Whatever the real point of Ottawa’s mini-tiff with Moscow last week, one can’t help but conclude that Ottawa will regularly be turning to the Russian Bear to help get Canadians bullish on a new fleet of fighter aircraft.

The last time Canada went shopping for fighter aircraft it settled on the CF-18 from McDonald Douglas of the US in the largest single military purchase in Canadian history. The Air Force is now gearing up to replace the CF-18s, and given a price tag that could go to $10 billion, the new fighter aircraft could once again be the largest single Canadian military purchase ever.

Russia’s Bears – long-range, four-engine, propeller driven aircraft built to deliver nuclear weapons to North America – were bolstered by the generally threatening ambience of the Cold War to figure prominently in the rationale for acquiring the CF-18 fighter/interceptor. The Cold War is no more, but the Bears are still with us and they remain ready and willing to serve as the theatrical foil to Ottawa’s manufactured bravado about defending our sovereignty.

“We will defend our airspace,” said Prime Minister Harper, noting his “deep concern” about the “increasingly aggressive Russian actions around the globe and into our airspace.”[i] Not content this time with conventional political hyperbole, the Prime Minister elaborated: “We also have obligations of continental defence with the United States. We will fulfill those obligations to defend our continental airspace, and we will defend our sovereignty and we will respond every time the Russians make any kind of intrusion on the sovereignty in Canada’s Arctic.”[ii]

Of course the Russian bombers specifically did not enter Canadian airspace – indeed, they never have. There was no “intrusion on the sovereignty in Canada’s Arctic.” They did what they have done for decades and that is fly in international airspace near Canadian and American airspace to train their pilots and test North American reactions; and the Canadians and Americans, grateful for the opportunity to test their own reaction times and routines, dutifully “scramble” their fighter aircraft and go out to greet the Russians.[iii]

For the Russians the point presumably is to continue to announce themselves as a continuing presence on the global stage. For Canada the point is certainly to keep a prudent eye on events near our borders, but when a routine event is elevated into an international incident the point is also to announce a continuing requirement for fighter aircraft and to lay the political foundation for the announcement of a brand new fleet.

The Government has set 2012 as roughly the date for a decision on the CF-18 replacement, although the basic intention was signaled a decade ago when Canada began its participation, initially in the Concept Development Phase, in the US-led Joint Strike Fighter program (JSF).

The aircraft in question in the JSF program – a consortium of nine countries[iv] – is the F-35 from the Lockheed-Martin company in the US, a new design not yet in production. There will be other aircraft in the running, but given Canada’s investment of more than $150 million in its development phase,[v] the F-35 will be a chief contender. The JSF is described in Canadian background notes as “the biggest and most expensive combat aircraft project in history.[vi]

Ottawa’s currently stated requirement is for 65 aircraft; this is down from an earlier ask of 80 (indeed, as the estimated costs rise the number required tends to decline).[vii] Current estimates have hit on about $50 million per aircraft, but some analysts think that number could yet double, depending on the overall production run. The additional program costs – namely, training, infrastructure, follow-on development, and so on – could double that figure and bring the overall bill into the $10 billion range.

Of course, part of the calculation is that both participation in the JSF development program and the purchase of the F-35 will yield major benefits to Canadian industry.[viii] The Government press release said the participation gave Canada “access to up to $8 billion in industrial participation opportunities.”[ix] Like the cost of the aircraft itself, estimates of the industrial benefits also enjoy a measure of inflation. To date, the development phase is reported to have yielded $212 million in contracts for more than 70 Canadian companies, and a more recent statement of potential sales claims $9 billion by 2035.[x]

Any decision on new fighter aircraft will obviously have to be preceded by a thoroughgoing public debate on the need.

The primary role for Canadian fighter interceptors is obviously to patrol approaches to Canadian airspace, but the question begging to be asked is just how many and what kind of aircraft does that really take. The Russian Bears are real, of course, but they are a real symbol of a threat – the real nuclear threat to North America obviously comes from intercontinental ballistic missiles, against which there is no defence possible or contemplated.

The more serious air threat that Canadian interceptors must address is not a military threat but a law enforcement threat in the form of small aircraft that illegally intrude into Canadian airspace and territory, most often laden with illegal drugs. Are large, state-of-the-art, fighter aircraft the best means of tracking the piper cubs of drug runners?

New fighter aircraft would also be available to support Canadian participation in overseas military missions – but here too there is an obvious question about the relevance of fighter aircraft in peace support operations.

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[i] David Ljunggren, “Russian bomber neared Canada before Obama visit,” Reuters, 27 February 2009. http://www.reuters.com/article/topNews/idUSTRE51Q2W220090227?feedType=RSS&feedName=topNews.
[ii] “Russia Denies Bomber Approached Canadian Airspace,” CBC News, 27 February 2009. http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2009/02/27/arctic-russia.html?ref=rss.
[iii] The only real dispute was whether Russia told Canada, as it routinely does, about the flight in advance. The Russian Embassy in Ottawa said “the adjacent countries were informed of the flight in good time,” but Ottawa said it was not informed. “Russia Denies Bomber Approached Canadian Airspace,” CBC News, 27 February 2009. http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2009/02/27/arctic-russia.html?ref=rss.
[iv] In addition to the US and Canada, coalition members are the UK, Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Turkey, Australia.
[v] “Canada’s military eyeing futuristic fighter jets,” Canwest News Service. 26 june 2007. http://www.canada.com/topics/technology/story.html?id=7a365ab7-22b5-4d06-9de7-7a6177af4b62.
[vi] Michel Rossignol, “The Joint Strike Fighter Project,” 19 February 2003, Library of Parliament. Government of Canada. http://dsp-psd.pwgsc.gc.ca/Collection-R/LoPBdP/PRB-e/PRB0207-e.pdf.
[vii] David Pugliese, “Canada Weighs Fighter Options,” DefenseNews, 14 July 2008. http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?i=3637165.
[viii] “US, Canada sign agreement on Joint Strike Fighter.” US DOD News Release No. 060-02, 07 February 02. http://www.defenselink.mil/releases/release.aspx?releaseid=3232.
[ix] “Canada’s New Government Signs on to Phase III of Joint Strike Fighter Program….” Industry Canada, 12 December 2006. http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/ic1.nsf/eng/02150.html.
[x] Allison Lampert, “Joint Strike Fighter program boosts aerospace industry,” 02 August 08, Canwest New Service. http://www2.canada.com/vancouversun/news/business/story.html?id=659a65d6-2ae0-48e3-99d8-4aab98a5d103.

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