronics which are equivalent to what is on the F-35.