Tyranny of Distance is the term that best describes flying over the barren land of Canada. The range to travel from one place to the next is always significant, the number of runways that are available to military aircraft is limited and there are few options to divert if unable to land at the intended destination. This is a problem set uniquely Canadian. Persistence, meaning how long that aircraft can stay in the air to do its patrol or surveillance mission, is essential to ensuring that the fighter’s sensors and capabilities are being used to guard Canadian territory.
Why does it matter? No one in the civilian world really would have cared about this because there wouldn’t have been context, until now.
In the Canadian arctic, there are two primary airports that the RCAF deploys out of, Inuvik in the west and Iqaluit in the east. To reach Inuvik from CFB Cold Lake, Alberta requires an extremely long direct flight or a stopover for fuel enroute, in Yellowknife, Northwest Territory, as an example. It is not unreasonable to plan for a divert base 400 miles away from Inuvik at Eielson AFB in Fairbanks, Alaska. Even for a civilian plane, flying from Cold Lake to Inuvik and then diverting to Eielson is a long distance to carry fuel for. A CF-18 or most any other 4th Gen fighter cannot accomplish that in one flight; F-35 can. From CFB Bagotville, Quebec, the ferry flight north to Iqaluit is long with very few divert options once reaching the far north. Once operating from Inuvik or Iqaluit, the fighters always have to preserve extra fuel when returning to base in case of a divert to an airfield far away. To accomplish the missions in the far north, the fighters (F-35) will have to transit even further north from Inuvik or Iqaluit to point their sensors over the North Pole at our new adversary. Well, the Russians were always our enemy, we were lulled into 30 years post-Cold War of forgetting that. Few will believe that Putin will want to share the arctic natural resources with Canada or any other arctic nation. Russia will take what it wants and expect everyone else to fight them for it. There is now a renewed sense of why Canada needs fighters to surveil and protect the arctic based on the imperialism we are witnessing in Ukraine. So, range to fly long distances and persistence to stay on station for a long time are crucial.
Another example of where range and persistence are important is in the NATO context, which did not matter to most prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. If NATO wanted to set up fighter patrols to monitor the Russian incursion into Ukraine, it would take a large number of aircraft to accomplish that task. To send 4 F-35s patrolling and surveilling the borders full-time, spread out over large distances, say in pairs of 2, the actual number of F-35s required to accomplish that task would be 12. It takes 4 F-35s to be in the air in the Combat Air Patrol (CAP), with sensors looking into Ukraine. During that time on station, the fighters might have to get more fuel from an air refueling tanker that would be airborne at a safe distance back from enemy territory. There would be a 2nd group of 4 F-35s prepared for launch and transiting the distance from the base airfield to the CAP area to replace the on-station fighters. There would be a 3rd group of 4 F-35s that had been replaced by the on-station fighters, transiting back to base to land, being readied for the next mission, refueling on the ground, changing pilots, and downloading the mission data. 12 jets to make 4 or 3 times the number needed to accomplish the airborne task.
If the airborne fighters do not carry a lot of fuel, they end up spending much of their time cycling back and forth to the refueling tanker and less time with their sensors looking into Ukraine and surveilling what Putin’s forces are doing. 4th Generation fighters carry their fuel in external fuel tanks, suspended from the outside of the jets on pylons. They carry their weapons, missiles and/or bombs, on the outside as well as the electro-optical pods that allow them to focus in on targets of interest. Hang all that equipment on the outside of a jet and it becomes very draggy which means it takes more engine power to keep it flying. More engine power means burning through the fuel load faster which in turn means either going to the refueling tanker more often or staying on station less time and having to be replaced with new fighters at a faster cycle rate. F-35 carries all its fuel plus all the missiles (6 air-to-air guided missiles on the F-35s that Canada will fly) or some combination of missiles and bombs internally. There is no electro-optical pod on the outside, it is housed under the nose of the jet. Without all that external hardware, the F-35 does not suffer the same drag limitations as those legacy 4th Gen fighters.
The F-35A (which Canada is buying) carries 18,500 lbs. of fuel internally and is powered by a single 5th Generation Pratt and Whitney (PW) F-135 engine. That’s more fuel than is carried by legacy fighters even with all their external fuel tanks hanging from the outside of the jet. In addition, one engine, not two, logically consumes less fuel to keep an aircraft flying at a certain altitude and airspeed. A 30- or 40-year-old engine design, like a General Electric (GE) F-404 on a legacy CF-18 Hornet, or a GE F-414 on a Super Hornet or Gripen, is not going to be as efficient or as powerful as a next generation PW F-135 engine much the same as a 30-year-old car engine is not as fuel efficient as a brand-new car engine. It doesn’t take an engineer to understand that and even the best marketers cannot make the public believe that either.
But one example of the sophistication of the new engine might help. Everyone has seen the afterburner of a fighter engine. The nozzle in the back (called A-9) opens up as the fuel is poured in and the fire ignited. We all love that flame out the back, and it is even more fun strapped in the cockpit with the kick-in-the-butt that the afterburner gives. In old engines, the back of that nozzle moves in and out to regulate the thrust that comes out the back (power that you get) but also temperature (so it doesn’t burn up the nozzle). In the F-135, the end of the engine, where the nozzle starts (called A-8), is governed and moves in and out as well as the back of the nozzle (A-9). The allows the engine to regulate the thrust and burn fuel more efficiently with and without the afterburner working. What does that mean? The F-135 is more fuel-efficient flying throughout the envelope at all airspeeds and altitudes vice the older engines which cannot regulate their fuel and thrust as effectively. Less fuel burned means longer ranges flown and more time on station (persistence).
Simple math of drag on the outside versus not…again no high-tech engineering or marketing required.
Surely the RCAF can use the air refueling tankers to help out. Well, not really. Canada’s air refueling assets are like all Canadian Armed Forces equipment: in limited numbers, outdated, and in need of replacement. There have never been enough refueling tankers for the RCAF even at the best of times and certainly not enough to support day-to-day operations. RCAF tanking happened on an occasional basis and not part of normal operations. There is an existing Air Force project to replace the Airbus tankers, but we all know that will be many, many years until the capability is upgraded for the RCAF. Until then, Canada’s fighters will need superior range and persistence to support operations in the arctic and when deployed for NATO operations.
So again, why does that matter? Vast, vast distances to cover in Canada. It is not just flying long distances; the jets have to conduct their missions once they arrive on station. The additional fuel is needed so that the fighters can point their sensors in the direction of the enemy and surveil, assess, guard, and defend Canadian territory. That’s why range and persistence matter and why F-35 with significant fuel, far better range, and persistence than legacy fighters is needed in Canada.
Tyranny of Distance – F-35 helps solve that one.