C.S. Sullivan is a former general officer and fighter pilot, has served in senior command and leadership positions in the Canadian Forces, NATO and NORAD, and commanded international combat operations in Afghanistan.
In late 2008, the Royal Canadian Air Force briefed me on its efforts to identify a replacement for Canada’s aging CF-18 fleet. As the former director-general of Capability Development at DND and defence advisor to the Prime Minister’s Privy Council Office, I was surprised to learn that the Air Force was recommending the sole source acquisition of the F-35.
Most alarming was that this internal Air Force decision had been taken without a “Statement of Requirement”, without a competitive process, and, as I was to learn later, with no clear understanding of program costs or the aircraft’s final operational capability. Although concerned, I departed for Afghanistan for duty as NATO’s Air Component Commander, comforted in knowing that the Government would not approve the largest military procurement program in Canadian history without an open and thorough competitive process.
As we have learned, the exact opposite occurred. The Air Force’s internal decision to sole-source the F-35 was embraced by the minister of defence and endorsed by the government, knowing that there had been no competitive process. To the relief of many, the Auditor-General created the opportunity for the Government to reconsider its F-35 decision.
Canada’s strategic military planners use a capability-based methodology, not the U.S.-styled threat-based approach, to identify future military capabilities and equipment. Recognizing that Canada’s military “can’t do everything”, a capability-based approach allows planners to focus on defence and security scenarios that are most relevant and most likely for Canadian foreign and defence policy goals and objectives. The U.S. threat-based approach focuses on worst-case scenarios and threats that, no matter how unlikely such scenarios might be, are unavoidable for the world’s preeminent global superpower. Countries that have purchased the F-35 have non-discretionary defence missions far different than Canada.
For this reason, Lockheed-Martin designed the F-35 to be a stealthy strike fighter with the ability to carrying out pre-emptive and retaliatory strikes against China and Russia. Although assessed as highly unlikely that Canada would participate in these types of “discretionary” combat missions, it was this type of threat-based scenario that Canada’s Air Force surprisingly used to justify its selection of the F-35.
To identify the most suitable fighter aircraft requires an open and transparent competitive process. Only a competition can rigorously measure the capabilities of each competing aircraft against Canada’s non-discretionary defence mission requirements. Non-discretionary missions are those related to domestic security operations, air sovereignty missions across Canada’s high Arctic, homeland defence operations, and continental defence and security. Non-discretionary missions define the mandatory requirements that need to guide the selection of Canada’s next fighter aircraft.
Three of the four contenders – Boeing’s Super Hornet, Dassault’s Rafale, and Eurofighter’s Typhoon – meet and, in many cases, exceed the mandatory requirements of Canada’s non-discretionary missions. Surprisingly, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 would not fare as well given its most notable deficiencies: air refueling capability incompatible with Canada’s tanker fleet; no tail-hook for landings on icy runways and in the high Arctic; and a single-engine aircraft with limited range and payload. Losing an engine on a twin-engine fighter is a non-event. An engine failure on a single-engine fighter is catastrophic.
As F-35 users in the U.S., Australia and the U.K. have confessed – but seemingly not to Canada – the narrowly-focused strike capability of the F-35 will require close integration with other air superiority and multi-role fighters for decades to come. A mixed fleet approach is required to address the narrowly-focused capabilities of the F-35, which are capabilities that are not a good fit for Canada’s non-discretionary missions.
If the government of Canada is interested in selecting the most appropriate fighter aircraft to meet Canada’s defence needs, then the rigour of a competitive process seems to be the only way forward.