Fighter Aircraft (2): Defence at Home and Abroad

See The Simons Foundation's Disarming Arctic Security page for briefing papers on military policies and practices in the Arctic region by Ernie Regehr, Senior Fellow in Arctic Security at The Simons Foundation.

Figher Aircraft (2): Defence at Home and Abroad

June 18, 2015

Canadian defence policy is focused on three contexts: i) defending Canada, ii) defending North America, and iii) contributing to international peace and security. Fighter aircraft are not “essential” to Canadian action in any of these contexts.

i) Defending Canada: Air defence is integral to Canadian sovereignty and law enforcement, but that doesn’t mean fighter aircraft are integral to air defence. In the officially acknowledged absence of military threats to Canada, monitoring and patrolling Canadian airspace, in the Arctic and in the Canadian south, becomes a military mission in support of a civilian responsibility – for which fighter aircraft are far from optimal.

Air defence is not a luxury that Canada can decide to do without. Any state has a responsibility to monitor its territory and airspace to reinforce respect for its sovereignty and territorial integrity. It is incumbent on any state to know what is going on within its territory in order to credibly assure its people, and notably its neighbors, that there are not undetected activities within or near its own borders that may pose a threat to public safety, the rule of law, or to the security of a neighbor.

A primary need is obviously for surveillance and control of air (and maritime) approaches to Canadian territory. Following the 9/11 attacks in the US, monitoring of internal airspace has also gained prominence. But the air defence requirement is not, it must be repeated, a response to any military threat; rather, the object of such air space monitoring and surveillance is unauthorized civilian aircraft. The airborne threat that Canada faces comes largely in the form of small civilian aircraft carrying contraband. In one prominent case in the 1990s, coastal radars detected and fighter aircraft intercepted a Convair 580 aircraft which had flown non-stop from Colombia. NORAD, the Canada-US aerospace defence cooperation agreement through which air approaches to Canada are monitored, followed the unauthorized Convair to a landing site in northern Québec where the RCMP seized a cocaine shipment with an estimated street price of $3 billion.[i] The day-to-day activity of NORAD is now in fact primarily 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.

So it is clear that Canada does need credible air policing commensurate with the level of threat, and that in turn suggests it needs aircraft with the range and speed needed to intercept and escort unauthorized aircraft. But that does not necessarily point to the need for fighter aircraft – they do have speed and considerable range to perform that role, but are they really the best or most cost-effective option?  With a range of about 1,200 km (2,400 km roundtrip) and being centrally located (in Bagotville, Quebec and Cold Lake, Alberta), fighter aircraft obviously need both forward operating bases and inflight fuelling assistance for Arctic patrols and intercepts, and in-flight refueling for Pacific and Atlantic coastal patrols and intercepts. These rather cumbersome and costly arrangements for tracking small civilian aircraft have led some analysts to suggest that a better option might be smaller, slower, and shorter range aircraft much more widely dispersed throughout the country, with a capacity to respond effectively to unidentified and unauthorized intrusions into Canadian airspace?

Earlier in the F-35 debate, a Canadian Forces College professor explored the latter option. He argued that because Canada will not be in a position to buy enough of any fighter aircraft to fulfill all the NORAD, NATO, and expeditionary commitments that could be contemplated and that therefore alternatives to advanced fighters could be considered:  “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. He went 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.”[ii]

Monitoring Canadian airspace is obviously essential. It supports the rule of law, public safety and thus the human security of Canadians, and so ultimately national security. The available evidence indicates that the air defence role in Canada is essentially an air policing role carried out along the Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic coasts.  James Fergusson, a prominent academic defence analyst generally supportive of increased Canadian military capacity, notes that “in the absence of a global struggle such as the Cold War,” Canada “faces few, if any, direct military threats.” Thus, he says, the Canadian Forces at home face primarily a policing challenge, including in the Arctic. Consequently, “there are few, if any, threats that necessitate an advanced multi-role fighter, even with the resumption of Russian bomber flights over the Arctic in the past several years.”[iii] That is essentially the point made by the former deputy defence minister Charles Nixon, when he said fighter aircraft “cannot contribute anything substantial” toward meeting the six stated objectives of the current Government’s Canada First defence policy.[iv]  Continue reading....

[i] Canadian Aerospace Sovereignty: In Pursuit of a Comprehensive Capability by/par Maj François Malo

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

[iii] James Fergusson, “The right debate: airpower, the future of war, Canadian strategic interests, and the JSF decision,” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, 17:3, 204-216.

[iv] Charles Nixon, “Canada does not need fighter jets, period,” The Globe and Mail, 08 July 2014.


Ernie Regehr, O.C. is Senior Fellow in Arctic Security at The Simons Foundation, and Research Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo.