A recently retired senior U.S. Air Force general with decades of experience defending the margins of North American air space agrees with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that there will be a “capability gap” in defending the northern approaches to the continent.
But retired Lt.-Gen. Michael Dubie, a deputy commander of NORAD and of the U.S. Northern Command until last year, offered a different explanation for the gap and recommended that Canada find out the best way to defend the continent by holding a competition.
After Postmedia reported last month that the government was close to buying Boeing’s fourth-generation Super Hornets to replace some of its current fleet of CF-18s, the prime minister told the Commons that Lockheed Martin’s stealthy fifth-generation F-35 would not be able to fill the developing capability gap because it “is far from working.”
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Canada had to act now to close the gap in order to be able to fulfil its responsibilities in NORAD and NATO.
Dubie dismissed the idea that the F-35 was still somehow an experimental aircraft.
After noting that “every new airplane ever designed takes a whole lot of time to operationalize,” the former test and evaluation pilot said the U.S. Marine Corps had already declared IOC (initial operational capability) on its variant of the F-35 and that the USAF planned to do the same by the end of the year with the model that the Harper government had been considering buying.
“The milestones are being met. They are on track,” the former three-star general said of the F-35. “Sure, there are problems, but this airplane is going forward and it is going to be in the fleets of many countries for many decades to come. They already have 50,000 or 60,000 hours and it is just getting better as the bugs are ironed out.”
The capability gap was not because the F-35 was not ready, he said, but would occur if Canada and other countries did not purchase the right aircraft to confront a rapidly evolving threat.
“The threat — and let’s be candid here — is that the Russian threat is evolving and it will become harder to combat in the future without fifth-generation aircraft,” Dubie said.
“NORAD has to continually evolve with technology and with capability because the threat against North America is going to evolve, too. The F-35 is designed for the threats of the 21st century and those threats will require a much more sophisticated platform than we have in fourth-generation aircraft.”
This was because the F-35 had “a suite of advanced avionics that provide a superior 360 degrees of situational awareness that can target, track and, if needed, engage a variety of threats to North America whether it be small bots (swarms of tiny weapons), UAVs, advanced long-range cruise missiles, all the way to commercial airliners.
“The threat is going to become more complex. Information dominance across all spectrums will be essential. That is the F-35’s strength.”
Dubie, whose father was from Trois Rivieres, Que., emphasized that he did not wish his remarks to be construed as a criticism of the Canadian government.
“I am not trying to be disrespectful to your prime minister or your minister of defence. I am not being cavalier,” he said. “I am not saying he is wrong. I am saying the threat is going to demand fifth-generation aircraft.”
A command pilot with 1,500 hours on the F-16s and hundreds of hours on other jets, Dubie said he had reached this conclusion based on what he had learned from flying NORAD missions charged with intercepting Russian aircraft.
“Around Alaska, they have become incredulous about the aggressiveness of the Russians,” he said. “They are launching complex package of airplanes — bombers, Mi-G-31s (fighters) and tankers — with navy ships below. When we send out AWACS (reconnaissance planes), F-22s and tankers, they are sucking up all our data. It is an orchestrated, sophisticated air campaign the likes of which we have never seen before. They are getting better and more aggressive.”
Dubie’s opinion is significant because of the key jobs he has held helping to oversee the defence of North America and because he does not work for either Lockheed or Boeing.
Since last November he has been the president of Revision Military Technologies, a Vermont-based subsidiary of Montreal’s Revision Military Inc., which makes military eyewear and tactical gear.
While not closely informed on the manufacturing schedules of the F-35 or the Super Hornet, which first flew 21 years ago, he said that “what I do know about the Super Hornet is that it is near the end of the line. As I understand the timeline, the F-35 would be available to cover any capability gap on the NORAD mission.”
Dubie rejected the reasoning of F-35 critics who have said that because it has a single engine and the Super Hornet has twin engines, the latter aircraft was a superior choice for operations across the vastness of the north. He noted that the USAF had operated single-engine F-16s for years from a base in northern Alaska, and intended to soon replace those jets with F-35s that had “even more reliable” engines.
The Danes and Norwegians intended to defend the High Arctic with F-35s, too, he said.
“I am not against the Super Hornet,” Dubie said. “What I am saying is that the F-35 will have greater inter-operability with the U.S. fleet and other NATO partners.”
Asked what was the most prudent way for Canada to make the crucial, multi-billion dollar decision about which aircraft was best to defend the country for the next 40 years, Dubie replied “the ultimate question is why would you not have an open competition in Canada? If you have a competition, the strengths and weaknesses of the air frames will come out.
“I cannot envisage any scenario in which the F-35 does not come out better than the Super Hornet or any other aircraft. Fourth-generation jets, they just aren’t as capable.”
I think he better check the speed of the MiG-31 because the F-35 can’t surely chase it down! Heck it even outruns the AMRAAM!