History Spot: Case Studies in Defence Procurement

Yes, it’s my avatar for a reason. The De Havilland Mosquito was the most accurate bomber of the first half of World War II, with the lowest ordinance expenditure per target, the lowest loss rate and the highest kill probability. It could race in at treetop level for precision work, or soar above anti-aircraft fire while heavier bombers were slaughtered in droves. When the RAF needed to take out a particular wall of a prison to free French resistance fighters, they used the Mosquito.

But that was not all. The Mosquito, as the fastest aircraft in the world at its introduction, was ideal for conversion as a fighter, night fighter, fighter bomber, U-boat killer and numerous other roles. It combined heavy armament with high speed and needed no escort. The wooden airframe was as strong as contemporary metal airframes, but much lighter, and it avoided drawing on critical war supplies and skilled labour- any cabinetmaker could help produce a Mosquito. It was in many ways the most perfect military procurement program in history, made all the more so by the fact that Geoffrey De Havilland designed the aircraft in the face of Air Ministry skepticism and forced the RAF to recognise its merits. The only flaw in the program was that many more weren’t built, and that a serious update was not funded until the end of the war. This was the Hornet, one of the highest-performing piston-engine fighters ever made.

Here are two documentaries on the aircraft that made Hermann Goering “turn green and yellow with envy.”

Less celebrated but certainly a spiritual successor to the Mosquito philosophy, the Douglas Skyhawk was the backbone of US carrier striking power for many years. It is an attack aircraft that has been used as a fighter and an aggressor trainer, and continues to serve in other air forces.

Despised by Tacair jocks in the US Air Force for decades, the A-10 “Warthog” stands alone as the most effective close support aircraft ever conceived. Designed to be everything that fast jets are not- slow enough for accurate targeting, a stable gun platform, rugged and extremely well-armoured, the A-10 has proven its ability to soak up damage and still fly home, to support troops with accurate fire in situations where other fixed-wing aircraft would risk friendly fire, and above all to destroy massed columns of tanks. And that is exactly why the US Air Force tries to give the job of this cheap, effective little aircraft away to expensive and vulnerable fast jets every five years- they don’t like any aircraft whose job is to support the Army.

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Casualties of Budget and Strained Relationships

With the US government in partial shutdown, publicly-owned shipyards are furloughing workers and restricting activities to critical maintenance. This sort of thing will have far-reaching implications for the readiness of the world’s largest navy.

Time may be running out for the A-10, the world’s best close-support aircraft. The Chief of US Combat Air Command has said that if sequestration continues, the “Warthog” will be sacrificed to fund the F-35 and the role passed to that aircraft. The Army, understandably, is not happy. It isn’t just an issue of the A-10’s famous 30mm Gatling cannon- the F-35 is a more delicate platform with a higher minimum speed, and would have to carry out the close support role from a distance and at speeds that make it difficult to distinguish the situation on the ground. It will also of course be much more expensive, something that will become instantly apparent the first time an F-35 takes ground fire. An A-10 can be shot to pieces, fly home with its pilot safe and be repaired and back on the line in a matter of days or weeks. An F-35 in that situation would be a total loss.

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Tom Clancy, author of such classic techno-thrillers as The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising, has passed away at the age of 66. In his memory, USNI republishes his 1982 article advocating hovercraft as nuclear launch platforms. Not perhaps the tribute he might have wanted. Clancy was a man with a clarity of vision about his country’s potential and role in the world, which the country unfortunately did not share.

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Argentina is replacing old Mirage IIIs in its inventory- with used Mirage F1s from Spain. The Argentine armed services have been unable to recoup their aging equipment stocks for decades, and that seems unlikely to change.

China’s J-31, the “other” stealth fighter, is likely destined for export, filling demand for stealth aircraft created by the F-35 among the sort of countries America doesn’t sell to.

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The Diplomat on tensions in the Russo-Chinese relationship- still rosy on the outside, but Russia is struggling to show its neighbour that it is still a great power to be dealt with. Russian suspicions of China’s strategic intentions go back to the Mao era, and are compounded by Russia’s history of invasions from the east and geographic indefensibility. Paranoia, perhaps.

Meanwhile, Russia is irritating China through its enhanced strategic ties with Vietnam and its involvement in that country’s offshore drilling exploration. Vietnam has ordered Su-30MK2 aircraft from Russia as well as a new batch of Kilo class submarines. If the Americans were making those sales, China would call it containment. Although Vietnam’s navy and air force are in no position to take on China, Vietnam plays on its previous record of fighting against the odds to intimate that it could raise the cost of hostilities prohibitively.

At the 65th anniversary of the founding of the South Korean Armed Forces, the ROK Army paraded a new land-based cruise missile (caution, the picture in the BBC article was of old Nike Hercules SAM variants). South Korea already has a land-attack cruise missile capacity.

After years of hemming and hawing on both sides, Taiwan is again saying that it wants to buy new American weapons, including a replacement for its F-16s. Taiwan, which held undeniable military superiority over the People’s Republic of China at the turn of the millennium, now faces a People’s Liberation Army that has modernised in every dimension and holds vast numerical and technological advantages.

RCAF Priorities Outlined to Montreal Industry

In an address to Montreal aerospace industry representatives on Wednesday, Lt. Gen. Yvan Blondin, Commander of the RCAF, outlined the future procurement priorities of the Air Force, which go well beyond fighter replacement. The general touched on a variety of subjects, ranging from the effects of the delays in procuring CH-148 Cyclone helicopters to the force’s expanded presence in the Arctic. His message for Canadian industry was clear: find ways for the Air Force to save money.

One avenue for saving money prominent in the talk was the improvement and expanded use of flight simulators. This accords with some of Blondin’s previous comments that reducing maintenance costs and prolonging the service life of the current fighter fleet might involve less flying time.

Future capital acquisitions mentioned included an unspecified number of drones- from the context, it was clear that these were to be more than the reconnaissance drones Canada already uses- search and rescue transport aircraft (a role separate from the CH-149 recently acquired), and a number of disposable stores acquisitions, including new sonobuoys and torpedoes. The search and rescue and anti-submarine equipment particularly fill definite gaps. Canada is notorious for its poor search and rescue coverage given its territory, and transport and rescue squadrons field some fairly old airframes. Likewise, Canada still uses the Cold War-vintage Mk.46 torpedo.

It was difficult to get a sense of Gen. Blondin’s direction for the force from the talk. While he did indicate that a major reassessment of Air Force doctrine was underway internally, little that was really new seemed to enter into the priorities he presented. Gen. Blondin has been a supporter of the F-35 program, albeit hedging his bets a little more than his predecessor.

What was most interesting about the evening was the attitude among the industry representatives. They seem to recognise that this government’s procurement plans are likely to face re-evaluation, particularly the F-35 purchase. Several of these companies manufacture components for the F-35, but they seem fairly well aware of that program’s cost problems, and are unfazed by the prospect of having to reorient. One company which manufactures F-35 components, for example, also has contracts for the Super Hornet, the C-130 and a number of Sikorsky helicopters, as well as a civil aviation business line. The Canadian aerospace industry tends to specialise in discrete components, such as landing gear and avionics, and so generally have a wide pool of programs and clients in both military and civil aviation to balance out problems with any particular program.

Fighter Procurement News- India, Netherlands

India’s much-heralded purchase of the Dassault Rafale fighter, critical for closing a yawning gap in India’s force structure left by the retirement of MiG-21s and other older aircraft, is moving forward at a snail’s pace, as India contemplates an expensive integration of Russian missiles for the platform. Never mind that India has a large enough air force to comfortably use two sets of ordinance (as they already do with their Mirage fleet), or that having two ordinance sets provides a nice insurance against flaws in any one system, integration of new weapons and the consequent delay in procuring the fighters could well cost more than maintaining two sets of ordinance.

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The Dutch government, in a stroke of illogic that beggars belief, has decided to purchase only 37 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters over the next five years, while selling their new naval support ships. The expensive F-35 was always going to cripple Dutch force structure and defence procurement, but it seems the government is trying to mitigate the damage by purchasing a force so small as to be useless for anything beyond domestic air defence, a role for which the F-35 is hardly the optimal aircraft. There is a word that a government wanting to preserve capabilities while cutting costs should be strongly urged to consider: Gripen.

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Speaking of which, an interesting piece on the possibilities of the Gripen for Canada can be found here, and a more formal one from the Ottawa Citizen here. The Gripen in its new NG version is a real balm to the ills of modern fighters. It is not only reasonably priced, but has a low cost of ownership, a complete array of integrated weapons (a big problem with other platforms including Eurofighter and F-35), high speed (unlike the Super Hornet and the F-35), great manoeuvrability (the F-35’s dogfighting ability has frequently been questioned), up-to-date electronics… It is neither a demigod of aerial combat like the Eurofighter nor a full stealth aircraft like the F-35, but neither is it far behind in those areas, and if the RCAF can buy two Gripens to an F-35 with a guarantee that maintenance costs won’t leach money from other important capital programs (of which the RCAF has several), it would be more than worth it.

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In other news, the crisis in Syria has seen a prolonged congregation of Russian, American and NATO ships in the Eastern end of the Mediterranean. A map of the ships from earlier this month.

Canada’s Support Vessels: Good sense from an unexpected quarter

In a National Post article, the Prime Minister’s former Chief of Staff, Ian Brodie, proposes a better way to build up the national economy with the troubled and long-running Joint Support Ship requirement. Rather than having a Canadian yard build these ships at unnecessary expense, the contract could be used as an incentive in free trade negotiations, for instance with South Korea. The ships would be built cheaply by experienced yards, and benefits to the Canadian economy from the trade agreement would far outweigh the jobs that would have been created by giving the work to a Canadian shipyard. One could add that the same logic would apply just as well to the Surface Combatant procurement- and instead of getting fifteen frigates with destroyer price tags, Canada could instead end up with eight to ten highly capable destroyers for a reduced price.

Logically, it makes complete sense. Politically, it doesn’t deliver the ridings and looks like an admission that the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy was flawed, and so is unlikely to happen.

In related news, from the American Enterprise Institute and Mark Collins, an analysis of NATO’s incredible shrinking navies- begging the question of why the RCN needs a force on par with Britain or France.

F-35 Still A Fiscal Curse

Two insightful pieces on the F-35 from Defence-Aerospace.com.

First, the real reason for the 22% drop in support cost estimates: they lowered the estimates– nothing else changed.

A second article, Disarmament by F-35, describes the cancerous effect of the program on acquisition budgets. The Netherlands, for example, will spend half its capital budget on 58 aircraft over six years. The strange loyalty shown to this “too-big-to-fail” program means that it starves other programs in any country that touches it. South Korea should be glad they got away…