Sunday, 21 September 2014

Running out of runway.



Hat tip to Eric Palmer!

Eight-thousand feet.

That is the minimum amount of runway required to safely operate the conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) version of the F-35, the F-35A.  For training purposes it is preferable for the newbie F-35 pilot to have up to 10,000 feet to allow for a margin of error.  This is according to RAAF documents, found here (warning:  PDF download).

For those not keeping score, the CTOL F-35A was (is?) the planned replacements for the RCAF's aging CF-18s.  Being a carrier-capable aircraft, the CF-18 has little problem operating out of shorter runways.  Strengthened landing gear, low stall speed, and an arrestor hook make for snappy take-offs and landings.  The F-35A lacks these benefits, as they are not required to operate out of large USAF airbases with more than enough runway to go around.

For Canada, things are a little different.



Canada's current fleet of CF-18s are operated out of two airbases, CFB Cold Lake, Alberta and CFB Bagotville, Quebec.  From these two bases, CF-18s are often rotated to CFB Comox (BC), CFB Goose Bay (NL), CFB Gander (NL), and CFB Greenwood (NS).  CF-18s also often find themselves in CFB Trenton (ON).  All of these bases meet the 8,000 foot requirement for the F-35, some of them, just barely.

Here is a list of these bases along with the length of their longest runway, in feet.


  • CFB Cold Lake:  12,600
  • CFB Bagotville:  10,000

  • CFB Comox:  10,000
  • CFB Goose Bay:  11,051
  • CFB Gander:  10,200
  • CFB Greenwood:  8,000 (the minimum)

  • CFB Trenton:  10,000


Things get hazier when we look at Canada's Forward Operating Locations (FOL) up north.  These FOLs allow the fighters to operate in Canada's northernmost territory.  These locations share a runway with a civilian airport and simply do not have the resources of a full military base.  These runways are built with small, commuter aircraft in mind, not stealth fighters.


  • FOL Yellowknife:  7,503
  • FOL Inuvik:  6,001
  • FOL Rankin Inlet:  6,000 
  • FOL Iqalut:  8,605


Notice that Iqalut is the only base the meets the minimum requirement.


"A detachable pod that deploys a chute directly behind the jet nozzle in order to keep the multi-million dollar fighter from careening off the runway and into the landscape?  What could possibly go wrong?"

Of course, Lockheed Martin is working on a drag chute to help reduce landing distance, these of course, cost extra.  They are also rather unique in the fact that they need to be constructed out of kevlar instead of the usual nylon.   This is due to the chute's position directly behind the F-35's engine nozzle.

Like much else attached to the F-35, the drag chute "pod" still needs to undergo testing before it is cleared for service.

By the way, here are some distances needed by other fighters at Maximum Takeoff Weight (MTOW):


  • Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet:  3,680ft (Maximum Landing Weight)
  • Eurofighter Typhoon:  2,300ft
  • Dassault Rafale:  1,475ft
  • Saab Gripen NG:  <2,000ft


Of the above, the Super Hornet, Rafale, and Gripen are all capable of "rough field" conditions.  Both the Super Hornet and Rafale (M) can use tail hooks.  The Typhoon already has a drag chute installed. The Gripen simply does not need any additional stopping aids.

So what shall it be?

  1. Retrofit a few runways?
  2. Install a (so far untested) drag chute?
  3. Procure an aircraft that manages just fine as is?
Given the extra costs associated with the first two choices, this really is not much of a choice at all.  





Monday, 18 August 2014

Meteor vs. AMRAAM: Minor upgrade or paradigm shift?

MBDA Meteor
AIM-120C-5 AMRAAM
European nations have been quick to embrace the MBDA Meteor as their preferred BVR A2A missile.  Integration testing is underway for the Eurofighter Typhoon and already completed for the Saab Gripen.  The Rafale is planned to provisions to carry two Meteors by 2018.

American fighter manufactures do not seem to be as enthusiastic, however.  There appears to be no plans as of yet to integrate the Meteor with the F-15, F-16, or F/A-18.  There has been talk about a variant of the Meteor "clipped" to fit inside a F-35's weapon bay, but no funding has been approved for this project thus far.

For the time being, the USAF, USN, USMC, as well as the RCAF will be sticking with the AIM-120 AMRAAM (advance medium range air to air missile).  The latest version, the AIM-120D, will be the "default" air-to-air weapon for the F-35 Lightning II.

So what is the difference?  Is the Meteor really that much better than the battle-tested AMRAAM?

What sets the Meteor apart is its method of propulsion.  Whereas traditional air-to-air missiles utilize solid-fuel rocket engines (similar to a model rocket), the Meteor uses a ramjet engine along with a solid-fuel booster.  The ramjet has two major advantages over a traditional solid-fuel rocket.  First, it does not need to carry an oxidizer, as it simply uses the incoming air.  Second, a ramjet's burn rate is able to be throttled.  This means the Meteor can accelerate at an optimum rate depending on a target's range, speed, and position.

AMRAAM mounted on F-35 bay door.
AMRAAM operation is relatively straight forward.  Targeting data is sent to the AMRAAM's guidance computer just before launch.  The missile is dropped, its solid-fuel rocket ignites, and it flies to where the target should be.  Like the Meteor, it can use a two-way datalink to give and receive target updates while on its intercept course.  When the AMRAAM gets close, it activates its own active radar in order to guide itself the rest of the way.

Once the AMRAAM is fired, its solid-fuel rocket engine will accelerate the missile at a fixed rate until the missile either reaches its target or its fuel runs out.  After this point, the missile can "glide" the rest of the way.  Even without fuel, the AMRAAM still has plenty of kinetic energy traveling at Mach 4.

Don't get excited.  It's only a model.
When fired, the Meteor first accelerates by use of its solid-fuel booster.  This is needed because ramjets require a minimum speed in order to work properly.  Once up to speed, the intake doors open, allowing supersonic air to enter the ramjet.  As this air is "squeezed" into the ramjet, it becomes hot and ignites propellant, providing thrust to the missile.  Like the AMRAAM, the Meteor's guidance system, aided by a two-way datalink (one-way in the Rafale) calculates the optimum flight path and thrust needed to intercept the target.  When close enough, the Meteor's active radar takes over.  Unlike the AMRAAM, the Meteor can increase or decrease its thrust in order to facilitate range or maneuvering.  The goal is to reach the target while maintaining as much energy as possible.  In theory, the Meteor will intercept its foe just as it is running out of fuel.


When researching missiles, one can often see the maximum range of an air-to-air missile.  This maximum is rather trivial, as the range given is under optimal conditions.  This means a non-evading target traveling head-on with both fighters at high altitude.  While some sources may depict a missile as having a range of over 100km or even more, the practical range of an air-to-air missile is much less.

The more important indicator of an A2A missile's performance is its "no escape zone".

Not be be confused with "The Danger Zone" or "The Friend Zone"
A missile's "no escape zone" is not the range at which a successful hit is guaranteed.  It is merely the range between the missiles minimum range and "turn and run" range (Rtr).  The Rtr is the range at which a target can avoid being hit merely by flying away from the missile.  At this range, the missile only has enough energy to intercept the target if the target remains at its current course and speed.

For a better understanding of different missile range terminologies:  Click here.


The above depicts the Dynamic Launch Zone (DLZ) symbology that would be depicted on a pilot's HUD.  Raero is the maximum range of the missile, including a brief period of climb to gain additional kinetic energy.  Ropt is the optimum range, allowing the missile to maneuver during the terminal phase of the interception.  Rpi is similar to Ropt but does not require the missile to climb to increase altitude first.  Rtr is the range at which the target can no longer turn and run from the missile.  Rmin is the minimum range of the missile, anything closer and bad stuff happens.

Targets in the "no escape zone" between Rtr and Rmin can still avoid interception.  Countermeasures, such as a towed decoy can throw off targeting.  Defending aircraft can also pull a "slice" maneuver, causing the missile to overshoot it.  The missile would then need to expend precious energy to get back on target.

All this adds up to a missile's probability of kill, or Pk.

Since its introduction, the AMRAAM has demonstrated a Pk of about 46% when fired beyond visual range.  In all of these cases, the targets were not equipped with radar warning receivers (RWRs), were not performing evasive maneuvers, or even engaging their attacker.  One of these "kills" was a friendly fire incident on a Black Hawk helicopter.

Needless to say, the AMRAAM's Pk against a maneuvering target equipped with an RWR would be much lower than the current 46%, even with advances to the missile's guidance and rocket.  In fact, the AMRAAM has been described as the "Achilles Heel of the U.S. fighter fleet".



So how is the Meteor better?

By utilizing a more flexible ramjet, the Meteor promises to not only have an increased range (maximum range has not been released), but triple the no escape zone of the AIM-120 C-7.  With the ability to modify its speed as it flies, the Meteor is much better suited for intercepting a maneuvering target.  With triple the NEZ, the effective range of the Meteor is much higher.

In comparison, the newest AMRAAM, the AIM-120D promises 50% more range than its predecessor, and an "improved" Pk.  That still requires a stealth fighter to approach uncomfortably close to a target in order to get it within the no escape zone (NEZ).  This is not necessarily an issue for the supercruising and super maneuverable F-22, but a slower, less agile fighter may have trouble.

Further improvements to the AMRAAM, including possible ramjet propulsion have been put on hold thanks to sequestration.  Conversion to AIM-120D standard likely will not occur until 2022.  Meanwhile, Sweden's Gripen fleet will be outfitted with Meteors as early as next year.

The MBDA Meteor is obviously the future.  In not, the Pentagon would not be looking at ramjet propulsion for the AMRAAMs replacement.  Russia also has a ramjet powered R-77PD in the works.  A ramjet simply adds more flexibility than a solid rocket design.

While it is often entertaining to compare individual fighters, it is important to remember that they are one part of a weapon system.  As technology and computing power increase, missile advancements will outpace that of the fighters that carry them.  An older fighter carrying cutting edge missiles will likely have an advantage over a modern fighter carrying obsolete weapons.

With the USA cutting its missile development budget to fund the JSF, one wonders if they have their priorities straight.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Speculating on the Saab/Boeing T-X

Boeing T-X concept (pre-Saab partnership)
Saab and Boeing dropped a bombshell late last year when they announced that they would be joining forces to submit a bid for the upcoming T-X program.  The T-X program intends to replace the venerable T-38 Talon in use by the USAF as a high performance jet trainer.  

What will this collaboration look like?  Early reports on a "decontented" Saab Gripen have been dispelled.  This will be an "all new" aircraft.  Given the context of the T-X program, it is very likely that much of the project will be off-the-shelf in order to keep risk and costs down.  

Designing an all new aircraft does give put the Saab/Boeing T-X bid in a riskier position than the other T-X contenders.  All the other bidders are proposing existing aircraft in order to keep risks to a minimum.  Lockheed Martin is partnering up with Korean KAI in offering the T-50 Golden Eagle, Northrop Grumman is partnering with BAE in offering the Hawk T2/128, and Alenia Aermacchi is offering the M-346 Master.  

Looking at the other contenders, the Lockheed Martin/KAI T-50 is the obvious front-runner.  It is a fairly new design and a fine performer by the looks of it.  It certainly does not hurt to have Lockheed Martin's massive marketing behind it either.  The BAE Hawk is a 40-year-old design, not to mention subsonic.  It is a fine trainer, but it is hard to imagine it being relevant for another 30-50 years.  The M-346 Master is an underdog.  Not only does it lack Lockheed or Boeing's marketing push, but the design is based on the Russian Yak-130.  Needless to say, this could render the design unpalatable in today's political climate.  

Saab and Boeing would likely be able to get away with going a similar route as the competition.  The Gripen is little more "high end" than the others, but a JAS 39D with a cruder radar, no weapon systems, and perhaps a more generic GE F404 engine replacing the Volvo RM12 would bring costs down.  Boeing's mighty manufacturing prowess combined with economies of scale would do the rest.  

Too easy?
So why are Boeing and Saab taking the risk of an all new design?  

Perhaps the risk is not as bad as it seems.  There is already some trepidation about Lockheed Martin being the only fighter manufacturer in the USA.  Not only does it raise concerns financially, but strategically as well.  Yet when Boeing ceases production of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and F-15 Eagle within a few years, this will be the case.  The idea of buying hundreds of foreign designed aircraft as fighter-trainers only emphasizes this.  Producing an "all new" aircraft of American heritage actually gives Boeing a considerable political advantage.

Another factor is the possible disadvantage held by the front-runner, the KAI T-50.  Lockheed Martin backing may actually backfire as issues continue with the F-35.  There are rumors that problems and delays with the Northrop B-2 did little favors for the YF-23 Black Widow when it lost to the Lockheed Martin YF-22.

Issues with the F-35 may have another benefit for Saab and Boeings upcoming T-X contender.  As costs go up and problems arise, some have questioned the possibility of an alternative.  At the very least, there may need to be a lower cost option to supplement a smaller-than-expected JSF fleet.  A cheaper, simpler aircraft would also likely make sense for the Air National Guard or for tasks like aggressor training.  

In short, Boeing and Saab may be taking this opportunity to design a trainer...  That could be a lot more than a trainer.  

First and foremost, Boeing and Saab will have to present an affordable and adaptable trainer capable of replacing the T-38 Talon.  This entails several things:
  • Affordability is a priority.  Not just in procurement, but in operation.
  • Risk must be kept to an absolute minimum.  
  • This aircraft will prepare pilots for the F-22, F-35, NGB, and "6th generation" aircraft not even conceived yet.  
  • There is a high likelihood of the T-X being used as a "companion trainer" to allow pilots to keep their flight hours up without flying expensive aircraft like the F-22.
  • Adoption of a "aggressor" trainer seems likely.
  • The T-X will likely see many upgrades and modifications over the years to remain relevant.  
  • While the T-X is a USAF project, the USN is involved, and further sales are likely.  
While 350 aircraft would be enough to replace the T-38, there is the potential demand here for 1000 or even more aircraft.  Certainly well worth the risk.  

With all that in mind, let us peer into the crystal ball...

General Layout:


Boeing's unsuccessful (and ugly) X-32
Since risk needs to be minimized, it is likely that both Boeing and Saab will go for what they know.

Saab certainly prefers the single engined delta wing.  Its last two fighter designs, the JAS-39 Gripen and the J-37 Viggen were both delta/canard layouts.  Before that, the J-35 Draken was a cranked or "double delta" design.

Boeing likely has mixed feeling towards the delta layout.  Its unsuccessful JSF contender, the X-32 started out as a delta-wing design.  Built as a single piece, this large delta wing would have provided for large internal fuel capacity and reduced drag.  It proved difficult to manufacturer, however, and changes in the performance required by the USN resulted in a change to a more conventional (yet still ugly) design.  Before finalizing the more conventional layout, a pelikan tail was considered to reduce drag and improve stealthiness.  Boeing opted against this, however.

Nope.  Still ugly.
At the very top of this post, you will notice a picture of a Boeing T-X concept that was released before it announced its partnership with Saab.  While the T-38 and F-18 influences are obvious, the pelikan tail seems rather conspicuous.  The tail not only mimics that of the YF-23 Black Widow, but McDonnell Douglas/BAE/Northrop Grumman's JSF proposal.  While the T-X has no need to be a true stealth aircraft, it likely would not hurt for it to be a "stealthier" aircraft.  Not only would a pelikan tail allow for this, but the decreased drag would result in lower fuel consumption as well.

A pelikan tail does have disadvantages.  Since it uses two larger control surfaces instead of four smaller ones, it requires beefier hydraulics to move them.  In the X-32's case, that would have added up to 900 pounds to an aircraft already pushing its weight limits thanks to a STOVL requirement.  This extra weight would be less consequential on a CTOL-only trainer, however.

Saab's FS2020 concept model
Perhaps the "all-new" design already exists.  Saab has shown its own Flygsystem (Flight System) 2020 that envisions an indigenous stealth aircraft for the Swedish Air Force.  This FS2020 concept looks very much like a "stealth" Gripen with a pelican tail.

Looking at the FS2020, the McDonnell Douglas JSF, and Boeing's T-X concept art reveals a clear direction.  The Boeing/Saab T-X will likely be a single-engined delta-winged aircraft with a pelikan tail.  Perhaps Saab's influence will lead to it incorporating canards, possibly to mitigate the extra size and weight required for the pelikan tail.

The FS2020 concept, or something close to it, could very well be the chosen design.  It has already undergone some wind-tunnel and sub-scale testing.

Engine:

General Electric F414 turbofan.
The Saab/Boeing T-X will almost undoubtedly be a single-engine design.  A single engine reduces maintenance and fuel costs.  There would seem to be little benefit in going with a twin-engine design.  

The choice of engine can be easily narrowed down.  Both Saab and Boeing currently use derivatives of General Electric's F404 and F414 turbofans.  The legacy Hornets use the F404 while the Gripen thus far uses the Volvo RM12 which is heavily based on the same.  Both manufacturers use the F414 on their newer Super Hornet and Gripen NG designs.

Given that the F414 is a newer design that may even be offered on the KAI T-50, which currently uses F404s, it seems likely that the GE F414 will be the default engine choice on the Saab/Boeing T-X.

Cockpit:

Advanced Super Hornet cockpit mock-up.
It is quickly becoming apparent that "all-glass" cockpits are here to stay.  First seen in the F-35, large touch screens are now being promoted for updated versions of the Gripen, Super Hornet, and Silent Eagle.  This is not just a trend, it is the future.  These reconfigurable touch screens not only prioritize important information, but they can quickly change depending on the mission type.  Upgrades are also made easier, as a simply software patch can improve the man/machine interface.  

For a next generation trainer, the "all glass" cockpit offers additional advantages.  Displays could have several "skins" that more closely resemble that of trainee's intended aircraft.  Not only that, but flight software could also be modified to make the T-X perform like other aircraft.  This could include (but not limited to) restricting afterburner use, g-limits, or controlling stick inputs.  In essence, this would be giving the T-X a set of virtual "training wheels".

Sensors:

Saab Gripen E's AESA radar and IRST.
The current USAF trainer, the T-38 Talon, goes without IRST or even a radar.  Its avionics package merely includes rudimentary flight sensors, navigation, and communication equipment.  It would seem likely that the T-X will have little need for either as well.  A data-link of some sort would likely be the most important upgrade, as this would help prepare pilots for the advanced data links found in the F-22 and F-35.  

The "base model" T-X has little need for a radar or IRST, but it is likely that space will be available for such.  This gives Boeing and Saab more leeway in adopting the T-X into a combat ready fighter.  At the very least, it makes the T-X a more tempting candidate for use as an "Aggressor" trainer.  USAF aggressor trainers are already being outfitted with IRST pods to better mimic potential adversaries.  

More advanced sensors, like the F-35's DAS and EOTS systems, seem unlikely.  Not only do they add additional cost and complexity, but their value on a training system would be dubious.  Like the radar and IRST, this may be another item that will not be standard issue, but space is available for future upgrades.  

Weapons:

F-15SE's conformal weapon bay (CWB)
As a trainer, even as an aggressor, the T-X will have little need for weapon storage.  At most, a handful of pylons would be needed for mounting items like targeting pods and the like.  Internal weapon storage would be completely unnecessary and would only serve to increase development risk with no real payoff.

But...  What if I told you there was a way for Boeing and Saab to add internal weapon storage?  Not only that, but this method would be nearly risk free, as it has already been tested.

Boeing has been hard at work lately finding ways of making its legacy fighters stealthier.  It has self-funded development work on both the F-15E and the Super Hornet, finding ways to mount weapons and extra fuel without the RCS penalty.  Boeing has modified the F-15E Strike Eagle's CFTs (formerly known as FAST packs) into conformal weapon bays (CWBs) on the F-15SE Silent Eagle.  

Advanced Super Hornet's Enclosed Weapon Pod

Similar work has been done on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.  Not only does the "Advanced Super Hornet" mount two shoulder mounted CFTs, but it incorporates an "enclosed weapons pod" or EWP.  Like the F-15SE's CWBs, the EWP allows for stealthier weapon carriage without the need for a permanent cavity in the aircraft's structure.  This not only simplifies the design, but it saves weight, as the aircraft's structure does not have to be reinforced around the weapons bay.  As any mechanical engineer will tell you "holes can be heavy".  

Boeing has already tested the F-15SE's CWBs on a Strike Eagle test aircraft.  The concept works.  



Possibly the biggest advantage to a CWB or EWP is expandability.  A variety of different sized CWBs or EWPs can be made available, depending on the mission.  Larger pods could be used to house "bunker busters" or a large amount of smaller bombs, while a smaller pods could be used for air-to-air missiles.  

The real opportunity here for the Boeing/Saab T-X is for a design that is "custom built" to mount some sort of CWB or EWP.  Instead of being mounted these on a pylon or as an afterthought on the side of the aircraft, the Boeing/Saab T-X could have provisions for special "conformal weapons pods".  The most likely mounting points would be on either side of the fuselage, like the F-15SE, and possibly one flush with the bottom centerline of the fuselage, the the Super Hornet above (but without the pylon).

These conformal weapon pods could turn the unarmed T-X trainer into a full-fledged fighter.  Not only could they carry missiles and bombs, but they could carry other important items like a targeting pod or a cannon.  As time goes on and technology changes, new conformal weapon pods could be developed to allow new weapons without the need to modify the core aircraft.

This modular approach would have benefits for non-warfighting T-Xs as well.  Those conformal pods could be used to house camera equipment.  One of the T-38's most familiar roles was that of a chase plane.  The T-38 was not strictly a USAF aircraft, NASA was a user as well.  No doubt those conformal pods would be of use for them.  

Putting it all together.

McDonnell Douglas/BAE/Northrop Grumman JSF proposal
Boeing and Saab decided to develop an all-new aircraft for a reason.  It is difficult to imagine that they will simply aim for a dedicated trainer without any thought to a war fighting version.  All of the other T-X contenders have armed versions available, why should Saab and Boeing be left out?

Saab and Boeing's biggest ace in the hole is the F-35's increasing costs and delays.  While the JSF is certainly "too big to fail", it certainly is not "too big" to decrease the scope of the program.  Cuts to the JSF would free up a great deal of cash for other projects.

The Saab/Boeing T-X could be a sort of "back door" into providing a supplement, and perhaps an alternative to the F-35.  By producing a modular, upgradable design that does not have to constrain itself to the JSF's "do everything" mandate, Saab and Boeing might just deliver an aircraft that makes far more financial sense to those having second thoughts about the F-35.  

Here, take this.  It is a single grain of salt.
Please keep in mind that this is entirely conjecture on my part.  Saab and Boeing may have something else up their sleeve entirely, and I have no inside information from which to base any of this on.  Saab and Boeing have not revealed any details yet.  Their final design may incorporate some, none, or all these musings.

Who knows, there may even be more surprises when the final design is introduced.  

Monday, 28 July 2014

Saab bails out of Denmark.

Not going to happen.
Saab has declined to enter a bid in Denmark's recently announced fighter competition to replace its aging F-16 fleet.
"We are grateful for the invitation to tender, but as on all occasions like this, we have undertaken an analysis of the situation and choose not to respond to the invitation," 
Like Canada, Denmark hit the "reset button" on its F-35 purchase after concerns about the JSF's price, performance, and reliability.  It is now comparing the Eurofighter Typhoon, Boeing Super Hornet, and F-35.  Dassault's Rafale was apparently left out.

Saab's exact reasons for declining Denmark's request for binding information (RBI) are unclear, but seems pretty safe to assume that it believes the competition is heavily weighted in the F-35's favor.  Like Canada, Denmark is a "Level 3" industrial partner in the JSF program.

It could be more complicated than that, however.  Recent success in Brazil, combined with disappointment in Switzerland may have encouraged Saab to be more selective in its prospective client base.  Denmark would be a smaller order (around 30 aircraft), and it just might not be worth the effort to compete against industry giants like Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, and the Eurofighter consortium.  Both Boeing and Eurofighter are desperate to keep their assembly lines running, while Lockheed-Martin is adamant on keeping JSF orders up in order to keep costs down.  Fresh off its victory in Brazil, it would seem Saab has the luxury of sitting this one out.

Denmark was an early partner in the F-16 program, joining Norway, the Netherlands, and Belgium.  History may be serving as momentum here, as Norway and the Netherlands have already committed to the F-35.  Belgium may not be far behind.

"Danish Special" Saab 35 Draken
What does this mean for Canada?

Probably nothing much.  Saab declined Canada's "request for information" seeing it as political smokescreen.  It has mentioned that it would reconsider a Canadian bid if Canada announced a full and open competition.  With a new fighter purchase delayed well until 2020, it is still too soon to predict whether or not this will happen.


[UPDATE:  Thanks Kjell!]  Boeing was told to limit its bid exclusively to the two-seat F/A-18F.  Two-seat variants are known to be more expensive and heavier.  This could very well be stacking the deck in favor of the single-seat-only F-35.

A similar issue happened in S. Korea, when Eurofighter's bid was disqualified when it 60 aircraft offer did not include enough two-seater Typhoons.  South Korea then went on to purchase 40 single-seat F-35s.

It makes you wonder if Eurofighter received stipulations for Denmark as well...

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Saab to LockMart: "U MAD BRO?"


It would seem as though Saab AB is taking advantage of the JSF's no-show appearance at RIAT and Farnborough.

While engine reliability issues grounded the F-35, Saab AB wasted no time reminding everybody about the Gripen's history of trouble-free service combined with lower costs.


While most of these statements did not mention the F-35 by name, it should be very clear what they are referring to...



Then again, some of it was not exactly subtle:

Check out the last lines in each column.  Two very different uses of the work "Unbelievable".  


Tuesday, 15 July 2014

While the F-35's in omnishambles, others step up.

The F-35's fiberglass stunt double.  (Image credit:  Erik Gustavsson)

It's official.  The F-35 Lightning II will not be making its international debut over Farnborough this week.

This was supposed to be a big month for the Lightning II.  Costs are said to be coming down, with further discounts on the way.  There is even the possibility of the Canadian government making its long-delayed announcement on whether or not to sole-source the stealth fighter.  All this would be met with great fanfare as the JSF made its international debut with its only "Level 1" partner, the United Kingdom.  A flyover at HMS Queen Elizabeth's naming ceremony, followed by an aerial display at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT), and then an appearance at the Farnborough International Air Show.

Despite best laid plans, July of 2014 will be remembered as the month nothing seemed to go right for the JSF.  In fact, its UK debut has can be described as in omnishambles.

Hot off an oil leak last month, the F-35 had just resumed flying after a brief grounding only to have a F-35A burst into flames as it was taxiing down the runway on June 23rd.  Despite this dramatic turn of events, an official grounding was not ordered until July 3rd...  Right before the Independence Day long weekend.

While the JSF has been cleared for flight, it does so under strict flight restrictions.  One of those restrictions mandates that the F-35's engine be inspected after every three hours of flight.  Not an easy thing to do while you are flying over the Atlantic Ocean.  Even if these checks could be avoided, the forecast for possible thunderstorms would keep the JSF away because getting hit by lightning could make it explode also.

"Excessive Rubbing" causing headaches?
At least they believe they might have found the cause of the fire.  "Excessive Rubbing" of the turbine blade against its housing caused extra friction followed by extra heat.  Needless to say, this is not a great thing to have in a high precision jet engine surrounded by $100 million dollars (at least) worth of aircraft and jet fuel.

All of this has not helped the JSF beleaguered public image.  It is certainly conspicuous by its absence in the U.K.  It was supposed to be the main attraction, so people notice when it does not show up.  Not only do they notice, but they start to ask questions.
"Why isn't it here?"
"It's grounded?  Why?"
"ONE CAUGHT ON FIRE WHILE TAKING OFF?"
"How much is this thing gonna cost, anyway?"
"WHAT?  It's the most expensive weapon ever?"
"It's already overbudget and eight years late?
"IT'S STILL NOT EVEN CLOSE TO BEING READY?" 
"OUR GOVERNMENT WANTS TO BUY THESE THINGS TOO???" (storms off to grab a pitchfork)
Farnborough and RIAT are big events where government officials hobnob with defense contractor executives.  High profile events like these are often where deals are announced and impressions are made.  While Lockheed Martin's public relations people are sure to downplay the seriousness of the F-35's non-appearance, government officials will likely be treading far more carefully.

Any nation, including Canada, who is "on the fence" about a JSF purchase will no doubt put off any purchase announcements until this has blown over.  Announcing a multi-billion dollar fighter buy right after that fighter misses its own international debut due to an engine fire would be akin to hanging an albatross around their neck.

Oddly enough, Phillip Hammond, UK Minister of Defense, is no longer Minister of Defense, as of today.  Read of that what you will, but there could be a trend.

Meanwhile, other manufacturers are out trying to get attention.

See?  They made it.
Despite starting its development a mere 23 months ago, the Textron Scorpion managed to do what the 8-year-old F-35 could not...  Show up.  While the Scorpion certainly is not in the same class as the F-35, it has the handicap of not being publicly funded.  It is also an aircraft many of the world's cash-strapped air forces could actually afford.

Spiffy Tiffie.
Then there is the Eurofighter Typhoon, Britain's current pride and joy.  Not only did the Typhoon show up in a commemorative D-Day paint scheme, but it also received a commitment to develop the CAPTOR-E AESA radar.

The "show-stealer" award goes to Saab, however.  Saab presented an update on its Gripen E, confirming its AESA radar, and MBDA Meteor capability.  Saab also revealed that its latest customer, Brazil, would be undertaking much of the design work on the two-seat Gripen F, as well as building most of that country's Gripen Es.  This comes at a time when many F-35 customers are questioning their offset benefits.

But the icing on the cake has to be this gem:

The Troll from Trollhättan?

While Lockheed-Martin is busy touting its absent and flight restricted F-35 as the most advanced fighter available on the market, Saab is fighting back by promising a "PRODUCT THAT ACTUALLY WORKS."

Ouch.

Monday, 14 July 2014

What would it take to "Canadianize" the various fighters?

"It's gonna need a built-in beer cooler before it can take off...  Eh?"
While it is fun to discuss a fighter's speed, payload, and agility; there are other more mundane issues that need to be looked at.

Before Canada decides on any fighter, it needs to address issues with how that aircraft can fit into the RCAF's current infrastructure, as well as meeting any operational challenges incurred by Canada's harsh climate and vast geography.  While it certainly is easier and cheaper to buy "off the shelf", that may not be feasible in some cases.  One way or another, there is a pretty good chance any selection will need to be "Canadianized" in order to make the most of the selection.

The CF-18's marker light.
Even the F/A-18 Hornet was not immune.  In its transition in becoming the CF-188 (Its official Canadian designation), the Hornet gained a distinctive false canopy paint scheme and an identification light on the forward port fuselage.  Over the years, the differences have become more profound as the CF-188 has taken a slightly different upgrade path than the USN's F/A-18 fleet.

So what would it take to "Canadianize" Canada's next fighter?  It depends on how "Canadian" you want to get.  For the sake of this discussion, let us determine what is "need to have" and what is "nice to have" for each fighter.  For "need to have", we will require each fighter to match the current capability of the CF-18.  That means operating from the same bases, with the same RCAF resources already in place.  For "nice to have", we will look at a few items that are currently not in use, but would help realize the potential of that particular airframe's strengths.

F-35A Lightning II:



Need to have:

Despite being the current federal government's favored choice, the F-35A would need some substantial changes made to either the aircraft itself, or the there RCAF's current infrastructure.  Probably both.  Much has been mentioned about the F-35's compatibility with the RCAF's current aerial refueling fleet, so there is little need to revisit the details now.  Canada would either require a new aerial refueling fleet, or it would need to equip a "CF-35" with the refueling probe found on the F-35B and F-35C models.  Neither of these is a cheap proposition.  It might actually more sensible in the long run to acquire two or three new (or lightly used) aerial tankers to replace Canada's current aging CC-150 Polaris fleet.

Once the fueling issue is dealt with, the suitability of the F-35 to operate from icy runways or the RCAF's forward operating locations.  These are typically northern civilian airfields where the current CF-18 can be temporarily stationed.  Being based on a naval airframe, the CF-18 has no problem here.  The F-35A, which is intended to operate from the USAF's pristine runways, could be a different story.  It does not have dedicated air brakes, a tail hook, or a drag chute.  In order to be viable for Canadian operations, the F-35A would require an add-on drag chute.  Another option would be to order the carrier capable F-35C instead...  But that has its own set of issues.

Nice to have: 

If Canada decides on the F-35, it will do well to do one of two things:  Adopt a second, cheaper fighter to help bolster numbers and control costs.  Or, alternatively, go "all in" with the F-35 platform.    This would mean not only acquiring the F-35A, but possibly acquiring a few F-35Bs to operate from a small helicopter carrier, much like what the Aussies are considering.  At the very least, it would mean adopting every future capability upgrade.

New tankers, possibly a new amphibious assault carrier, and a devotion to future technology?  Whatever Canada's future is with the F-35 is, it is likely to be expensive.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet:


Need to have:

If any fighter platform could be considered "plug-and-play" with the RCAF's current CF-18 infrastructure, it is the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.  It was designed from the outset to fly alongside (but not necessarily replace) the legacy F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornet.  Burned by the disastrous A-12 Avenger II program, the US Navy played it as safe as possible with the Super Hornet.  This kept is safe from the budgetary axe during the post-Cold War, pre-9/11 fiscal years.

All this means is that the Super Hornet has most of the features and capabilities of the CF-18.  Probe and drogue refueling, the same runway requirements, and similar weapon capabilities.  Some parts (but not many) are even interchangeable.

There would be some changes needed, of course.  These would be minor.  New training for air and ground crews, parts inventories, and other intricacies that would be needed no matter what the fighter.    The Super Hornet has a slightly larger footprint (earning it the "Rhino" nickname), although it is likely not that much bigger that it would require larger hangers or the like.

Nice to have:  

While the Super Hornet may be the easiest fighter for the RCAF to transition to, it also has some performance issues when compared against some of the other fighters, and even its older sibling.  To be blunt, the Rhino is underpowered for a F-15 sized aircraft.  While its F-414 engines produce 25% more power than the legacy Hornet's F-404s, they have their work cut out for them powering an aircraft that is about 50% heavier and 25% bulkier.  This is compounded further by the Super Hornet's need for 3° outward canted pylons to help with ordinance separation.  The Super Hornet is also the only fighter aircraft being considered by Canada to not have a built in IRST.  These issues can all be fixed by opting for Boeing's proposed "Advanced Super Hornet".  The Advanced Super Hornet (or ASH) adds conformal fuel tanks, enclosed weapon pods, and more advanced sensors.  The ASH concept also proposes upgrading the engine to F-414EPE, for a 20% increase in power.  The extra power, combined with less drag and lower radar signature offered by the CFTs and EWPs, would greatly improve the Super Hornet's performance.

Of course, no discussion about the Super Hornet can go without the mention of its A/V club sibling, the EA-18G Growler.  When ordering the Super Hornet as an "interim" solution while waiting for the F-35A, the RAAF decided to take advantage of the platform's electronic warfare potential as well.  This should be considered a "no-brainer" for any Rhino customer deemed worthy of Pentagon clearance.

Eurofighter Typhoon (Tranche 3) 


Need to have:  

While the Super Hornet may be the most "plug and play" option, other fighters could be amalgamated into the RCAF without much more difficulty.  With roughly the same numbers as the Super Hornet, but in use by more nations, the Typhoon is actually closer to the NATO fighter standard.  One would be hard pressed to find a guided munition currently used on the CF-18 that could not be used on the Eurofighter.  The Typhoon equips a modern HMD and a LITENING targeting pod similar to the CF-18's Sniper ATP (advanced targeting pod).

Less-than-optimal runways should not pose much of a problem either.  Initially intended to have STOL capabilities (these requirements were relaxed), the Typhoon has a massive air-brake and drag-chute.  While there are no carrier compatible variants of the Typhoon, its runway performance should be considered adequate.  The Eurofighter also utilized the "probe-and-drogue" method of aerial refueling.

In order to be cleared for use in the RCAF, the most the Typhoon might require is some additional cold-weather testing, satellite communication capability, and other logistical considerations.

Nice to have:

It should be noted that Tranche 3 Typhoons have the capability to mount AESA radars and CFTs, but these items do not come standard.  The RCAF would be slightly behind the times if it did not opt for an AESA equipped Typhoon.  The new "CAPTOR-E" AESA radar might be one of the best radars available in a fighter aircraft when it becomes available.  As for CFT capability, extra range is always a good thing, especially if weapon hard points remain free in the bargain.

One of the biggest advantages of selecting the Typhoon would be the ability to pick and choose whatever weapon systems work best.  This includes utilizing the IRIS-T or ASRAAM instead of the AIM-9 Sidewinder.  The Typhoon also gives the option of selecting the ramjet powered MBDA Meteor BVR missile with, or instead of, the ubiquitous AIM-120 AMRAAM.

Dassault Rafale


Need to have:

I have brought up the Rafale's need to be "Canadianized" before.  The good news is, that is exactly what Dassault would like to sell us.  While some might see the Rafale as "too French", Dassault's offer to give Canada full intellectual property rights, including source code would mean that Canada could alter the Rafale as it sees fit.  

The most likely change would be to the Rafale's weapons.  Any Canadian Rafale would likely sport AMRAAMs and Sidewinders, for logistic purposes if no other reason.  Currently, France does not operate the Rafale with any HMD, despite one being tested.  This would be considered mandatory for Canadian service as the RCAF's CF-18 currently utilize HMD capability.  

As France's soon-to-be only fighter type that includes a carrier-based variant, the Rafale is the very definition of a do-it-all fighter.  Modifying it for Canadian use would likely be a fairly simple endeavor.  

Nice to have:  

Like the Typhoon, the Rafale has the capability of mounting CFT's.  While there have been no customers for this capability yet, Canada would be a great place to start.  The Rafale will also gain Meteor missile capability soon as well.

Perhaps the biggest "nice to have" for the Rafale would be more commercial than technical.  With Dassault willing to share so much, Canada could become a vested partner in the Rafale platform and help market it to other nations.  "Canadianized" Rafale sporting HMDs, CFTs, and proven NATO standard weapon capability could possibly net a few more sales, with a portion of that going to Canada, of course.  

Saab JAS 39E/F Gripen


Need to have:

The Gripen would likely slot in somewhere between the Super Hornet and Typhoon for ease of transition into the RCAF.  Saab has intentionally made all Gripens past the "C" model export-friendly,  with plentiful weapon options, a refueling probe, and NATO standard communications gear.  Part of the design's focus is that of easy maintenance, using plenty of widely available parts.  The engine (RM12 in the A-D variants, GE-414 in the E/F) is based on the GE-404 currently used by Canada's CF-18.  Like the Typhoon and Super Hornet, the Gripen can handle just about any weapon currently in use by the RCAF Hornets.  Sidewinders, AMRAAMs, Paveway laser guided bombs, even the venerable AGM-65 Maverick.  The Gripen also equips a modern HMD and LITENING targeting pod.  

As far as cold weather or runway performance is concerned, the Gripen has nothing to worry about.  Sweden operates a Gripen base north of the arctic circle, so no concerns there.  Not only that, but the Gripen does not even need a proper runway to take-off and land, just 600 meters of public highway.  Needless to say, landing at Canada's Forward Operating Locations should be a snap.  Despite concerns to the contrary, the Swedish Gripen has proven itself capable of participating in NATO coalitions.

One thing the RCAF would not need is extra funding.  The Gripen is said to be one of the most affordable fighter aircraft in the world to fly, with costs approaching that of a private jet.

Nice to have:

Not only will the Gripen share the Typhoon's and Rafale's MBDA Meteor integration,  it is was the first fighter to be cleared for its use.  As with the others, it would be foolish to not take advantage of this possibly game-changing missile.  The Gripen's wide weapon selection also allows the opportunity for the RCAF to consider a different BVR, WVR, and A2G missiles in the future.  More choice is always a good thing.

While the Gripen NG (E/F) is said to have superior range than the current CF-18 Hornet, additional range is never a bad thing.  While there will be external fuel tank options, CFT's do not appear on the horizon.  This could be seen as a possible way for Canada to contribute to the Gripen program.  

F-15SE Silent Eagle


Need to have:

Like the F-35A, one of the biggest issues surrounding the F-15SE for Canada would be its lack of a refueling probe.  The F-15 relies instead on the flying boom method preferred by the USAF.  This may not be as much of an issue with the F-15SE, however, since it does boast a longer range as well as external tanks.  Israel is also rumored to have worked on retrofitting probes to its F-15I fleet. 

Weapon integration would be a cinch.  The F-15E Strike Eagle, from which the Silent Eagle is based, can handle just about any air-to-air or air-to-ground in the US arsenal, as well as many others.  It even shares its M61 Vulcan cannon with the CF-18.  

The F-15's suitability for Canada's less pristine runways might be an issue.  The F-15 requires 2.3 kilometers of runway.  Its landing gear is built for big USAF bases, not aircraft carriers or frozen public roads like the many of the others.  While the F-15 does have a large air brake and a tail-hook for emergency use, it may require some additional work.  Then again, its increased range may nullify the need for forward operating bases altogether.  Cold weather should not be an issue, as F-15s were based out of Alaska for years.  

Nice to have:  

With impressive range, payload, and other capabilities, the F-15SE should be pretty much good to go "right out of the box" as long as its aerial refueling compatibility issue is addressed.  Despite the design's age, the F-15 is not going anywhere for years to come, with newer versions like the F-15E, F-15K, and F-15SA expecting upgrades well into the 2030 timeframe.  When the US decided that the F-22 would not be approved for foreign sales, it assured that the F-15 would remain as the top-level fighter for many of the world's air forces.  

The one "nice to have" for the RCAF if it selects the F-15SE would be a higher operating budget.  The F-15 is expensive to fly.  It is a big aircraft with two gas-guzzling jet engines.  There is no way around that.  Its cost per flying hour could very well likely exceed even the F-35, an aircraft who's CPFH (cost per flight hour) is increasingly hard to determine.



"Canadianizing" an aircraft could potentially result in some hard choices that would need to be made.  Do we alter the way our fighter fleet currently operates, or do we spend millions modifying an airframe to our needs?

Perhaps we need a "Stompin' Tom" scale to determine just how "Canadian" we want our next fighter to be.  Stompin' Tom being a "10" and Justin Beiber rating in at "1".  

How "Canadian" do we need our next fighter to be?

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Excuses... Excuses...

My house is under the "15:00 Sat/sam." dot.

Sorry for being away for the weekend.  Hurricane "Post tropical storm" Arthur paid my family, neighbors, and I a little visit on Saturday, knocking trees and power lines out of the ground, leaving me and my trusty iMac without power for about three-and-a-half days.  Thankfully, there was no damage to my house other freezer full of groceries.

The weekend went slowly.  Mobile device power was at a premium and wireless internet service was spotty at best.  While I like to envision myself as well prepared for a zombie apocalypse, I am not sure if I could live in a world without hot, fresh coffee every morning.

Even without power and spotty internet access, I managed to read (if not reply or moderate) all of your comments.  Thanks to you all for keeping the conversation rolling and keeping the tone civil and mostly on topic.  (So what if the Super Hornet was brought up in the Silent Eagle vs. Gripen FJFC...  As long as its about fighter jets, it's all good!)

I was also happy to enjoy an e-mail correspondence with none other than Air Power Australia's Peter Goon.  Those of you unfamiliar with the APA's website should do yourselves a favor and go there now.  There is an absolute plethora of information, commentary, and research located over there.  Far more than you will ever see at this meagre blogsite.

Yeah...  Yeah...  Whatever.  An entire weekend goes by and I cannot contribute due to a little hurricane post-tropical storm?  Excuses...  Excuses...

Speaking of excuses...

Still some problems here...
It is looking more and more that the JSF will need to be excused from its upcoming appearance at the RIAT (Royal International Air Tattoo) and the Farnborough Air Show next week.  While the decision is still very much up in the air, the Unitied Kingdom's F-35B likely won't be.

JSF supporters, including those in the US Senate, do not see this as a big deal.  They offer the usual platitudes that the aircraft is still very much in development, and mishaps like this do happen.  But should they really?

"The F-35 is still early in it's development...  This stuff happens!"

The JSF certainly is still in development, but it is far from the early stages.  The first flight of the F-35 (not the X-35 demonstrator)  occurred in December 2006.  It has been in production for more than eight years and over 100 copies have been either built or currently being assembled.  Its ever-increasingly optimistic IOC (initial operational capability) is scheduled for very late next year for the F-35B, 2016 for the F-35A, and 2019 for the F-35C.  With just slightly over a year before the JSF is intended to operational, unknown engine fires should not receiving headlines.  

Things start looking worse when comparing the F-35 with other fighter development cycles.  The F-15 Eagle went from its first flight to being operational within four years.  The F-16 took four years, as did the F/A-18 Hornet.  

Those were older, simpler aircraft, of course.  Let us look at some newer ones.  The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet?  Four years.  Maybe it should not count since it is based on the older F/A-18?  

Eurofighter Typhoon:  The very model of a bad procurement.
Alright, let us look at one of the most protracted, politically charged, and controversial fighters that is not built in the U.S.A, the Eurofighter Typhoon.  The Typhoon is a good example of something that "sounded good at the time".  The European aerospace community, concerned that they were being outdone by big-budget American defense contractors, decided to convince their government to go all-in on a European air-superiority fighter for the year 2000 and beyond.  Hence, the "EF2000".

Britain, Germany, Spain, and Italy all collaborated on EF2000.  What was to be the Eurofighter Typhoon was beset with difficulties right from the start, as development was assigned rather arbitrarily and each nation demanded on a different set of priorities.  Ever try to get 4 people to agree on a restaurant?  Imagine that, only with billions of dollars and thousands of jobs at stake.  

What those involved with the Eurofighter did not envision was a sudden end to the Cold War and sudden questioning of the need for expensive fighter jets when there was no enemy.  One participant, Germany, tried to leave the program altogether (the penalties were too great).  

In the end, the Eurofighter Typhoon has grown to be a respected platform, even though it does still revive criticism for its costs.  It first went operational in 2003, nine years after its first flight.  

The Eurofighter is not a "5th Generation" fighter, however.  

"5th Generation" enough for ya?
There is no arguing that the F-22 is the "5th Generation" archetype.  Like other fighters, its development was beset with the usual technical problems.  Like the Eurofighter Typhoon, the sudden end of the Cold War left its funding (and future) in doubt.  

Despite this, and despite the F-22 Raptor being one of the most expensive aircraft ever made, its time from first flight to operations was eight years.  

With all of the above examples, testing was done on a mere handful of early production models before full-scale production took place.  By contrast, there are now more F-35s than there are CF-18 Hornets in the RCAF.  Current JSF production rates are enough to make Boeing, Eurofighter, and Dassault jealous.  

After eight years and almost 100 airframes, the F-35 is anything but "early in development".  

"Aircraft get grounded all the time!  It's not that big of a deal!"

All aircraft, cutting edge military fighter aircraft in particular, are complicated machines, and not all problems are found in the early stages.  Safety concerns can sometimes lead to the grounding of a particular airframe type, even the iconic F-15 is not immune.

No flying for you today.
So what happens when an military aircraft gets grounded?  Other assets need to be used to fill the gap.  In the case of the F-15 grounding, F-16s took over the duties.  

What happens when the majority of the western world use the same aircraft?

It then becomes a VERY big deal.  Once the USA replaces most of its F-16s, F/A-18s, A-10s, and AV-8s with a predominantly F-35 fleet, an inopportune grounding would leave it with a mere handful of F-22s, F-15Es, and Super Hornets to pick up the slack.  Europe would need to rely on its Typhoons and Rafales, and the RAAF would have a mere smattering of Super Hornets.  Single-fighter type nations like Canada and The Netherlands would have to simply make do without.  

If the JSF were to be grounded in the 2025 to 2035 timeframe, western airpower as we know it today would temporarily not exist.  

What makes this especially unnerving about the F-35 is that the aircraft is jam-packed with all-new technology that it relies on.  The HMD needs to work flawlessly, because there is no HUD.  The DAS system needs to work, because visibility is limited.  Those AMRAAMs should never miss, since it will usually only carry two.  


The JSF is looking more and more like a single-point-of-failure concept that is constructed out of single-point-of-failure technology.  

"The F-35 is still the most technically advanced aircraft.  The others just don't compare!"

Maybe so.  Technical advances do little to woo potential buyers when the aircraft itself cannot get off the ground, however.  RIAT and Farnborough are big, international events with real international buyers' attention.  Canceling an appearance due to an exploding engine will not exactly inspire confidence in the program, nor will it encourage new sales.  

Could the Scorpion steal the Lightning's thunder?
Then again, there is always the chance of a dark horse showing up and getting everybody's attention.  Saab will be there to give updates on its Gripen E, an aircraft it would not mind stealing some of the JSF's sales.

Also present will be the scrappy little Textron Scorpion.  An aircraft intended to be an affordable "good enough" option for air forces with lower budgets.  In contrast to the F-35, which has been in testing for 8 years and still might not make it, the Scorpion's first flight was a mere eight months ago...  Yet has already made the trans-atlantic flight.  

No excuses needed there.