The RCAF’s divergent commitments to NORAD and NATO suggest that none of the fighters on offer are quite right for its needs.

Canada’s Department of National Defence has had quite a time over the past two weeks at both the NATO Summit and the Farnborough Air Show. The DND is now preparing to deploy 450 troops, the nucleus of a battalion group, to Latvia next year, as part of the four-battalion NATO brigade approved at the meeting in Warsaw. As Murray Brewster of CBC News wrote, the federal government has also “renewed a commitment to provide six CF-18 fighter jets for air policing duties over the Baltic states, a mission the air force last conducted in 2014.” With all this activity, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan admits concern about Canada keeping its commitments to both NORAD and NATO on a dwindling fleet of usable jets. Some furthering thinking about both the various jets and those twin commitments shows how it’s possible that none of the available aircraft are quite right for Canada’s needs.

First, some background. In its 2016-2017 budget submission to Parliament, the Liberals announced that they intended to slow the rate of increase in military procurement spending previously planned by the Conservatives. That probably pushes off a few years replacement of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s aging CF-18A fighters. The last Canadian plane was delivered in 1988; those aircraft are more-or-less A/B models of the F-18, just with the avionics of C/Ds. The gradually declining serviceability of the old jets could mean, as Lee Berthiaume wrote for the Canadian Press, that the RCAF would be “struggling to keep NATO and North American defence commitments.”

Fairly, the most recent modernization program for the CF-18s was completed in 2010, extending the life of the jets through 2020. In 2014, the Harper Government ordered a study of possible structural work to extend the life of some of the jets through 2025. In now-classically Canadian style, that idea is still under study some two years later. Does that mean that the replacement decision must be taken urgently? Sajjan argues so; in opposition the Tories continue to argue otherwise. The CBC puts the minister’s statement somewhere in the middle on its baloney meter.

The bigger problem is whether the statement of urgency would pass muster in the courts. The Liberals, of course, had publicly promised during the recent election campaign not to buy Joint Strike Fighters. That may have been ill-advised. As several observers have pointed out, Canada’s strict federal procurement laws could permit Lockheed Martin to sue the Crown for damages if the company is unreasonably excluded from any bidding. In contrast, as Aaron Mehta wrote for Defense News recently, there’s no mechanism for excluding Canadian industry from Lockheed’s continuing program, as long as the Canadian government keeps making its payments supporting development work. So any decision on who can tender must be made carefully.

The Department of National Defense is thus consulting industry this week at the Farnborough Air Show about how much is possible how fast. A spokeswoman for the DND told Aviation Week “that Canada is reaching out to the U.S., Denmark, Australia, France, Sweden and Germany.” James Drew and Lara Seligman of Aerospace Daily & Defense Report observe what’s interesting about that list. Denmark just chose F-35As over F-18Fs. Australia chose F-18Fs as an interim solution before any future orders of F-35s. The latter three countries have never been interested in either plane; those conversations are presumably about Rafales, Gripen NGs, and Eurofighters.

But by the Liberals’ stated plans, perhaps what Canada should really want is something altogether different, because those commitments to NATO and NORAD are altogether different.

To begin with, recall how the party platform stated that “the primary mission of our fighter aircraft should remain the defence of North America, not stealth first-strike capability.” For the moment, presume that this line was written by a relatively young staffer without military experience. So dispense with the definitional problem that missions and capabilities aren’t the same thing. Glide past the fact that low-observability is useful not just for penetrating bombing missions, but also for shooting first in air defense missions. Note then that even if defense of North America were primary to the government, and even if stealthiness were not greatly valued by the RCAF, none of the candidate aircraft were designed specifically for that mission.

That’s because they were all designed for fighting somewhere else—Europe, in the case of the Eurofighter and the Gripen, and whatever the French and US Navies would be bombing, in the case of the Rafale and the Super Hornet. In any of these places they would first need to defeat opposing fighter aircraft, or at least suppress ground-based radars and missiles, before dropping any bombs. Over North America, the long-term flying threats are Russian and Chinese long-range cruise missiles and multi-engine bombers. None of these are yet remotely stealthy, and probably won’t be for a long time. After dispatching the intruders, there’s no bombing to be done. If this mission were really primary, the RCAF might rather want planes of very long range, and of course high engine reliability, to range far over the North and out to sea, to intercept aircraft encroaching on Canadian airspace. The planes would have very long-range radars for finding intruders, and long-range missiles for destroying formations of them before merging to contact.

Internal carriage of a thousand-kilogram bomb would be totally secondary. Even so, the concept could be akin to the “bomber-fighter” described by John Stillion of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in his April 2015 study Trends in Air-to-Air Combat: Implications for Future Air Superiority. In theory, the RCAF would also want a more traditional, shorter-ranged fighter-bomber to help fight the Russians over Poland. The United States will buy lots of fighters, and different types of fighters, for multiple missions and expeditionary campaigns. The Dominion of Canada, on the other hand, would be rather unlikely to buy two totally different fixed-wing combat aircraft. Besides, there are twenty-six member states in Europe, and just the first few have plenty of fighter jets for dealing with the Russians. In contrast, a longer-ranged combat aircraft would be very useful for maritime patrol and strike missions, whether over the North Atlantic or in assisting in the defense of Alaska against Chinese incursions. Conceivably, such a plane could supplement and eventually replace the RCAF’s CP-140 Auroras.

The prima facie problem is that the idea is probably more quixotic than that of the Avro Arrow. On War Is Boring, Robert Farley of the University of Kentucky recently described that as “Canada’s Awesome, Pointless Jet Fighter” of the 1950s. True, the Canadian aircraft industry is impressive, and Sweden’s Saab provides a permanent reminder that much can be accomplished by yet less populous countries. But the Gripen Nova Geração was only launched after a development partner signed on, and Brazil might actually have been one of the best candidates for such an “Arrow II” plan. A different view of its actual military needs might emphasize long-range patrol of the Amazon and the South Atlantic over any kinetic foreign expedition—something that hasn’t happened since World War Two.

Of course, a purely Canadian development program isn’t happening, under Liberals or Tories. But if the Liberals are serious that defending North America is the RCAF’s first mission, then two things change dramatically. First, if the request-to-tender is written cleverly, that promise to avoid the Joint Strike Fighter is easily fulfilled. Place a strict price limit per plane, and demand a fixed-price deal. Deprecate any defense-penetrating capabilities for the aircraft itself. The RCAF would, of course, then need standoff weapons for attacking heavily defended targets, when actually called to support NATO. Cruise missiles were for a long time not the Canadian style, but the RCN has already set the precedent with its new land-attack Harpoons.

For industry, the marketing plans would need to change too, emphasizing range and first-shot capability over air-to-ground carrying capacity. Offerers would need to explain what they would do to enhance their designs accordingly, and how local firms would have a role in those modifications. That’s hardly an Arrow II, but it could realistically provide even more strategic value to both the RCAF and Canadian industry.

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

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