The F-35: Canada’s air defence needs, compared with what?

That Canada needs a credible air defence capability is not in dispute; the challenge is to balance that with the other urgent needs on a rather long list. 

Canada needs a fleet of fast, long-range aircraft with a capacity to respond effectively to unidentified and unauthorized intrusions into Canadian airspace. That much seems pretty clear – but need is relative, not absolute.  

Canada also needs icebreakers to patrol the thawing and increasingly commercial Arctic waters. We need large and long-range transport aircraft (that money is already spent), along with well-equipped military and civilian personnel, to respond effectively on short notice to humanitarian and security crises beyond our borders. We need a major boost in Canada’s diplomatic corps to meet the myriad of diplomatic, political, and conflict challenges that a G8/G20 nation and aspirant to the Security Council should bring to the global table. We certainly need a massive increase in foreign assistance – to the tune of another $5 billion each and every year if we are to meet our avowed target of boosting annual official development assistance to the level of .7 per cent of GDP.[i]  

And of course we need to balance the federal budget, pay down the national debt, improve education, meet the voracious and still growing demands for health care, end child poverty, meet global environmental standards, and promote the arts. Furthermore, we need to do it all with some degree of urgency.  

Happily, Canada is also an extraordinarily wealthy country, so we can afford a lot of this – the issue is the political will to set sensible priorities that accord with a commitment to build sustainable conditions of human security at home and abroad.  

The F-35 question in isolation is not really one of affordability – if a thorough and frank national debate were to send 65 stealth, fifth generation, state-of-the-art fighter aircraft to the top of the list of urgent national requirements, we could afford them, even at total capital and operating costs of $15-$30 billion over a span of 30 years.[ii] The real question is, do we need them more than we need everything else on the list? And can we really afford them if that means deferring other urgent requirements?  

The hard part is not identifying needs, it’s obviously setting priorities.  

So the first step needs to be a realistic look at the nature and extent of our air defence needs. Is the F-35 the only way in which those needs can be met? Or are there ways of maintaining sufficient air defence capability at much lower costs – is there a responsible trade-off available that would allow us to reduce the costs of air defence and increase our response to other urgent imperatives?  

Air defence capabilities are not a luxury that we can decide to do without. So just saying a blanket no to fighter aircraft is not a solution. At the same time, we need to remind ourselves that the unidentified and unauthorized intrusions into Canadian airspace – the kinds of events that air defence systems are designed prevent and respond to – have little to do with Russian bombers or conventional national defence. All the media and Ministerial brouhaha over recent flights of Russian bombers in international airspace near Canada, and Canadian F-18 responses, was put in perspective by NORAD’s own insistence that these were routine exercises in which Russians train and NORAD tests response times: “Both Russia and NORAD routinely exercise their capability to operate in the North. These exercises are important to both NORAD and Russia and are not cause for alarm.”[iii]  

Furthermore, joint exercises with the Russians reflect the contemporary reality that they are now our collaborators in air defence operations, not our dreaded adversary. In August, the US, NORAD, and Russia conducted a joint exercise to respond to a staged “hijacking” of a civilian airliner. The exercise was an effort to integrate North American and Russian military and civilian air traffic control agencies to counter air terrorism.[iv]  

The airborne threat we do face comes largely in the form of small civilian aircraft carrying contraband. In effect, the day-to-day activity of NORAD, the Canada-US organization that monitors the air approaches to Canada, is to lend aid to the civil authorities in their drug interdiction efforts. Coastal radars identify aircraft entering Canadian airspace without a filed flight plan, and when necessary aircraft are sent to identify and escort the intruders to an airport or landing strip where civilian authorities can deal with them.  

It is important work that supports the rule of law, the human security of Canadians, and thus ultimately national security – but does it require the kind of fighter aircraft now being promised? Canada does not face imminent or foreseeable threats of hostile, unauthorized, foreign military breaches of Canadian air space. The conclusion to be drawn from that is not that we don’t need air defence, for it is in part effective air defence that dissuades others from trying to breach our borders. But it does put the need for air defence in some useful perspective: ongoing monitoring is absolutely essential; after 9-11 we know that threats can also emerge from within our borders; the capacity to physically confront and intercept intruders must be maintained; but a wealth of experience tells us that the threats to and from within our national airspace can be met with a reliable surveillance and modest interception capability. 

That still leaves the question of Canadian contributions of fighter aircraft capabilities to military operations beyond our borders. Canada has done very little of that in the past, largely because fighter aircraft have little utility in the kinds of expeditionary peace support operations that Canada should be expected to support in the future. Indeed, Canada’s CF-18 fighters, acquired in the early 1980s, have been deployed beyond Canada’s borders on only four occasions: 1) 26 were deployed to the 1991 Gulf War; 18 to the 1999 NATO operations in Serbia/Kosovo; in 1997 six CF-18s did a three-month tour out of Aviano, Italy to conduct air patrols over Bosnia in support of NATO ground forces and to protect airborne warning and control aircraft; and in June 1998 six CF-18s went to Aviano to support peacekeeping forces in Bosnia.[v]  

Serious voices in the defence policy community are raising questions about the F-35 and whether Canada’s contributions to peace support operations require fighter aircraft.  

Dan Middlemiss of Dalhousie University: …[A]lthough Canada is a member of the US Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program team, in future operations in support of Canadian foreign policy it will become increasingly difficult to justify the cost of a modest fleet of JSFs for the air force. There would be almost no requirement for such aircraft to support Canadian naval or army deployments on a “stand-alone” basis, and, while they would be useful – and fully interoperable – augmenters to coalition forces, their high acquisition and sustainment costs (which would include the sky-rocketing cost of “subsidies” to attract and retain fighter pilots) might rule them out as cost-effective contributors to Canadian expeditionary operations.” He points to the importance of information, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities and suggests further investigation of unpiloted aircraft for that role. 

Paul Mitchell of the Canadian Forces College says Canada will not be in a position to buy enough of any fighter aircraft to fulfill NORAD, NATO, and expeditionary commitments and thus suggests exploration of alternatives to advanced fighters:  “The most likely avenue of attack from the air on Canada today is not from a lumbering Bear bomber, but rather a small privately owned commercial aircraft.” And for defence against that you need aircraft that can fly “low and slow” – not the métier of supersonic fighters. Mitchell goes on to say: “A turboprop aircraft like Embraer’s “Super Tucano” or Beechcraft’s AT-6B (whose engines are manufactured by Pratt & Whitney Canada in Nova Scotia) would easily fit this bill. At roughly $6-million per copy, we could outfit the air force with 10 times the number of airframes. Furthermore, such aircraft are well suited to support army operations and are cheap to operate and maintain. CF-18s have been noticeably absent in the present conflict in Afghanistan.”[vi] 

Canada needs an ongoing and credible domestic air defence capability, but that doesn’t translate into an urgent need for the one of the most complex, most expensive, yet to be proven, combat aircraft on the planet. At the very least, we should have the benefit of a thorough, informed, and frank national debate, along with a competitive selection process, before any final commitment is made.


[i] The Canadian Council for International Contribution proposes a more realistic in which aid would increase by 14 percent per year until 2020 when the .7 percent target would be reached. “2010/11 Pre-Budget Brief,” October 2009, Canadian Council for International Co-Operation (CCIC).

 [ii] US estimates of life-cycle costs per aircraft are at least three times higher than figures use by the Government of Canada in estimating the total program costs. Kenneth Epps, “Why Joint Strike Fighter aircraft? Program costs rise and benefits carry risks,” Ploughshares Briefing 10/3, August 2010.

 [iii] “NORAD downplays Russian bomber interception,” CBC News, 25 August 2010.

 [iv] Maj. Mike Humphreys, “Vigilant Eagle tests NOARAD, Russian response,” NORAD and USNORTHCOM Public Affairs, 10 August 2010.

 [v] As documented by Dan Middlemiss in “A Military in Support of Canadian Foreign Policy: Some Fundamental Considerations,” Centre For Foreign Policy Studies, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova.

 [vi] Paul T. Mitchell, “How to get more air force for the dollar,” The Ottawa Citizen, 12 October 2010.

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