One of the biggest leaps Canadian defense has made in generations comes with the selection of F-35 for the Royal Canadian Air Force. What F-35 will force is a revolution across the entire Canadian Armed Forces, not just the RCAF and not just the fighter fleet. The scope is broad on what will be needed to adopt this new platform from cyber capabilities that don’t yet exist, to managing the intelligence data gathered by F-35s, to multi-domain operations, network enabling across all services, interchangeability with NORAD and NATO partners, Manned/Unmanned Teaming with ‘drones’ to flying and employing the 5th Generation spaceship. How will the CAF manage the integration of this new capability? Will they be able to take it on from the start ‘running’ or will there be a lot of growing pains in the coming years? Anyone who knows anything about this country’s small military knows that answer already. The integration of F-35 is going to hurt, a lot.
What is sad already is the complete disconnect between what the Air Force leadership knows is needed to adopt the new fighter and the bureaucracy’s inattention and lack of comprehensive about how extensive the task is to bring F-35 to Canada. The US government will have to certify that the facilities and infrastructure will be qualified to house and manage the highly classified data linked to F-35. We know already that the many organizations essential to preparing the facilities are unaware of how vast this task really is. A big awakening is coming soon.
The F-35 is the most scrutinized defense program in history. Luckily for everyone, F-35 has made many converts beginning when it was first employed by the US services and since, as the fleet has expanded to non-US air forces that now employ it. Transformational for every air force that has brought F-35 online, the 5th Gen revolution is well underway. The soon-to-be 2000 men and women who have flown the 5th Gen fighter will all attest to its remarkable capabilities; not a single one of those would ever go back to their legacy jets after flying F-35. When it comes to combat, no one questions the F-35’s capability and lethality. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has done more for the marketing of F-35 than Lockheed Martin and the US government could ever have done.
Air Power is no longer just about how many airplanes you can put in the skies and how many different capabilities you can employ to fight and win an air war. Air Power is now about enabling the network from space to air to ground to sea. Air Power is leveraging our capabilities to ensuring everyone sees the complete battle space picture, full situational awareness. Air Power is leveraging our capabilities to help see and shoot further, and to kill the enemy earlier and in bigger numbers. The changes that come with adopting F-35 into the air forces don’t end when those aircraft end up on the ramps in our home countries. That is just the beginning with new weapons, manned / unmanned teaming, exercising together, and across the board, forcing our sister services to up their capabilities to leverage what F-35 brings. The revolution just begins with F-35 but continues until the entire military is capable of operating with this transformational capability.
You don’t turn in an older generation fighter for an even trade on an F-35.
I have heard for so long about the cost of a new fighter and just how expensive the F-35 will be. It seems lost on most that fighter jets are designed at the very high end of technology development. It took 20 years and $50B USD of research investments to mature the key technologies that make up F-35’s powerful capabilities. Some still think that an air force should be able to trade in an old generation fighter for an even trade on a next generation fighter. I am not sure who does that math, but it doesn’t add up. If we took the $18M to $25M that it cost for the CF-18s 40 years ago and added inflation to those numbers over 4 decades, they would certainly cost more than the $77.8M that Canada will pay for the F-35A.
The most expensive weapon is the one that leads to your loss.
How expensive is a new fighter? The most expensive weapon is the one that leads to your loss. Military leaders now understand the revolution in front of them as the 5th generation fighter capability becomes available. F-35 is a communications node and the key enabler to the multi-domain operations of the future; it is not just a new, gray, loud, fast fighter plane. F-35 integration will force or at least enable the capability to link and share information across the different domains from space to air power to ground forces to surface and even subsurface assets. Winning in the most threatening war theatres that exist matters. Winning against vastly superior numbers (as may be the case in a war with China) matters most. How expensive is that capability? Rest assured you never want to be on the other side of the win column in air combat where our pilots start coming back from war in body bags.
Sport of Kings
Flying fighter jets has always been the Sport of Kings. Nothing is more aggressive, more physically and intellectually demanding, faster, or wilder than engaging in supersonic 3-dimensional chess. I cannot say that those days are over entirely but air combat as we traditionally knew it certainly has moved on. Dogfighting will always be an essential skill to teach fighter pilots, but it won’t be so integral in a pilot’s skill set as it was for generations to this point. Those video game addicts will be populating fighter cockpits in 5th Gen (they already do) and the skills needed to manage, process, and prosecute missions for 5th Gen are not the hands and feet skills that we once cherished. The future is flying far away from other aircraft, paired with lethal drones, controlling the formation as only a video game expert can. The exercising of air power will be nothing like what legacy fighter pilots know today.
Cost of Survivability
Employing new fighters that communicate and integrate completely with the other armed services, not just supporting joint operations, are our future. F-35 may seem to cost a lot to procure and employ but the real number that matters is how many of those fighters come home each time so that our men and women are able to fight and win another day. The Cost of Survivability is the real term to focus on. How many legacy fighters would be needed to achieve the desired effect in combat? How many of those legacy fighters would be sent out and not come home? F-35 and 5th Gen employment will permit our air forces to execute with vastly less numbers where legacy forces might have needed 10 to 20 aircraft to achieve what a small force of 5th Gen assets could accomplish.
The Ukraine invasion has shown everyone that high end, near-peer combat is at our doorstep. Non-warring nations like Germany and Canada have had to scramble to adjust and react, increasing defense procurement planning and driving more funds into budgets to support the new buys. Canada will have to invent a lot of money to support the investments needed for NORAD modernization. Is all this too late to ward off Putin? It is certainly timely with a very clear threat that will hopefully allow the partner nations to arm themselves and be ready as the Ukraine fight potentially expands beyond that limited theatre.
Excellence is not an act.
F-35 has come to be the single biggest change to air power in a number of generations, not a just fighter plane but a trump card. To be as effective, lethal, survivable, and adaptable as F-35 is has come at the expense of a long development timeline. It took a lot of years after the over-promising and under-delivering of the F-35 program until the platform was mature, the forces adapted and learned how to employ it and for the masses to become converts to the true measure of what 5th Gen and F-35 can do. Making the F-35 as amazing as it has become took all those years, with men and women committed to solving the technical challenges, maturing the systems, developing the tactics, and then ultimately employing the F-35. You know who believes most about how lethal the F-35 is?…China and Russia. They know their systems are inferior, that the timeline even to achieve parity to what F-35 has today is beyond reach and are really scared about how much more effective and lethal F-35 forces will become in the future. Maybe civilians in our home countries don’t get it yet but our enemies do. You cannot fake being good. Excellence is not an act. F-35 has earned its reputation amongst our professional warriors. Thankfully, we have it and the bad guys don’t.
If you dislike change, you will like irrelevance even less.
So how does an air force adapt to the new strategies and learn the doctrine that drives this re-norming of air power? How does an air force with an antiquated flying fleet adapt and grow quickly to catch up to those militaries that have embraced these new norms? Well, it certainly will not be from doing things in-house, as has historically been the case for Canada. The CAF will need to farm out personnel across all 3 services to learn from the American forces and across those NATO nations that have a 10-year head start. Likely more than ever, the exchange officer program is needed to expose Canadian personnel to a world that is light years more advanced than the one at home. Sponging information on how to pen new Air Power doctrine will be key to crafting the guidebook for the military as it is forced into the 21st century. What Canada cannot afford is a 10-year learning curve for the military to get up to speed with their military partners. Putin is certainly not going to give Canada a decade to catch up. I started this conversation by saying that Canada is going to have a hard time adopting the F-35 and getting it going. This will be a furious ride for the Canadian Armed Forces. Forces’ personnel are, as always, undermanned, and overworked, and the integration of F-35 is going to exasperate this crisis. But there is not much choice; change is coming. And remember, if you dislike change, you will like irrelevance even less.