Here’s a prediction: A Canadian F-35 will be shot down by a drone in 2035

One of the problems with living in a country like Canada is that certain people become the default person on certain issues. It’s a small place and the opportunity for specialization (and brand building) is small, so you can expect people to go back to the same well a fair bit on certain issues. I know, when it comes to Open Data, I can often be that well.

Yesterday’s article by Jack Granastein – one of the country’s favourite commentator’s on (and cheerleaders of) all things military – is a great case in point. It’s also a wonderful example of an article that is not designed to answer deep questions, but merely reassure readers not to question anything.

For those not in the know, Canada is in the midst of a scandal around the procurement of new fighter jets which, it turns out, the government not only chose to single source, but has been caught lying misleading the public about the costs despite repeated attempts by both the opposition and the media to ask for the full cost. Turns out the plans will cost twice as much as previously revealed, maybe more. For those interested in reading a case study in how not to do government procurement Andrew Coyne offers a good review in his two latest columns here and here. (Granastein, in the past, has followed the government script, using the radically low-ball figure of $16 billion, it is not accepted to be $26 billion).

Here is why Jack Granastein’s piece is so puzzling. The fact is, there really aren’t that many articles about whether the F-35 is the right plane or not. People are incensed about being radically mislead about the cost and the sole source process – not that we chose the F-35. But Granastein’s piece is all about assuring us that a) a lot of thought has gone into this choice and b) we shouldn’t really blame the military planners (nor apparently, the politicians). It is the public servants fault. So, some thoughts.

These are some disturbing and confusing conclusions. I have to say, it is very, very depressing to read someone as seasoned and knowledgeable as Granastein write:

But the estimates of costs, and the spin that has so exercised the Auditor-General, the media and the Opposition, are shaped and massaged by the deputy minister, in effect DND’s chief financial officer, who advises the minister of national defence.

Errr….Really? I think they are shaped by them at the direction or with the approval of the Minister of Defence. I agree that the Minister and Cabinet probably are not up to speed on the latest in airframe technology and so probably aren’t hand picking the fighter plane. But you know what they are up to speed on? Spinning budgets and political messages to sell to the public. To somehow try to deflect the blame onto the public servants feels, well, like yet another death nail for the notion of ministerial accountability.

But even Granastein’s love of the F-35 is hard to grasp. Apparently:

“we cannot see into the future, and we do not know what challenges we might face. Who foresaw Canadian fighters participating in Kosovo a dozen years ago? Who anticipated the Libyan campaign?”

I’m not sure I want to live and die on those examples. I mean in Libya alone our CF-18’s were joined by F-16s, Rafale fighters, Mirage 2000s and Mirage 2000Ds, Tornados, Eurofighter Typhoons, and JAS 39C Gripen (are you bored yet?). Apparently there were at least 7 other choices that would have worked out okay for the mission. The Kosovo mission had an even wider assortment of planes. Apparently, this isn’t a choice of getting it “just right” more like, “there are a lot of options that will work.”

But looking into the future there are some solid and strong predictions we can make:

1) Granastein himself argued in 2010 that performing sovereignty patrols in the arctic is one of the reasons we need to buy new planes. Here is a known future scenario. So frankly I’m surprised he’s bullish on the F-35s since the F-35’s will not be able to operate in the arctic for at least 5 years and may not for even longer. Given that, in that same article, Granastein swallowed the now revealed to be bogus total cost of owernship figures provided by the Department of National Defence hook, line and sinke, you think he might be more skeptical about other facts. Apparently not.

2) We can’t predict the future. I agree. But I’m going to make a prediction anyway. If Canada fights an enemy with any of the sophistication that would require us to have the F-35 (say, a China in 25 years) I predict that an F-35 will get shot down by a pilotless drone in that conflict.

What makes drones so interesting is that because they don’t have to have pilots they can be smaller, faster and more maneuverable. Indeed in the 1970s UAVs were able to outmaneuver the best US pilots of the day. Moreover, the world of aviation may change very quickly in the coming years. Everyone will tell you a drone can’t beat a piloted plane. This is almost likely true today (although a pilot-less drone almost shot down a Mig in 2002 in Iraq).

But may have two things going for them. First, if drones become cheaper to build and operate, and you don’t have to worry about losing the expensive pilot, you may be able to make up for competency with numbers. Imagining an F-35 defeating a single drone – such as the US Navy’s experimental X-47B – is easy. What about defeating a swarm of 5 of them that are working seamlessly together?

Second, much like nature, survival frequently favours those who can reproduce frequently. The F-35 is expected to last Canada 30-35 years. Yes there will be upgrades and changes, but that is a slow evolutionary pace. In that time, I suspect we’ll see somewhere between 5 (and likely a lot more) generations of drones. And why not? There are no pilots to retrain, just new lessons from the previous generation of drones to draw from, and new technological and geo-political realities to adapt to.

I’m not even beginning to argue that air-to-air combat capable drones are available today, but it isn’t unlikely that they could be available in 5-10 years. Of course, many air forces hate talking about this because, well, drones mean no more pilots and air forces are composed of… well… pilots. But it does suggest that Canada could buy a fighter that is much cheaper, would still enable us to participate in missions like Kosovo and Libya, without locking us into a 30-35 year commitment at the very moment the military aerospace industry is entering what is possibly the most disruptive period in its history.

It would seem that, at the very least, since we’ve been mislead about pretty much everything involved in this project, asking these questions now feels like fair game.

(Oh, and as an aside, as we decide to pay somewhere between $26-44 Billion for fighter planes, our government cut the entire $5 million year budget of the National Aboriginal Health Organization which over research and programs, in areas like suicide prevention, tobacco cessation, housing and midwifery. While today Canada ranks 6th in the world in the UN’s Quality of Life index, it was calculated that in 2007 Canada’s first nation’s population, had they been ranked as a separate group, would have ranked 63rd. Right above healthy countries like Belarus, Russia and Libya. Well at least now we’ll have less data about the problem, which means we won’t know to worry about it.)

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