Worst-case scenarios and the F-35

It’s not surprising that F-35 briefings by officials in the Department of National Defence (DND) point to growing dangers in a threatening world – that’s their job. Nor is it surprising that DND wants the most advanced fighter aircraft money can buy – it’s been that way since the Avro Arrow. Those are  understandable impulses, but how do you convert them into good security policy? At least it’s not too late to ask the question.

Among several interesting findings in the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s report[i] on the likely costs of the F-35 fighter aircraft is the unambiguous statement that, despite the Government’s announcement of the purchase, no contract has been signed, no legal obligation to buy it exists, and no financial penalty or other costs would be incurred if the decision to buy was reversed. There is therefore no reason not to revisit the mission and requirements and to consider other options.

The primary mission set out by the Government is, as it has been since the 1950s, to patrol Canadian airspace so that, together with sea and land forces, security forces can “be aware of anything going on in or approaching [Canadian] territory.” Beyond that, the forces are tasked to deter threats and respond to contingencies, in Canada and North America.

Internationally, the mission is to contribute to international peace and security and the stated requirements are open-ended: “This will require the Canadian Forces to have the necessary capabilities to make a meaningful contribution across the full spectrum of international operations [the same phrase used by the Liberal Defence Policy statement of 2005],[ii] from humanitarian assistance to stabilization operations to combat.”[iii]

And it is in imagining potential combat environments that worst-case thinking is given free rein. Combat scenarios pitch Canadian fighter aircraft against an array of state-of-the-art air defence systems as well as the very latest in fifth generation fighters – Russia’s new version being exhibit number one of the kind of thing Canadian fighters must be prepared to face.[iv]

To that are added warnings of land-attack cruise missiles (LACM). The US Air Force says, for example, that “the cruise missile threat to US forces will increase over the next decade. At least nine foreign countries will be involved in LACM production during the next decade, and several of the LACM producers will make their missiles available for export.” Among them are Russia, China, India, and Pakistan[v] – and so the argument is that they could spread and could potentially be fired from off-shore aircraft at targets in Canada and other theatres of operation, with very sophisticated fighter aircraft a primary defence.

Such scenarios, which officials set out in much greater detail, in turn lead to a list of what DND calls “High Level Mandatory Capabilities,” a series of operational characteristics or capabilities that it says the next fighter aircraft must possess to meet all contingencies. There are at least eleven such features, eight of which, says DND, can be met by “fourth generation aircraft,” like the current CF-18:

  • Range: A specific range is not mentioned, but it “must be capable of flying long distances” without air-to-air refuelling;
  • Air-to-air refuelling: In-flight refuelling is nevertheless required to extend that range in certain instances;
  • Speed: Again, no specifics, except to say that it must be capable of intercepting other fighter and bomber aircraft;
  • Endurance: Must be capable of “combat air patrol” within “a range of geographical locations”;
  • Deployable: Similarly it must be capable of being deployed globally “in a full range of geographic, environmental, climatic and threat conditions”;
  • Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance: The new fighter is to have “superior” capability in each of these “during and following the deployment of weapons”;
  • Weapons: It must be capable of firing a “range of air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons in all weather conditions, day and night, in threatening and non-threatening environments”;
  • Growth potential: It must be capable of receiving upgrades to enhance operation capabilities, as well as survivability and interoperability.

But there are three additional characteristics, says DND, which can be met only by fifth generation fighters, i.e. the F-35:

  • Survivability: “The aircraft must be capable of defending itself and its crew by employing a range of self-defence technologies and minimizing the risk of detection, engagement and damage in threatening environments” – meaning stealth.
  • Interoperability: “The aircraft must be capable of effectively operating in joint (land, sea and aerospace) and combined environments with Canada’s allies.”
  • Sensors and Data Fusion: “The aircraft must be capable of accurately detecting, tracking, identifying, prioritizing, engaging and assessing a range of air-to-air and air-to-surface contacts in all weather conditions, day and night, in permissive and non-permissive environments.”

So, there we have the constructed context – an expansive statement of threat and an ambitious definition of requirements. It is the job of security planners to prepare for the unforeseen, but to get a true picture of risk, threat needs to be tempered by probability. And to get a true picture of need, requirements need to be balanced by competing calls on resources.

So, how probable are the threats? What is the likelihood that Canada will or should be drawn into foreign high density combat environments against the most advanced of military capabilities? One way to answer that question is to ask how often that has happened in the past 30 years (during the life of the CF-18s) – and the answer is never. In fact, fighter aircraft are rarely deployed abroad by Canada, not because they haven’t been available, but because fighter aircraft have little utility in expeditionary peace support operations. Indeed, Canada’s CF-18 fighters, 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.[vi] In none of those instances did they face sophisticated air defence capabilities or fighter aircraft [nor is that the case in Libya today (27 March 2011)].

What is the likelihood of Canada facing attacks in North America by the most advanced military capabilities? It certainly didn’t happened in the past 30 years, and the likelihood of it happening in the foreseeable future is even less – given that those dazzlingly effective fifth generation Russian fighters are now on our side. The primary 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. Similarly, the more extensive operations related to the Olympic and the G8-G20 meetings were also assistance to civil authorities.

What are the opportunity costs of buying aircraft at a minimum of $150 million per copy, plus twice that much to operate them for 30 years?[vii] Prudent security planning ought at least to ask what peacebuilding capabilities and diplomatic resources could be financed, even by the equivalent of the cost difference between fourth generation and fifth generation fighter aircraft.

As argued in this space before,[viii] ongoing monitoring of Canadian airspace is certainly essential, as is the capacity to physically confront and intercept isolated intruders. 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.

The current Government’s preference for “fifth generation” capability does not translate automatically into need. Domestic surveillance and air defence notably do not require stealth or other advanced capabilities. Internationally, Canada is in a position to decide what kinds of missions to pursue – indeed it must be highly selective since we obviously can’t do everything. There are many other non-military and military ways for Canada to make significant contributions to international peace and security.

At the very least, we need a thorough debate – and the report of the Parliamentary Budget Office confirms that it’s not too late. 



[i] An Estimate of the Fiscal Impact of Canada’s Proposed Acquisition of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (March 2011).  http://www2.parl.gc.ca/sites/pbo-dpb/index.aspx?Language=E.

[ii] “A Role of Pride and Influence in the World: Defence,” Department of National Defence, 2005, p. 26.

[iii] Canada First Defence Strategy, Department of National Defence, Ottawa. http://www.forces.gc.ca/site/pri/first-premier/index-eng.asp.

[iv] Steve Gutterman,“New Russian stealth fighter makes first flight,” Reuters, Moscow, 29 January 2010. http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/01/29/us-russia-fighter-idUSTRE60S0UW20100129.

 [v] “Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat,” National Air and Space Intelligence Center, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, 2009. Available at: http://www.fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/NASIC2009.pdf.

 [vi] 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. http://www.cdfai.org/PDF/A%20Military%20In%20Support%20of%20Canadian%20Foreign%20Policy%20-%20Considerations.pdf.

 [vii] An Estimate of the Fiscal Impact of Canada’s Proposed Acquisition of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (March 2011).  http://www2.parl.gc.ca/sites/pbo-dpb/index.aspx?Language=E.

 [viii] http://disarmingconflict.ca/2010/10/14/the-f-35-canada%e2%80%99s-air-defence-needs-compared-with-what/.

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