Foreground | A fight is emerging over which jet is best suited for patrolling the Northern skies
The next time a pilot from Squadron 332 of the Norwegian Royal Air Force takes flight in a fighting capacity, it will be in an F-35, a high-tech jet currently in its final stages of its development. The Bodø-based unit, on September 3, was temporarily deactivated as a combat unit as part of re-alignment in preparation for receipt of the first of the country’s F-35s, in 2019.
Like in America, which is leading development of the F-35, the Norwegian air force wants to use them to replace its fleet of F-16s, a type of aircraft that went into production some 40 years ago. Controversy has dogged the new model, mostly for whether the programme’s ballooning costs are justified, particularly after a British test earlier this year appeared to reveal that it may not be able to out-fight existing types of fighters.
Proponents said the comparison was unfair, since the F-35 did not have its full array of technological advances. Moreover, they argue the matter is moot; the new jet, they say, is designed to eliminate enemy aircraft before even engaging in a dogfight.
Norwegian air-force brass were unswayed by the outcome: on Friday, the service committed itself to purchasing an additional six F-35s, bringing the total number due for delivery by 2020 to 28. (The number could eventually rise to 50, however.)
Other countries have been less staunch in their faith that the F-35 will suit their needs, particularly in the North. Most notable among the doubters is Justin Trudeau, the newly elected Canadian prime minister, though most of his opposition is for cost reasons. Other Ottawa lawmakers and military types, however, note that the F-35, particularly due to its single-engine construction, short range and limited weapons capacity, is not particularly well suited for defending the Arctic, a pillar of the country’s current military doctrine.
Some have called for F-35 spending to instead be used to replace the CF-18, a twin-engine fighter in production since the 1980s, with the similar ‘Super Hornet’, a cheaper, if less fancy option. The remaining funding could go towards developing drones suitable for use in Arctic conditions, currently only possible for the most expensive systems.
Denmark, another Nato ally, is expected to follow Norway’s example and announce in 2016 that it will replace its 40 or so F-16s with about two dozen F-35s. Much of the discussion to date has been of the cost-benefit sort (will the air force get enough bang for its kroner, or will there be enough reciprocal orders for Danish firms) or whether the other candidates (the Super Hornet and the Eurofighter, a pan-European production, also with two engines) would do the trick for the country’s domestic and international operations.
The F-35 leads the charge mainly on the strength of arguments that Danish forces regularly take part in US-led military action and that fighting with the same type of jet will make operations easier to co-ordinate. The UK, another frequent combat partner, will also buy some F-35s, though the number it has committed to has declined recently. Diplomatically, going American would be the wisest choice, even it would be seen as a snub by European allies.
Denmark’s status as an Arctic state, thanks to Greenland, is unlikely to influence the decision, though military experts and a number of lawmakers suggest it should. There is also excellent opportunity for it to do so: the fighter-jet vetting process is taking place at the same time as the Defence Ministry is conducting a review of its military capacity in the Arctic. After much delay, the panel is expected to present its recommendations for future materiel needs in early 2016, ahead of a fighter-jet decision.
One of the goals of the committee coming up with the recommendations, which includes the participation of the head of the fighter-jet panel, will be to consider what future operations in the region will require of Danish forces.
The military has a long tradition of Arctic operations, though this is primarily at sea, and to a lesser extent on sledge. Aerial operations consist mainly of cargo delivery, surveillance and search and rescue, but are constrained by factors such as distance, climate and lack of hardware.
Air missions, including an increased need for defensive patrols and reconnaissance, are likely to take up more of the military’s time in the future. Here, warn experts, the F-35, designed as silent killer, due to its ability to elude radar, will be less useful than other airframes. As in the Canadian debate, the single-engine construction is also a worry. Detractors also point out that the Danish public sector has a bad history of investing in unproven technologies that ultimately failed.
Instead, drones and satellites have been put forward as suitable alternatives with proven track records.
Those arguing that the F-35 can be deployed in the Arctic point to Norway and to America, where the Pentagon is considering two Alaska bases as the possible home of as many as 40 planes. America’s faith in its own creation will likely be enough for Danish lawmakers. Greenlandic lawmakers, on the other hand, are less convinced.
“The F-35 is an extremely expensive aeroplane and it is not suitable for use by the Danish military for its Arctic operations. What’s more, the investment is so great that it hardly would leave any funds for pressing upgrades of basic equipment and capacity,” Aleqa Hammond, one of Greenland’s two members of the Folketing, the Danish national assembly, wrote in a recent commentary carried in several newspapers.
Then there is also a final consideration: the pilots who must fly the new jets.
Describing the Canadian situation last year, Michael Byers, high-profile Canadian security expert, cited a quote made by a former fighter pilot to FrontLine Defence, a magazine, in May 2011: “A single engine is stupid,” the pilot said. “There’s no backup. If it fails, you’re dead.”
That would be the unkindest fault of them all.
Foreground articles offer a preview of events related to the Arctic that will be taking place in coming week.
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