The F-35 story from its beginning to present was recently published, co-authored by Tom Burbage, a fellow test pilot, corporate leader, and a man I held in high esteem during our years working F-35 together. After nearly 2 decades of promises that not everyone bought into, the naysayers have been drowned out by the converts who now know that the F-35 is as potent as was promised many years ago. The F-35 has shown the public, politicians, and media that it possesses unmatched capability, lethality, and survivability. Air Forces are realizing that bringing on the F-35 is not simply a fighter replacement program but the trigger to transform their entire armed forces into a 5th Gen Force.
Strategic thinkers have known for a long time that F-35 would lead a transformation but the troubles during development, the delays and cost overruns all muddied the waters and took the focus off what the platform was intended for all along. Over-promised and under-delivered, F-35 became the feeding frenzy for a generation of antagonists, uneducated pundits, competitors, and adversaries. With the 1000th jet coming off the production line soon, more F-35 flight hours than the Eurofighter fleet which first flew 12 years before F-35, the numbers are too big to ignore or argue against.
When Allies signed on the F-35 program, they did not really know what stealth was. Even today it remains impossible to describe what sensor fusion really does in terms that anyone with less than a PhD in Physics can understand. We had to show the capabilities of the F-35 in ways that the public and media could understand. F-35 had to perform at airshows and put jets on the ramps in each of those countries. And we had to win the competitions based on more than technological advances. In the end, the F-35 won every single competition that it entered, not just in ranking of capability but of price also.
With F-35s being delivered in quantity, nations are ready to talk about the transformation of aerial warfare, the true 5th Gen revolution. Soon drones will be coming online and will work directly with F-35s in the battlespace. Connectivity will not just be between fighters anymore but will include space assets, legacy 4th Gen fighters, E-7 Wedgetails, P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft, ground, and sea assets. Inside F-35 cockpits, pilots will be fed with Global Situational Awareness built from sharing information across all the platforms that are linked together. 5th Gen fighter pilots will manage data-gathering spaceships which are orders of magnitude (that means 20 times better) more lethal and survivable than any fighter that has ever flown.
In Canada? Well, the problem set is simpler to understand. There are not enough pilots to fill the cockpits of the RCAF F-35s that are coming soon. 50 combat-ready CF-18 fighter pilots does not equal the 88 F-35 cockpits that need to be filled. The RCAF pilot training pipeline is severely limited with no ability to increase the training output in the near to midterm. Blame goes a million ways which is irrelevant for those in charge of solving the manning problem. The big issue of how to transform the Canadian Armed Forces into a 5th Gen fighting force gets bogged down in the quagmire of how to take on the 88 new jets. In spite of this tough start, I believe that the F-35 will kickstart the RCAF and the entire Canadian Forces towards the 5th Gen warfare capability that is required. Give credit to the legendary adaptability of the RCAF; they will catch up to our Allies quickly. No one wants the RCAF to fail. There are very real threats that demand a capable, lethal, and dominant Air Force ASAP. Threats from Russian and Chinese incursions into the arctic, Russia in eastern Europe and the Chinese Pacific theater threat demand a Canadian capability that has to be stood up in record time.
It is a tough time to be in uniform in the CF, but the F-35 is a good news story. F-35 marks the rebirth of the Canadian fighter force. Leaders need all the support that they can get to ensure that the introduction of the F-35, the integration of 5th Gen and the transformation of the Armed Forces is done correctly and as quickly as possible. It is not all bad to be the late comer to the game. So much of the hard work and lessons have been learned by our Allies in the recent past. Canada just needs to focus on the steps needed and to not stumble too often. The RCAF does want to miss this chance to do F-35 and the 5th Gen transformation right from the start.