Do we really, really want a “second best” fighter?

Screenshot 2016-06-13 11.46.01During the 2015 election campaign Prime Minister Trudeau promised that “We [Canada] will not buy the F-35 stealth fighter-bomber.” Instead he promised to “reduce the procurement budget for replacing the CF-18s” but, then, later, he promised to increase the numbers from 65 to 88.

So, more airplanes for less money … but not the F-35 … have I got that right? For a while, at least, it appeared that Canada was headed for the F-18 Super Hornet but (massively government funded) Boeing‘s attack on (heavily government funded) Bombardier may have derailed that … or scrapped it completely.

But now I see a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a highly chengdu-j-20regarded US think tank, that asks, in its title: “Does China’s J-20 rival other stealth fighters?” The J-20, the report says, “is one of two stealth fighters being simultaneously developed in China.  The other aircraft is the Shenyang FC-31, a smaller multirole stealth fighter that is being developed by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation and could potentially be commercially exported to other countries. The two Chinese stealth fighters may have been designed to complement each other in a similar manner to the planned deployment of the F-22 and F-35 by the United States. At present, China and the U.S. are the only two countries that have concurrent stealth fighter programs.

The report goes on to say that “The J-20 has the potential to considerably enhance China’s regional military strength. According to a 2014 U.S. Naval War College report, an operational stealth fighter would “immediately become the most advanced aircraft deployed by any East Asian Power,” surpassing the aircraft fielded in India, Japan, Australia, Indonesia, or Taiwan. The U.S.-China Economic J-20_at_Airshow_China_2016and Security Review Commission advances a similar assessment, noting that the arrival of the J-20 will enhance China’s military leverage against opposing forces in the region. With the J-20 expected become fully operational in the next couple of years, the PLAAF has a considerable head start over the Indian, Japanese, and Korean air forces, which are not slated to put their locally-made advanced fighter counterparts into service until the 2020s … [and, while] … Opinions vary about the J-20’s comparative strengths as an air superiority (air-to-air) fighter or a strike (air-to-ground) aircraft. Some analysts believe that the J-20’s emphasis on frontal stealth makes it an effective long-range interceptor, meant for mid-air engagements. Others see the J-20 as a long-range strike aircraft, best suited for penetrating enemy air defenses and damaging critical infrastructure on the ground. Such high-value targets would include airfields, command bases, and other military installations. A 2015 RAND report noted the J-20’s “combination of forward stealth and long range could hold U.S. Navy surface assets at risk, and that a long-range maritime strike capability may be a cause for greater concern than a short-range air-superiority fighter like the F-22.” The J-20’s size and weapons configuration may, however, preclude it from functioning as an effective strike fighter in either context. Importantly, the mission types Chinese pilots are trained for may determine how the J-20 is eventually utilized … [and] … Reports differ regarding the J-20’s range, which is expected to fall between 1,200 and 2,700 kilometers. Regardless of this uncertainty, the J-20’s combat radius is likely to extend well-beyond the Chinese mainland. The U.S. Naval War College suggests that the J-20 could be an “effective surface-attack platform for out to several hundred nautical miles at sea.” Air Power Australia notes that the J-20 would be a suitable choice of aircraft for operating within China’s “first island chain” and “second island chain.” Should China integrate aerial refueling aircraft with the J-20, the stealth fighter’s operational range would extend even further across the Asia-Pacific.

Prime Minister Trudeau said, back in 2015, that “The priority mission of our fighter Sukhoi_T-50_Beltyukovaircraft should remain the defence of North America, not stealth, first-strike capability.” And he did withdraw our CF-18s from combat in Iraq, but our CF-18s are now patrolling Iceland’s airspace, ready to meet Russian intruders … no, it’s not a “stealth first-strike” mission but what if they, eventually, have to face Russian Sukhoi PAK FA fifth generation fighters (very much like the US F-22 and the Chinese J-20)? Will Prime Minister Trudeau really want Canadian pilots to be flying anything less than the most modern, capable, fifth generation aircraft? He may not care, but will you?

I suppose the real question is: does anyone really believe that either Justin Trudeau or Harjit Sajjan know or care much about military strategy or operations or did they just promise whatever they thought would take anti-Conservative votes away from the New Democrats (strategic voting), without thinking much of anything through?

I don’t know how good (or not so good) the J-20 or the PAK FA are … I don’t know how good the US F-22 is, either. But I trust the experts when they say that fifth generation fighters are superior to the fourth generation models, like the Super Hornet, and I don’t think I want to send old technology up against the newest technology in air-to-air combat or even in interception missions … no matter how good our pilots are, and I think they are amongst the very best in the world.

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