Despite the military and economic benefits of having a mixed fighter fleet composed of the 5th generation stealthy F-35 and the 4th generation non-stealthy Super Hornet, some critics argue that Canada cannot afford such an aerial force structure. Therefore, some experts suggest that the RCAF should opt for a sole purchase of either the Super Hornet or the F-35. Nonetheless, with the return of great power competition, by having a single fighter fleet, Canada will have difficulties in upholding its two mandates defined in its current defense policy: the defense of North America in cooperation with the US and contributing to international security through expeditionary operations within coalitions like NATO.
Regarding expeditionary operations, peer and near-peer competitors are looking to counter Western air forces’ supremacy by developing land and air-based weapon systems that can be used in an Anti Access/Area denial (A2/AD) fashion aimed at making an airspace off-limits to an enemy air force including stealth fighters. Indeed, it is necessary to bear in mind that stealth has been developed to avoid detection from high frequency radars optimized for targeting, against which non-stealthy aircrafts are vulnerable. However, stealth planes with tail fins like the F-35 are visible to low-frequency radars used for early warning and surveillance. Being aware of this F-35 vulnerability, revisionist countries like Russia and China are developing low frequency surveillance radars able to cue high frequency targeting radar toward the F-35’s location in the sky. Such a radar system can detect and target both non-stealth and stealth aircrafts at greater distances. It is being integrated into ground A2/AD weapons like surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) batteries as well as aerial A2/AD assets like fighters such as the Russian non-stealthy Flanker and the stealthy T-50 PAK-FA. Such a development is quite revolutionary since low frequency radars are voluminous compared to their high frequency counterparts. Usually, airborne low frequency radars are installed as radar dishes on top of large airframes acting as Airborne Early Warning (AEW) platforms such as the E-3 Sentry or the E-2 Hawkeye. That said, the Russian aerospace industry managed to miniaturize these low frequency radars and fit them on fighters in addition to their onboard high frequency targeting radar. Current Western fighters like the 4th generation Super Hornet and the 5th generation F-35s are only equipped with high frequency targeting radars which only permits them to detect and engage non-stealthy platforms while enemy stealth jets may operate unopposed.
To counter this rising A2/AD threat in the context of expeditionary operations, a mixed fighter fleet composed of a single type of stealth jet and a series of non-stealth aircrafts is essential. The non-stealth component would include Electronic Warfare (EW) aircrafts, airborne missile platforms (or arsenal planes) and dedicated AEW planes equipped with low frequency radars capable of detecting both stealthy and non-stealthy enemy jets. The stealth component would be composed of the F-35 that will mainly act as a survivable Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) platform as well as an airborne Command and Control (C2) node. Indeed, since near peer and peer competitors will possess a vast amount of military capabilities employed in an A2/AD fashion, stealth fighters cannot destroy those in a swift manner given their limited payload due to their stealth design. The F-35 would be armed with missiles for mostly self-defense. Therefore, to degrade these A2/AD military capabilities in the swiftest way possible, a non-stealthy platform that can act as an arsenal plane is required. As a first step to degrade the air defenses, an EW aircraft operating at a safe distance from the A2/AD envelope will jam low-frequency surveillance radars equipping SAM batteries and airborne enemy fighters. Once the low frequency radars are jammed thus preventing the cueing of high frequency targeting radars designed to guide missiles launched from opposing SAMs or jets, the F-35 can safely enter the A2/AD envelope and identify land and airborne non-stealthy targets (ISTAR role) whose coordinates will be transmitted to far-flying arsenal planes armed with long-range missiles (C2 role). Parallel to that, an AEW platform equipped with a low-frequency radar would be operating at a safe distance from the A2/AD envelope and would be tasked with searching and detecting airborne stealth fighters and then cue in F-35s and non-stealthy arsenal planes’ high frequency targeting radar toward the enemy stealth jet’s location so that they may eliminate them.
Despite the advantages of such a mixed fighter fleet in facing the A2/AD threat posed by revisionist powers, critics argue that Canada cannot afford such a force structure. Indeed, a mixed fighter fleet entails high costs given the need for distinct supply chains and training regimens, something Ottawa can ill afford with a limited defense budget. Therefore, the case is being made for a RCAF exclusively composed of either the 4th generation non-stealthy Super Hornets or the 5th generation F-35. However, in developing a single type force structure, Canada will not have the full spectrum of capabilities mentioned above that are necessary to degrade an A2/AD envelope. The RCAF would have to rely on other partners for certain capabilities it will not have in its arsenal. Thus, Canada will only be a second-tier partner in any future coalition in the context of expeditionary operations. Such an outcome would dash Canada’s aspiration to be an invaluable coalition partner by having military capabilities in high demand.
In addition, a single type fighter fleet would complicate Canada’s task in defending North American airspace in the context of NORAD. Since Russian aerospace forces possess 4th generation Flankers and 5th generation T-50s are equipped with a low and high frequency radar able to detect and engage both non-stealthy and stealthy jets at great distances, a single type RCAF fighter fleet composed exclusively of either the F-35 or a Super Hornet will be unable to effectively counter Russian incursions thus warranting American intervention as per the NORAD treaty.
Nonetheless, Canada can afford a mixed fighter fleet composed of a single type of stealth jets and a series of non-stealth planes if it’s a combination of one manned platform and several types of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) given the relative low cost of drones compared to their manned counterparts.
Photo: F-35Cs and Super Hornets flying in formation over Naval Air Station Fallon’s Range Training Complex (2015) by United States Navy via Wikimedia. Public domain.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.