A deeper look at the necessity of a mixed RCAF fighter fleet: part II

As seen in part I, to effectively protect North American airspace and conduct overseas operations in light of new threats posed by peer and near-peer competitors, the RCAF needs an aerial force structure composed of combat aircraft coupled with support assets such as Command and Control (C2), Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), Airborne Early Warning (AEW) and Electronic Warfare (EW) platforms. Canada can acquire such a mixed force structure at an affordable price by developing a manned/unmanned mix. Regarding the support component, the manned F-35 will act as an airborne C2 and ISR platform while human-scale Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) would perform the AEW and EW missions. As for the combat element of this hypothetical aerial force structure, small UAVs operating within swarms would be the best option.

 

Regarding the C2 and ISR functions, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 is the best bet. Indeed, on the condition that it is supported by stand-off EW aircrafts jamming low-frequency radars against which a stealth fighter is vulnerable and AEW planes able to detect enemy stealthy jets, the F-35 can perform its ISR mission close to enemy assets. Indeed, the F-35 has an unparalleled capability to transmit intelligence collected by its advanced sensors to other platforms and thus coordinate them as per the C2 mission. Additionally, given that its main role would be to perform those two support tasks instead of combat, only a small number of F-35s will be required. As seen in a previous article, the acquisition of even a small number of F-35s would prevent a costly lawsuit from Lockheed Martin and would enable Canada to remain in the F-35’s global supply chain for decades to come. Moreover, it’s safe to assume that the F-35’s price tag will come down by the early to mid-2020s, the timeframe when an open competition to find a permanent replacement for the RCAF’s aging CF-18s will take place. Furthermore, by that time, it is safe to assume that most of the technical issues currently plaguing the F-35 would have been fixed.

 

As for the AEW and EW roles, human-scale UAVs like the MQ-25 Stingray would undertake those tasks. Given the significant progress made in autonomous drones which enhance man/machine teaming, a pilot in a F-35 can control many drones acting as wingmen without being overwhelmed. Future drones will be highly automated enabling them to perform routine and simple tasks by themselves such as flying while critical decisions such as engaging an enemy target are taken by a pilot in a manned plane.  Although the unit cost of such a human-scale UAV will be similar to a manned jet’s, there will be significant cost savings since Canada might just have to buy a small number of those UCAVs. Indeed, since it is an onboard software that controls the aircraft for the routine and simple actions, there is no need for training men and women in how to fly and maintain their skills on such a platform. Therefore, there is no need to buy a great number of planes so that some can be tasked with operational duties whereas others are used for training. Furthermore, because UAVs have greater endurance than manned jets that have pilots with physical limitations, a smaller number of autonomous drones is needed to cover a certain area for an extended period. In addition, this endurance can be increased in the event Canada buys human-scale UAVs optimized as tankers that increase the range of the UAVs performing the AEW and EW roles.

 

Concerning combat, Canada doesn’t need a human-scale drone acting as an airborne missile platform to offset the stealthy F-35’s inherent minimal payload. This would just cost more money, something the CF lacks. The RCAF can opt for a more cost-effective solution consisting of mini-UAVs operating as a swarm. Like their human-scale counterparts, those small drones will be autonomous thus lightening a fighter pilot’s task of controlling the unmanned wingmen.  Once a fighter pilot orders the swarm of mini-UAVs to engage previously detected enemy assets, those small drones armed with onboard explosives blow up when in contact with the targets. Indeed, it is now possible for small objects to possess great explosive power thanks to the advent of nano-explosives. In addition, those swarms of mini-UAVs will have a considerable combat radius due to recent progress in new gel fuels enabling a fighter pilot to safely control these small drones  hundreds of miles away from an enemy presence.

 

Moreover, unlike their human-scale counterparts, those mini-UAVs will be very cheap to produce thanks to 3D printing technology. In the near future, this manufacturing process will allow the production of hundreds or even thousands of drones per day thus enabling the formation of massive and expendable swarms of mini-UAVs that will easily submerge enemy assets through sheer mass. In addition to the kinetic role, those small drones will also perform in the future the ISR function currently undertaken by the F-35. Therefore, instead of venturing close to enemy assets, the F-35 can operate at a safe distance and focus on the C2 role while swarms of expendable drones specialized in ISR gather intelligence close to the enemy forces and transmit it to the far-flying F-35. In turn, the F-35 pilot orders the swarms of combat UAVs to attack the targets previously identified by the ISR mini-drones.

 

By developing such a force structure once the open competition starts in the early to mid 2020s, the RCAF will be able to effectively counter future threats in its NORAD missions and potential expeditionary operations. By having a potent air force capable of countering the future challenges such as enemy fighters trespassing into North American airspace and anti-access are denial (A2/AD) envelopes, Canada will be able to raise its profile on the international scene and be seen a valuable partner.

 

Photo: An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) X-47B flies past the aircraft carrier USS George H.W Bush (2013) by US Navy via Flickr. Photo courtesy of US Navy.


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.

About Alexis Amini

Alexis Amini – editor for the Canadian Armed Forces program – is a graduate student in public and international affairs at Université de Montréal (UdeM), Québec. He has a BSc in political science from the same university. Having lived in Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates where he witnessed major geopolitical events, Alexis developed a passion for international security. His research focus revolves around geopolitics, defense policies and political risk analysis. Upon completion of his master’s program, Alexis intends to join the strategic intelligence industry.