F-35 or Gripen for the RCAF…Or Perhaps Something Else?

December 4, 2021

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The saga of the attempts to find a replacement for the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF) aging fighter fleet has apparently moved ahead with the announcement that Boeing’s F-18E/F combo are out of the running.

I’ve covered a lot of the history, complications and political shenanigans that have occurred in the competition, so if you want a fuller background, I link to previous videos covering that at the end. But to give a basic summary, the RCAF is in desperate need of replacing their current fighter fleet.

 

Made up of CF-18s, a Canadian built variant of the venerable F/A-18A Hornet, these are so past their use by date that the Canadians have had to buy a bunch of old Australian Hornets for parts and to keep fleet numbers up.

They have also had to conduct a major upgrade on the venerable aircrafts radar system at a cost of $140 million, a further expense for the Canadian defence budget that would have been avoided had the choice been made a decade ago as had been intended.

In the running to replace these aging airframes were the Lockheed F-35, Saab’s Gripen E and Boeing’s F-18E, and the latter was in many ways a favourite.

After all, Boeing have a close existing relationship with the Canadian military, government, and aeronautics industry because of the CF-18. Plus, the Super Hornet, as the F-18E is known, slots pretty much in the middle in terms of capability and costings between the F-35 and the Gripen. The only one of the competitors with twin-engines, this was also seen as an advantage for an aircraft whose primary duty will be patrolling the long Canadian Artic frontier.

But with the removal of the F-18E from the running, speculation has resolved around the two surviving aircraft, with the discussion being largely one of “cost vs capability”.

Both are very good aircraft and are quite capable of meeting Canada’s military needs, which are largely composed of two factors:

  1. The afore-mentioned aerial protection of the North American continent, and
  2. Working alongside partners on international security issues, with classic examples being Canadian participation in Afghanistan and “Operation Impact” – the RCAF’s contribution to the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

The F-35 is rapidly becoming a mainstay of NATO and Allied air fleets and will be around and receiving upgrades and support for the foreseeable future. But it is a controversial choice. The F-35 is very much an aircraft that people seem to love or despise.

Critics of the aircraft question whether it’s vaulted fifth-generation stealth capabilities are actually all they are cracked up to be. Even if they are, will they stay of relevance in the face of new detection technologies under development.

They also ask does the RCAF even really need all the “bells and whistles” that come along with the F-35, and more particularly, the huge purchase and running costs of the aircraft that comes as the price.

Perhaps even more important is the fact that the current administration of Justin Trudeau had made it an election promise in 2015 that they would NOT buy the F-35.

The Gripen, by contrast, is more along the lines of the “cheap-and-cheerful” option in comparison.

But don’t be fooled by that, it is still an extremely capable aircraft and, quite frankly, would also be a perfectly reasonable choice. Plus Saab have partnered up with local aerospace companies to offer a complete production line for the aircraft in Canada.

Though components for the F-35 are already currently built by Canada, certain critical elements of the aircraft can only be produced in the United States. Choosing the Gripen would mean that Canada would be able to build practically the entire aircraft in country, an extremely important political, economic and military bonus.

The Canadian government are offering few clues as to why the F-18E was dropped, and in a statement said that:

“Proposals were rigorously assessed on elements of capability, cost and economic benefits. The evaluation also included an assessment of economic impact.

“Over the coming weeks, Canada will finalize next steps for the process, which, based on further analysis of the 2 remaining bids, could involve proceeding to final negotiations with the top-ranked bidder or entering into a competitive dialogue, whereby the 2 remaining bidders would be provided with an opportunity to improve their proposals.

“The Government of Canada continues to work towards a contract award in 2022, with delivery of aircraft as early as 2025.”

And so, on the surface it all seems fairly straightforward. The RCAF are going to get either the Gripen or the F-35.

But you know, I have to wonder.

Because either choice would entail significant political fallout – either within Canada should the F-35 be selected, or with the United States if the Gripen is picked; this is one major reason for the F-18E being a favoured option. And politics tends to play a much larger part in defence procurement than actual capability.

After all, both Eurofighter and Dassault rapidly pulled out of the competition at a very early stage on the grounds that Canada basically wanted an American aircraft.

And so, because this is the internet and basically everyone is free to speculate on any old nonsense that pops into their head, I’m going to play “Fantasy RCAF Defence Procurement Manager”.

Because though the RCAF does really need to get some new aircraft on order, they have spent quite a lot of money on upgrading their existing Hornets, which means the pressure is off a little AND they have to get enough service time out of the upgrades to warrant their purchase.

So, what if the Canadian government turn around in a few weeks and say:

“After careful assessment neither offering meets criteria and we are reopening the competition.”

If you think they can’t do that, then you probably need to read more about the history of weapon acquisition.

In fact, the focus on the two surviving competitors obfuscates another option, one that wasn’t around when the selection process started and wasn’t even a real possibility until July 2020.

Boeing’s F-15EX Eagle II.

I’ll admit, I am indulging now in pure speculation, and I’ll probably be proven utterly incorrect in a few weeks when a choice is made.

But let’s have a look at this aircraft.

When the USAF ordered its first eight of this type in July 2020, the -EX went from a theoretical might-be aircraft to one that is going to be major part of the United States Air Force for several decades. As many as two hundred could be ordered, and that means the aircraft is going to be getting regular updates to both software and hardware and long-term operational support to keep it a viable combat aircraft.

 

Plus, in terms of its capabilities, well, it kind of hits the sweet spot as far as RCAF requirements go. It isn’t some super fighter as the F-35 is sometimes portrayed, and at projected flyaway costs of $80 million per aircraft, it is far more expensive than the Gripen. But that initial expense buys an aircraft that will provide both a long-range aerial patroller and a ground attack aircraft for use in overseas missions.

In fact, it could probably do both those jobs better than the two existing competitors.

For air patrol, the F-15EX draws on its Eagle lineage. This aircraft has been the USAF’s foremost air superiority fighter since the 1970s, and in the -EX is reaching even greater capabilities. In terms of loiter and air combat sustainability, the -EX is superior to both the Gripen and F-35 with the ability to carry up to twelve air-air-missiles.

 

And though it is an expensive aircraft, it’s long-term operational costs are projected to be much lower than the F-35s. Plus, it should be remembered that for the defence of North American air space, should things get hot in that area, the RCAF would not be operating alone. Any threat there would almost certainly cause an American response, which would enable RCAF F-15EXs to integrate directly into USAF doctrine and joint operations.

The USAF says it sees the F-15EX being part of a combined team, where it’s heavy weapon load integrates with and compliments the advanced sensor suite of the F-35 and the projected NGAD sixth-generation aircraft.

If the RCAF were to use the F-15EX, then they would have an aircraft that would be a formidable air defence aircraft in its own right but with the possibility of integrating with American tactical and operational systems in the event that it needed to.

So though the -EX is open to criticism for being a less advanced aircraft than the F-35 due to its lack of stealth, by being compatible with American future tactical doctrine, as it is currently being set out, the -EX should redress that issue.

And in terms of use in foreign fields, which honestly seems the more likely potential usage, the -EX has excellent ground attack capabilities. Once again, it can carry more ordnance over greater distances than either the Gripen or the F-35.

It also can fly with a second crewman if necessary. This can be a real asset on ground attack missions, and the -EX’s ability to fly with either one or two crew could be considered a real advantage on mission flexibility.

Plus, the -15EX, as a Boeing product, could utilize the existing relationship between that corporation and Canada. This is, admittedly, rather rocky at the moment, but is still a factor for consideration.

Of course, it would require an entirely new production line to be established, depending on how much Boeing would be prepared to allow Canadian production of the -EX. But as Boeing Canada already has existing facilities and an extensive workforce in Canada, something they made great play of for their F-18E bid, this would represent a real bonus with securing employment for current workers and subcontractors.

As already said, this is all just me speculating, and neither Boeing nor the Canadian government have given any indication that the F-15EX is under consideration. But given the drawn-out nature of the competition to find the RCAF’s next fighter, well, at this stage nothing would particularly surprise me.

Feel free to discuss in the comments what you think about the RCAF’s current predicament.

Related:

Saab Gripen Goes Up Against F-18E and F-35 for Canadian Fighter Contract

Saab Throw Down on Canadian Fighter Bid

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Ed Nash

Ed Nash

Ed Nash has spent years traveling around the world. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria; his book on his experiences, Desert Sniper, was published by Little, Brown in September 2018.
Ed Nash

Ed Nash

Ed Nash has spent years traveling around the world. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria; his book on his experiences, Desert Sniper, was published by Little, Brown in September 2018.

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Tony Whitaker
Tony Whitaker(@kawatony1964)
1 month ago

I don’t think the F-15EX can be fitted with the refuelling probe used by Canada’s tanker aircraft.