By: MATTHEW FISHER in Crystal City, Va.
THE RUSSIAN PRESENCE IN THE ARCTIC IS NOT MYTHICAL. IT RENOVATED 15 BASES THERE IN 2015.
Having remained mostly silent during the often overheated debate about Canada’s next fighter jet purchase that took place during the Stephen Harper years, Lockheed Martin has begun to pitch its F-35 as the best choice to defend the vast Atlantic and Pacific approaches to Canada and especially the High Arctic.
|Photo: LOCKHEED MARTIN FILES|
It’s no coincidence that Lockheed Martin has stressed the F-35’s suitability for Arctic operations, something that lines up with the Liberals’ focus on asserting Canada’s sovereignty over the Far North, writes Matthew Fisher.
It is probably no coincidence that what Lockheed has chosen to stress about the fifth-generation warplane dovetails with the Liberal government having declared that asserting Canada’s sovereignty over the Far North and the defence of North American airspace were among its security priorities.
It follows a promise from Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan that Canada will conduct “an open and transparent process to replace the CF18s.”
That reverses what the Liberals had said during the election campaign about excluding the F-35 from consideration from what will be a multibillion-dollar contract, no matter which fighter jet platform the federal government buys.
It comes after the Pentagon has said the cost of each F-35 has dropped to US$100 million from $145 million and is expected to dip to about $80 million by 2019.
The high cost of the Joint Strike Fighter had been one of the other major complaints in Canada.
Lockheed’s emphasis on the suitability of the JSF for Arctic operations against manned, unmanned and missile threats was designed to clear up “misconceptions about this airplane,” Billie Flynn, a former RCAF squadron commander who is a senior test pilot on the F-35, said at Lockheed’s offices in a Washington suburb.
The JSF has only one engine, which critics say makes it is too dangerous to fly over the vast northern expanses.
This assessment is at odds with the U.S. decision to base its entire over-the-pole fighter jet defence on the F-35 — as it has done for decades with the single-engine F-16.
Similarly, Norway intends to fly only F-35s above the Arctic Circle. Canada’s other Arctic ally, Denmark, which sometimes sends fighter jets to Greenland, is likely to opt for the F-35 soon, too.
“Think about Air Canada no longer having four-engine airplanes,” Flynn said in explaining why other countries had decided to deploy F-35s in the Far North.
“We fly across the Pacific, the Atlantic and even as far down as Australia in twoengine aircraft. It is the same with fighter engines. There is no need for two engines anymore.”
The F-35 was a better choice for Canada in the Arctic than fourth-generation alternatives such as Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet, Flynn said, because it had more sophisticated sensors, including passive and active radars that could spot intruders at a greater distance.
“Russia is closer than you think. It is only 840 nautical miles from Alert,” Flynn said, referring to Canada’s top secret air force listening post at the north end of Ellesmere Island. “The Russian presence in the Arctic is not mythical. It renovated 15 bases there in 2015.”
The F-35 has faced hard questions over a potentially dangerous ejection seat, problems with overheating when its bomb bay is open at high altitudes, and software glitches with the helmet and with millions of lines of coding for the jet’s computer, which is meant to fuse information from its radars, infrared cameras, electronic jammers and the computers of other aircraft flying with it.
While acknowledging that there had been challenges, Flynn said they were being resolved. Where there had been about 3,000 “deficiencies,” there were now “419, which sounds like a lot, but it isn’t,” he said.
Flynn said he believed the F-35 was uniquely capable of providing the edge required to counter the “stealthy” jets being developed by Russia and China.
Having “stealth is a matter of survivability. If you don’t have it, you are an RCAF pilot who is not coming home,” Flynn said.
“You need an aircraft that can sense (other aircraft) from a long way away and then prosecute them if and when that is required.”
If Canada were to chose another aircraft, Flynn raised the prospect that the government might have “to leave the country’s Arctic defence to allies” whose F-35s would be capable of dealing with a new generation of lethal long-range Russian missiles such as the S-400, which can strike targets hundreds of kilometres away.