Tuesday, April 17, 2018

F-35 UPDATE: IT'S STILL A MESS.



With all the political animosity going on against Boeing, one might think that Lockheed-Martin's F-35 has returned to its rightful place as the likely CF-18 replacement.

Time, and the passage of it, works out in favor of the F-35 in Canada.  It has now been over three years since the Liberal Government's rise to power on the promise to scrap the F-35 purchase.  During that time, the JSF program has hit milestones and began to enter service with the US military.  Costs have come down.  Most important of all, its chief sales rival has seen a catastrophic fall from grace.  Given all this, it would seem the F-35 could very well make a Canadian comeback.

Well...  Not so fast.

In the past, two of the JSF's most worrying issues have been its costs and its mission readiness.  Recent reports do little dissuade these fears.

While increasing the F-35's production rate has resulted in a decrease in production cost, its sustainment cost is still outrageously high.  So high, in fact, that the USAF has threatened to cut its future orders until Lockheed Martin is able to reduce the F-35's cost per flight hour (estimated at $50,000/hr).

Obviously, if the JSF is too costly for the USAF, it is certainly to costly for the cash-strapped RCAF.



Perhaps more worrisome is the fact that the F-35 is still woefully unready for combat.  While the USAF and USMC may be willing to declare the aircraft operational, it will likely be some time before the the fighter is actually put in any sort of harm's way.  Despite more than a decade of flight testing, the JSF is still riddled with bugs and falling short of its planned capability.

Concerns about the F-35's reliability are not helped by the fact that the U.S. Department of Defense has begun to refuse new deliveries of the aircraft.  This stems from a dispute last year which saw F-35's delivered without proper rust-proofing.  A fix has been devised, but neither side is willing to pay for the expensive retrofits.

Once again, this proves that the true cost of the F-35 is very much unknown.  In its rush to get the JSF into full-rate production, Lockheed Martin and the Joint Program Office have scores of fighter jets that each require tens-of-millions worth of retrofits.

The JSF program is quickly approaching 300 aircraft...  And they still lack the reliability and the affordability required of them.

The F-35 is the "MAX POWER" of fighter jets.


Friday, April 13, 2018

CAN BOEING MAKE NICE WITH CANADA?


Block III Super Hornet
The Boeing/Bombardier brouhaha can now be delegated to the annals of history.  The C Series is alive and well, thank you very much.

After encouraging the Trump administration to impose stiff tariffs on the Canadian-designed airliner, Bombardier fought back with an Airbus partnership.  That partnership would render those tariffs moot by building C Series in the USA.  If that was not enough, the U.S. International Trade Commission unanimously voted to overturn those tariffs.  After suffering that one-two punch, Boeing has decided to drop its case against Bombardier.

In its zeal to smother the C Series in its crib, Boeing stepped on toes and made enemies.  First, it raised the ire of the Canadian government.  This resulted in Boeing losing a $6 billion Super Hornet order which otherwise would have been a sure thing.  Not only that, but Boeing also ticked off Great Britain (which builds part of the C Series) and Delta Airlines (the C Series most prominent buyer).

Like a Looney Tunes antagonist, Boeing's plans to defeat a seemingly harmless opponent blew up in its face.

Boeing's current state.
Lucky for Boeing, it still has allies in the US government.

Only a few years ago, it seemed that the Super Hornet assembly line would be coming to a close.  Boeing's salvation came in the form of a hawkish new President backed by Republican-controlled House and Senate.  While the Pentagon previously preferred to throw money at the F-35, now the prevailing wisdom seems to be: "Why not both?"  This has given the Super Hornet has a new lease on life.

One has to wonder how Boeing will now fare in international sales, however.  The Super Hornet is still officially a contender to replace the CF-18...  But Boeing has been rather blasé about it, being the only manufacturer to skip an information session.

Boeing may instead decide to focus its efforts on the Indian market.  Like its rival Lockheed-Martin, Boeing has offered to partner up with Indian manufacturers in producing Indian-made Super Hornets.    This deal, while lucrative, may very well end in frustration as India's convoluted military procurement history make's Canada's seem straightforward by comparison.  One simply has to study India's history with the Rafale and the HAL FGFA.

F/A-18E Block III
What are the Super Hornet's chances for a Canadian sale?

The current ice-cold relations between Canada and Boeing do not bode well for the fighter.  Boeing's half-hearted attempts to remain in the contest could be a matter of too little, too late.  It does leave the door open to future damage control, however.

I, for one, am glad to see the Super Hornet is still a candidate to replace the CF-18.  The Block III improvements go a long way to making Rhino more competitive...  Even though Boeing's latest PR material omits the "Enclosed Weapon Pods".  The Super Hornet is a great workhorse.

Can Boeing do anything to rid the sour taste left in Canada's mouth?  Has the Super Hornet been delegated to the role of "also ran" after once being considered the defacto replacement for the CF-18?  Do the Block III improvements do enough to make the Super Hornet competitive against is sexier competitors?

I guess we will see.

Friday, April 6, 2018

I'M BACK!



The house is back together in (relative) order and I have a computer again.  Time to get back to work.  

Thanks to all of those who sent concern and well wishes.  We made out more or less unscathed from the whole process.  While I wouldn't recommend it, having a house fire turns out to be a great way to get some renovations done.  Of course, my hands are now calloused from assembling IKEA furniture and I have a few more grey hairs.

Once I get my bearings, I'd like to find the answers to a few questions:
  • Can Boeing and Canada make nice again?
  • Is the F-35 program still a mess?
  • Will the Aussie Hornets be lemons?
  • Will Canada ever get a new fighter to replace the CF-18?
  • Should I buy a drone?
  • What's the average airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?
Hopefully we can find the answers to these question (and more) in the upcoming months.  

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A QUICK UPDATE...



I just wanted to give a quick update to those wondering where the hell I’ve been for the last couple of months.

As you may have heard; I am still very much alive and well after a house fire.  The main floor and all our belongings in it was pretty much a loss due to extensive smoke damage.  This included the computer in which I used to research and write this particular blog.  Thankfully, my house is slowly but surely being repaired and we are hoping to move back in sometime late next month.  Then begins the long process of replacing furniture, electronics, appliances, etc.  Needless to say, I already have a desk and computer all picked out.

With any luck, I should be able to get back to blogging in earnest somewhere in late April to May.  Since we now have confirmation that Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Eurofighter, Dassault, and Saab are participating; it should be a hell of a ride.

Thanks for your patience and please stay tuned...

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

USED AUSSIE HORNETS: IT’S OFFICIAL



Well...  We all saw this coming, didn’t we?

It was announced today that the the Canadian government will acquire 18 used RAAF F/A-18 Hornets. This will address the “capability gap” that the RCAF finds itself in thanks to an aging fighter fleet.  

Along with this announcement, it was announced that Canada would begin its search for a permanent CF-18 replacement.  If all goes according to plan, a contract will be awarded by 2022 with deliveries beginning in 2025.  Interestingly enough, it was announced that the new fighter analysis will include an assessment of "overall impact on Canada's economic interests," (take that, Boeing!)

So...  I looks like it’ll be ANOTHER four years (at least) before this long, winding CF-18 replacement saga.  (And me without my iMac!)


p.s:  I want to thank all of you who have offered support after my recent personal challenge.  It is very much appreciated.  

Just to give you an update, my family and I are safe and sound. We have a place to stay and the insurance company has been great so far.  While the house fire was limited to the kitchen, smoke damage has written off most of the interior of the house. It’s all mostly stuff that can be replaced or repaired and we we are looking at it as chance to do some much needed renovations. 

This holiday season is going to be different for sure, but it’s driving home what is really important:  Family, friends, and good will toward mankind. 

I hope to make the occasional post here over the next few months. Luck willing, things will be back to normal just in time for Canada’s fighter search to begin in earnest. 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

GONNA HAVE TO TAKE A SABBATICAL...



Due to circumstances beyond my control, I am going to have to take a short break from blogging.

Too put things bluntly, my house caught fire.  Everyone is safe but I will be without a home (and my trusty iMac) for several weeks (months?).  Needless to say, this puts a damper on things for a bit.

I hope to get back as soon as I can.

I’m the meantime, Happy Holidays (yes, all holidays matter!) and be well.

-Doug

Sunday, November 26, 2017

DO WE REALLY WANT TO BUY USED?

"Have I got a deal for you..."
In the wake of the Boeing/Bombardier/Airbus fiasco, the Boeing Super Hornet is all but disqualified as Canada's "interim fighter" to fulfill the "capability gap" inflicting the RCAF.  That has left the Government of Canada scrambling to find another fighter to bolster is aging CF-18 fleet.  Unfortunately, this means considering buying used legacy Hornets from other nations.

To some, this is an acceptable idea.  Next to buying simply nothing at all, it certainly is the most affordable option.  Apart from the the initial purchase price and getting the aircraft up to Canadian spec, there would be no additional costs required for training or setting up separate supply chains.  Procuring used Hornets would be as close to "plug-and-play" as we could ever get.

It could be argued that used Hornets would be a much more sensible option than new-build Super Hornets.  This certainly is true from a value proposition.  Those mere 18 Super Hornets had a cost of $6.4 billion.  This is a staggering amount considering the initial estimate for 65 F-35s was $9 billion. Even if the Boeing/Bombardier spat never happened, it would have been wise to reject interim Super Hornets based on sticker shock alone.

RAAF F/A-18A Hornet
Buying used fighters does have its critics, however.  Not the least of which is Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

These used fighters would add no new technology or capability.  Adding them to our fleet would bolster our number of available fighters, but little else.

These used Hornets are being replaced for a reason, after all.  They are rapidly aging and becoming obsolete.  The RAAF Hornets are roughly the same age as those used by Canada.  Like the CF-18, they have flown well beyond their intended lifespan thanks to various refits over the years.  Also like the CF-18, they would require all the additional maintenance a 30+ year-old fighter jet needs to stay airborne.  They would also have a similar lifespan and would be unlikely to make it past 2025 to 2030.  Any delays in acquiring a replacement fighter would still be uncomfortably close.

It also seems highly unlikely that the RAAF will be willing to part with any of its F/A-18 fleet until deliveries of its successor, the F-35A, begin in earnest.  Even then, the first fighters to be retired from the RAAF would likely be the oldest and most decrepit of the fleet.

Kuwaiti KC-18C
Another option could be to acquire used Kuwaiti Hornets.  These would likely be in far better condition than RAAF Hornets.  While the RAAF's F/A-18 fleet is roughly the same age as Canada's, Kuwait did not acquire its first Hornet until the 90s.  As such, it flies the more modern F/A-18C.  While this would not add much capability to the RCAF fleet (CF-18s were upgraded to a similar technology level), at least the aircraft themselves would be much newer.  (Think Millennials to the CF-18s Generation X).

Unfortunately, there is a bit of an availability problem with Kuwaiti Hornets.  Kuwait maintains a relatively small fleet (27) and they are not ready to part with any just yet.  They do have plenty of aircraft on order (28 Typhoons and 40 Super Hornets), but deliveries are still years away.

The ill-fated HMCS Chicoutimi.
One might wonder why the Liberal government is even considering used military equipment.  After all, Canada has a bit of a mixed history when it comes to such a thing.

Perhaps the most glaring example are the Victoria-class submarines.  These formerly-mothballed Upholder-class British boats ended up being a terrible bargain.  While $750 million may have seemed like a great price for a entire submarine fleet, these things have cost additional billions of dollars getting them seaworthy and combat-ready.  Not only that, but the HMCS Chicoutimi ended up costing a sailor his life and injuring another eight.  Even after years of refits, these subs are still trouble-prone.

CC-150 Polaris:  Proof that buying used can work.
It should be noted that not all used military equipment ends up as regrettable as the Victoria-class.  The RCAF's CC-150 Polaris fleet was once owned by the defunct civilian airline Wardair.  By most accounts, the Polaris has been relatively trouble-free.  Of course, these Airbus A310-300s were relatively new at the time, and did not spend years and mothballs like the Victoria-class submarines.  The demands placed on a transport/tanker are also quite different than that of a combat-capable submarine (or fighter jet for that matter).

Buying used fighter jets would certainly be a case of "buyer beware" for the Canadian Department of National Defence.  The Liberal Party of Canada certainly does not have the best reputation when it comes to military procurement, and acquiring 30-year-old fighters to address a "capability gap" certainly will not do much to mend this.

Unfortunately, there may be no ideal solution.  Buying new build Super Hornets would be politically unwise for cost reasons and as retaliation for Boeing trying to stymie Bombardier.  Buying used Hornets runs the risk of repeating the same risks as the RCN's used submarines.

Perhaps a third option should be considered?

Czech Gripen C, operated under lease from Saab
While Canada's Chief of Defence Staff believes "One cannot lease fighters"; Saab would argue otherwise.  Saab has proven to be more than willing to lease out its Gripen fighters to nations like the Czech Republic and Hungary.  Canada is not the first cash-strapped nation in need of fighters, after all.

As luck would have it, Sweden may have a sizable surplus of Gripen C/D models in the near future.  Unfortunately, the Gripen C/D is not as capable as the JAS 39E.  The C/D variants lack the increased range, power, payload, AESA radar, and IRST of the Gripen E.  In some ways, like range and payload, the Gripen is inferior to Canada's CF-18.  However, these aircraft are all fairly new (built in the 2000s), have an enviable safety record, and are famously affordable.

Acquiring Gripen C/Ds for the RCAF would come with a major caveat.  There would be the additional cost of dealing with a mixed fighter fleet.  This is mitigated somewhat due to the Gripen's use of the same weapons, ease of maintenance, and the fact that its Volvo RM12 is based on the same GE F404 found in the CF-18.  The RCAF would have a similar issue with the Super Hornet, however.  Despite its name and appearance, the Super Hornet shares very little in common with the CF-18.

A more minor caveat would be the fact that the Gripen is simply a smaller, lighter fighter than the CF-18.  For some, it would be seen as a "downgrade".  There would also undoubtedly be uproar over its single-engine layout, for right or for wrong.  The fact of the matter is that there is very little the Gripen cannot do that the CF-18 has done over the last 30 years.

Leasing, or even purchasing, slightly used Gripen C/Ds would certainly be more affordable than purchasing Super Hornets.  Yes, there would be additional start-up costs related to training and logistics, but certainly not in the $6.4 billion range.  They would almost certainly cost more than second-hand RAAF Hornets, but this would be money well spent considering that the RAAF Hornets would require costly refits just to make them last another decade (possibly less).

A leased fleet of Gripens would certainly eliminate plenty of variables associated with an interim fighter.  There would be no need to find a buyer for the aircraft when they are no longer needed.  No need to dispose of fighters that are no longer airworthy.  Canada simply uses the fighters for ten years while it waits for the CF-18 replacement to happen.  It also gives the RCAF a chance to "try-before-you-buy" of the Gripen platform itself.

The Gripen is not a perfect solution for Canada's interim fighter...  But neither is the Super Hornet, old surplus Hornets, or any of the other fighters.  The Gripen certainly merits a look, however.  A short term lease of the C/D model may be enough to convince the powers that be that the more advanced Gripen E/F is the best fighter for Canada.