F-35 deal isn’t perfect but it’s the only one in town

May 8, 2011

By ALEX WILNER and MARCO WYSS

ZURICH — Canadians are missing something in the debate over the purchase of the Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the F-35.

Two unprecedented shifts are rocking the global arms market for fighter jets.

First, there’s a quasi-revolution taking place in fighter jet technology. We are now entering a period dominated by “fifth generation” aircraft, fighters which will have “allaspect” stealth abilities with internal weapons systems, integrated avionics at the pilot’s fingertips, and “supercruise” capabilities that greatly enhance performance.

When it becomes operative, the F-35 will be the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world.

While opponents of the F-35 argue that Canada’s aging CF-18 Hornets can be replaced with fourth (and “fourth-plus”) generation aircraft, they’re missing the broader point. Upgraded fourth generation aircraft —like the F-18 Super Hornet — will be able to fly future combat missions, but that won’t stop them from becoming increasingly obsolete.

It won’t happen overnight, but eventually fourth generation aircraft will go the way of third and second generation aircraft: To the dump.

The F-35 will have a qualitative edge over older aircraft models no matter what the upgrade. The only comparable fighter is the F-22 Raptor, flown by the U.S. Air Force.

But Washington has already phased out the Raptor’s production, having placed all its bets on the F-35. Our allies have gotten the message: Britain, Australia, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, and Norway will all be flying F-35s by 2020. Israel, Japan and others are likely to follow.

If Canadians want to equip their air force with the best available tools, they need to focus on next generation technology.

There’s little point in looking back. The future rests with fifth, not fourth, generation technology. The risk in spending less today on a souped-up version of the CF-18 is Canada will find itself replacing outdated hardware before long — an expensive proposition.

Second, the fighter-jet industry has become increasingly polarized. The Americans, Russians, and Chinese are tomorrow’s heavyweights. While some Canadians find it suspicious no alternative bids were entertained when selecting the F-35, in reality, there are virtually no competitors.

When a government decides to purchase military hardware from another country, it isn’t only thinking about improving the quality of its armed forces. It’s also thinking about the political and strategic signals it’s sending to others.

The arms trade can be a political minefield. Ideally, Canada will buy its fighters from an ally.

In doing so, we’ll avoid sending an unintended message with our purchase and pre-emptively grease the wheels in the event spare parts are needed during periods of crisis. It’s important, too, that Canada signs off with a manufacturer that will survive over the long haul. That will ease maintenance, upgrades, and future developments. Buy Russian? Chinese? Where does that leave Canada? We could approach the French or the Swedes. Both have sophisticated options in the Rafale and Gripen but, like the Super Hornet, these rely on older technology.

Given the huge investment needed to leap into the next generation, both countries are likely to eventually close shop. It’s possible a European consortium, like the one behind the Eurofighter Typhoon, will emerge in the future, but it’s a long shot.

Several European partners have already invested in the F-35 project, so they won’t be inclined to support another risky venture. Like it or not, the era of the European fighter jet is coming to a close.

That leaves Russia and China. Both countries are developing next generation fighters to rival the F-35. Russia began testing the PAK-FA a year ago, while China unveiled its J-20 in January.

But are Canadians really prepared to fly Russian or Chinese jets into battle?

The political and strategic ramification would be monumental. What would our allies think? What would Moscow and Beijing think? Neither option will do. While the F-35 deal isn’t perfect, it’s the only one in town.

Source : Calgary Sun

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