When I was a kid, I used to love looking at the suits of armour at the museum. I loved the armour from the 15th century, when the armourer’s art reached its pinnacle. Those suits were strong, light, flexible and beautiful to boot. They were also obsolete before they were built. No matter who beautiful and elegant they were they were no match for even the crude firearms of the day.
Yesterday’s story about the possible reincarnation of the Avro Arrow as an alternative to the F-35 brought back memories of those suits of armour. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Avro Arrow, it was a beautiful aircraft. Had it gone into production it might well have become the definitive all-weather interceptor (although emphasis on “might” – it’s worth recalling that the Arrow’s performance never quite lived up to billing, at least before its cancellation – it never exceeded Mach 2 in test flights, for example), but that doesn’t blind me to the fact that it was obsolete 50 years ago.
The Avro Arrow was designed for one purpose, and one purpose only, to intercept nuclear armed Russian bombers over the Arctic. It might well have excelled at that role, except for one problem – by the time it was cancelled the Russians were building intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Russian bombers that the Arrow was supposed to intercept were never coming. The Arrow was built to defend against a threat that ended a half century ago (which might be why both the US and the UK cancelled similar designs, the XF-108 and F.155 Project, at the same time). Had it been built the Arrow might have been the definitive all-weather interceptor for the same reason that a 15th century suit of armour is the definitive armour, become no one would ever build another one again.
Which brings me to the, frankly, bird-brained scheme to build a “new” Arrow as an alternative to the F-35. It’s inconceivable that anyone is taking it seriously and it speaks poorly of the military savvy of our media (and opposition politicians) that this wasn’t dismissed offhand as a crackpot idea.
The threat that the Arrow was build to defend against still doesn’t exist. The Russians still don’t plan on using bombers to nuke the US (or Canada) if WWIII breaks out. Heck, their current bomber arsenal consists of a dozen modern supersonic bombers and a hundred or so old (albeit still capable) turbo-prop driven TU-95 Bears that they occasionally use to probe Canadian airspace – and Canada’s current multi-purpose fighter, the CF-18, has had no problem driving them off. The Arrow is still the solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
Moreover, it is wholly unsuited to the combat roles the RCAF has actually performed over the past few decades – combat air patrols over the Persian Gulf during the Gulf War, air strikes in the former Yugoslavia and Libya – and the sort of combat roles the RCAF can expect over the next 40 years. There is no doubt that it could fly fast and high with a long-range. But outside of the interceptor role, those are traits that aren’t definitive.
Moreover, the Arrow’s range and speed come at the price of size and manoeuverability. The Avrow Arrow is almost 40% larger than either the F-35 or the CF-18 it would replace. That makes for a big beefy radar target, even ignoring the F-35’s quasi-stealth capacity, and relatively sluggish handler – both critical disadvantages in modern air combat where manoeuverability and low radar profile mean the difference between life and death. Similarly, the Arrow’s design meant that it handled poorly at slow speeds and low altitudes, rendering it unsuitable for an attack role. The Arrow would be meat on the table in combat against older fighter aircraft like the Russian MIG 29s or the old Soviet surface-to-air missile technology that litters third world arsenals.
And we haven’t even begin to discuss the fact that aerospace technology has advanced considerably over the last 50 years. The Arrow was designed to use the best technology of its time, but that time was 50 years ago. Building an aircraft using 50-year old technology would be criminally negligent and would sentence Canadian pilots to near certain death in a modern combat scenario. But to try to build an Arrow using new technology involves building a brand-new aircraft from scratch – incurring all the same cost incurred in building the F-35. There’s just no way around that hard fact. And because the US and its allies (with or without Canada) will build several thousand F-35s, allowing them to spread out the development costs, backers of the Arrow are only proposing to sell 120 to Canada. Unless Canada could find foreign buyers for the plane (which, note, it failed to do with the Arrow 50 years ago), the development cost of a what would be, even according to proponents of the plan, a new plane, would be borne entirely by Canada. The notion that such plane could be build in a cost-effective manner with such a small production run is laughable.
All of which makes people like Jack Harris (the NDP’s defense critic), who criticized the Conservative government for dismissing this idea off-hand, look like the fools they are. Here we have a proposal for a plane that doesn’t exist, that was designed 50 years ago, that fulfills a role that doesn’t exist, and that would have to be extensively redesigned if it were to be built. How is the government supposed to assess the performance of a non-existent aircraft? What government could take such a proposal seriously?
This isn’t to say that critics aren’t right to be taking a hard look at the F-35 program. Good (although not necessarily decisive) cases could be made that other aircrafts, like the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet (which the Australians have ordered to fulfil an interim role until the F-35 is ready), the French Rafale, or the Eurofighter might better suit Canada’s needs and budget. But those are all real aircrafts, build to modern specifications (albeit not to the standards of the F-35) and in actual production, not the fantasy aircraft of the Arrow’s backers. If critics of the government’s decision to buy the F-35 want to be taken seriously, they should be looking at real alternatives to the F-35, not the illusion of a reborn Avro Arrow.