Building the Arctic Grid
© 2013 FrontLine Defence (Vol 10, No 6)

In the last issue of FrontLine Defence, Richard Bray and I discussed how new thinking could shape 21st century procurement. A key element was the ­concept of building an Arctic C2 and ISR grid to cover Canada’s needs across the High North – and to do so in a way in which Canada could be in a pole position to shape allied efforts.

Over time, the F-35 will clearly become a potential contributor to this effort. Norway has bought the F-35 and is shaping its fleet with the Arctic in mind. The U.S., Japan, and most probably Denmark are among the allied states that will operate F-35s with Arctic security and defence in mind. There are two key considerations. The first is the emergence of a 21st century fleet. Pacific allies are buying the F-35 and will be looking to shape integration.

The second is the nature of the combat systems. The F-35 systems make it a C2 and ISR aircraft, notably when the planes are considered as a deployed grid able to cover significant space. For instance, in the 2011 Northern Edge exercise, its radar mapped the maritime surface of 500 square miles. According to a report released by the Joint Program Office at the time: F-35 combat systems “searched the entire 50,000 square-mile Gulf of Alaska operating area for surface vessels, and accurately detected and tracked them in minimal time.”

During recent interviews with General Hostage (the Air Combat Commander), General Jacoby (the NORAD/NORTHCOM commander), Lt. General Jouas (the 7th USAF Commander), Lt. General Robling (MARFORPAC), and most recently with General Hawk Carlisle (the AFPAC commander), I was able to discuss the emerging role of the F-35 fleet and how it figured into their considerations for the future of air operations. Each, in one way or another, emphasized the key role the combat systems of the fleet would play in cueing up other military and security assets for the full spectrum of missions.

Communication linkages is a ­crucial aspect, not only for combat but for security operations as well. Recently, in the Philippines, the USMC brought its Osprey and KC-130J package as the initial force in shaping relief efforts. But the only communications they had was the Commanding Officer’s Blackberry. The Marines emphasized that their F-35Bs will have the mapping, ISR and communications capability crucial to their full range of operations – something they do not have now.

Billie Flynn, former Canadian Air Force fighter pilot, is now an F-35 test pilot with Lockheed Martin. Flynn started flying the CF-18 some 30 years ago and retired after commanding 441 squadron and leading the Canadian task force involved in Kosovo.

Given the importance of CFB Cold Lake in any Arctic strategy, Flynn’s operational experience is suggestive of the way ahead if F-35s become the mainstay Canadian aircraft. “Because the F-35 is clean in design and operation, it goes further and stays longer in the airspace. This allows it to patrol the Arctic without the same level of tanker support that the CF-18 requires. It can stay over the Arctic area of operation to be able to see at distance,” he says.

“It will allow the Canadian Air Force to patrol areas with fighter aircraft in way they could not do before. As the CO of 441, to fly out of Cold Lake for Arctic ­sovereignty missions required a significant logistical support just to operate in the areas crucial for the mission. With 18,000 pounds of fuel on board the F-35, the pilots will operate longer and at greater range than with the CF-18.”

We then discussed impacts of combat systems for the Arctic sovereignty mission set. “Stealth allows the F-35 to patrol with impunity. The combination of 360° multi-spectral sensor, sensor fusion shared information among members of the network allows the F-35 to serve as a key node to a much broader grid than anyone would have thought possible with a tactical fighter,” he asserts.

Flynn believes that patrolling and guarding Canadian resources in the Arctic will be done on a order of magnitude more effectively with the F-35 than any legacy fighter platform. “The F-35 sees in depth and breadth and across many electronic spectrums as well. It can see hundreds of miles around itself and does so in a moving space as it operates. The pilot is in a shared sensor space – he is not operating as a unit of a squadron defined by wingmen.”

Thinking forward to the Arctic Grid concept, a key challenge will be to factor in the F-35 as a fleet (Canadian and allied) in shaping the other ISR and C2 elements.

“You will not use the F-35 as a classic tactical aircraft,” explains Flynn. “It will be part of the grid you are talking about. As the Canadian military determines how to deal with its evolving Arctic mission, it will be crucial to understand the F-35 fleet impact and to then sort out what else is needed and how other systems can be most effectively used. It is a definitional asset, not simply an additive platform. It is a foundational element for reshaping the approach to Arctic sovereignty.”

Robbin Laird is a defense analyst and journalist based in Virginia.
© FrontLine Defence 2013