ull disclosure: I have been accused of penning some unconventional thoughts on the F-35 programme. In 2010, I wrote an Ottawa Citizen op-ed arguing that rather than jets, the RCAF should replace its CF-18s with turbo prop light attack aircraft like Embraer’s Super Tucano or Hawker Beechcraft’s AT-6B. An acerbic Army colleague of mine liked to refer to it as my “hang glider” article. However, when news broke that the Canadian government had rejected an industry bid to revive the Avro Arrow as an alternative to procuring the F-35, my first reaction was to wonder if it was the first of April all over again. Yet, the ecstatic outpouring of nationalist affirmation that followed the news on the comments attached to online reports was even more bizarre. Indeed, they serve as indicators of the serious problem confronting the government in its plans to replace the RCAF’s fighters with modernized aircraft. Whatever the costs and benefits of any particular airframe, the fundamental problem of Canadian defence remains our unique geography and its influence on how Canadians think about their security.
The breathless reportage accompanying this story conceals its astounding stupidity in the first place. To begin with, the thought that a design dating back fifty years could hold its own in modern air combat originates in the beloved Canadian myth of the advanced fighter that was cancelled by a craven Canadian government in thrall to the pecuniary interests of the American military industrial complex. Yet, the Arrow was a product of a time long past. As advanced as it may have been, it was simply designed to fly as fast as possible to intercept waves of Russian bombers, not the complex multi-mission demands that modern airframes must undertake. While it had an internal weapons bay, a feature on all modern stealth jets, its huge delta wing and large jet intakes would have given it a large radar cross section by today’s standards. Lacking the aerodynamic unstability built into modern fighter aircraft designs, it is doubtful it could evade the threat posed especially by mobile surface to air missile launchers and MANPADS. The Arrow would be missile bait in today’s air combat environment.
Worse, the idea that one could simply (and cheaply) recreate a system where all the plans, industrial tools, and other intellectual property has been destroyed is astonishing. When the Republican candidate Mitt Romney recently announced that he would restart the production of F-22s in the US, he was roundly denounced for the costs that would be involved. This, for a programme where production only ended last December, and where Lockheed Martin carefully boxed all the production tools, and rigorously documented all of its industrial processes. A RAND report estimated that the start-up costs, even under these ideal conditions, would be an additional $90 million dollars per plane.
Worse yet, none in the media have chosen to ask just where this proposal has come from. Ostensibly, it has been at the suggestion of retired Army Major General Lewis Mackenzie, himself representing a shadowy “Bourdeau Industries”. Mackenzie, taking advantage of his celebrity and connections managed to get this as far as then Associate Minister for Defence Julian Fantino’s desk. One can only imagine the incredulous look on the face of the staff officer assigned to deal with that one. For a company with no website and no apparent history in large defence industrial projects, it is difficult to take very seriously a proposal for a major weapon system that a fighter programme represents. Mackenzie’s own credentials must be seriously damaged by the proposal. His assertion that the Arrow’s “basic design and platform exceed any current fighter jet” must come as a major shock to the global fighter aircraft industry. Mackenzie demonstrated his ignorance of the basic design in arguing that the pure interceptor Arrow was an “attack aircraft”, designed for air to ground missions. I wonder what his reaction might be to a retired RCAF general proposing getting rid of expensive Leopard II tanks for British Centurions?
Predictably, nationalists have rallied to the cause in the hope that it will restore Canada’s glory and pride of place in the aircraft industry, and generate billions of dollars in business during a time of economic uncertainty. “Let the Arrow fly” is the refrain of many commenting on this story. The naiveté of such sentiment underlines the serious problem the RCAF faces in replacing its CF-18s. Writing over a decade ago, I argued that the principal problem the air force faced in replacing its fighters would be convincing the Canadian public of the need for such a programme.
As the saying goes, Canada is unassailable and indefensible. The defence of Canada is inseparable from the defence of North America: any assailant will have to take on the US as well as us. Furthermore, the only state with the capability of attacking Canada is the United States and that is a problem that has no realistic solution aside from close diplomacy and the inherent bonds between cousin nations. Most Canadians see little reason for expensive fighters; even the history of 9/11 hasn’t convinced them otherwise (not that fighter jets are the best means for intercepting “low and slow” air targets that remain the principle problem of air defence in North America).
The basics of Canada’s military geography are an inflexible constant in our defence plans and they have a pernicious effect on how Canadians consider their security, even in today’s globalized environment. If the silly Arrow debate is any indicator, the fighter replacement programme is worrisomely headed in the same direction as the Maritime Helicopter replacement programme, itself now a full two decades late. Modern air combat is a hideously expensive business. So much so, that the future for companies producing fighter aircraft outside of North America is bleak. While Canadians are justifiably concerned that they are purchasing a Rolls Royce programme instead of a modest mini-van, the alternatives to choose from will all be extraordinarily expensive: there is no “El Camino” model available. For the RCAF, caught between the penny pinching tax-payers and rising capital costs they must look nervously at the only other nation with similar security geography: New Zealand. The RNZAF got rid of its fighters in 2001.
Dr. Paul T. Mitchell is a Professor of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College, an alumnus of Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Research Associate of the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies. This is the first of his monthly blog `The Battle Space`. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Canadian Forces College or the Department of National Defence.