Ottawa appears committed to purchasing (medium range) fifth generation fighter aircraft to defend Canadian sovereignty and to contribute to overseas operations in a support capacity. However, in the absence of a genuine defence review – and one that explicitly identifies conventional and non-conventional threats to Canada’s national security – it is difficult to comprehend what they would be used for.

The global security environment – marked increasingly by cyber-espionage, natural disasters, transnational crime, terrorism, and biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons proliferation – has changed significantly since Ottawa last issued a Defence White Paper in 1994. Does the military need a new inventory of 60-70 combat aircraft to defend Canadian airspace, arctic sovereignty, and to function operationally in the Middle East, South America, or Africa? Probably not, but what other options does the Harper government have at its disposal?

We suggest that Canada’s air defence and operational needs would be much better served by investing in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – drones – and a more robust “sky guard” network. This policy alternative seems to be more sensible and cost effective and would meet most of Canada’s current (albeit limited) national defence requirements.

In July 2011, The Economist published an instructive piece – “The last manned fighter” – on the cost, efficacy, and future of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). In some ways, it merely reinforced many of the issues that Canada’s major media outlets had been reporting on since 2010. However, the most arresting feature of the article was how it artfully identified drones and missiles as useful counter-points to expensive “next-generation” combat aircraft. This is an important line of inquiry in light of the Harper government’s lingering F-35 procurement dilemma.

Photo - F-35A web

Much has been written on the JSF’s myriad shortcomings – including discrepancies over its lifecycle costs, limited range, ability to function properly under conditions of reduced visibility and temperature, and overall suitability as a reliable fighter interceptor. We could elaborate considerably on these deficiencies and possibly even identify some new ones, but we wouldn’t be adding anything substantive to the existing debate. The point of this piece is to illustrate a set of defensive alternatives that better conform to Canada’s fiscal reality and might even render an investment in a new fleet of 60-70 combat aircraft as unnecessary.

With this in mind, we think that Ottawa should consider the following as a way to contain costs and meet Canada’s immediate air defence and operational needs: 1) commit to a substantial fleet of combat and surveillance UAVs; 2) invest in air denial systems – linked and reinforced by satellites and early warning radar; 3) invest in supersonic and long-range subsonic ballistic missiles; and 4) integrate a small number of next generation fighters – if deemed appropriate by a defence review – into a pan-national air defence system to protect the country’s territorial integrity.

Contextualizing and identifying Canada’s most pressing security needs appears to be the first casualty where discussions over the country’s fighter jet requirements materialize. They are, however, critically important and remind us that Canada can fulfill its domestic, regional, and global security commitments without resorting to expensive combat aircraft. As can be evidenced by recent operations in Afghanistan (2001-2014), Iraq (2014), Sri Lanka (2005), and Haiti (2010) most of Canada’s overseas military deployments have consisted of providing relief, confronting Islamic insurgents, and/or engaging in stabilization efforts in the absence of significant support from fighter jets.

To be fair, this simply reflects the changing nature of 21st century military operations. Even so, a case could be made that there remains a conventional (that is, continental or territorial defence) dimension to modern conflict that would be difficult to resolve without sufficient airpower. Yet, within the context of securing Canadian sovereignty, we are not convinced this is necessarily true anymore. We say this because it remains unclear who represents a genuine conventional threat to Canadian national security – and one that could not be reasonably dispatched by employing sophisticated drones, mobile ballistic missile stations, and distant early warning systems.

Russia’s aggressive posturing in the Ukraine is, to some extent, a worrying sign. But Canada has never been a “Soviet buffer state” and we do not have a high concentration of ethnic Russian separatists in the Yukon appealing to Moscow for support. In truth, it is hard to accept that Canada will be the victim of a Red Dawn-like attack in the future.

Why? For one, North America has an exceptional early warning detection system (NORAD) in place. This, along with the United States’ 354th Fighter Wing Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base (Alaska), and an active anti-aircraft ballistic missile capability, makes for a satisfactory redoubt against a Russian incursion of any significant size. Canada also has the advantage of a vast and open hinterland and thus time. Ultimately, Russia (and/or China) does not have the political will, military hardware, logistical capability, and/or desire to attack and establish dominance over Canadian airspace. Certainly, minor airspace violations will occur – after all, Canada is a big country with limited resources – but a more powerful “early warning” and missile defence network may be enough to address current and future challenges and ensure that Canadian Arctic claims (in particular) remain well-respected.

If, as we contend, modern threats are of a fundamentally different nature and the risks posed by Russia and/or China are low – though still a possibility – then what kind of equipment would better serve Canada’s immediate and longer-term strategic and operational needs?

As we have already intimated, drones and missiles seem to be the answer to Ottawa’s rather whimsical approach to defence spending. UAVs, for example, have now evolved into universal and indispensible components of state power and their military, law enforcement, and developing commercial applications have been impressive. The Royal Air Force has identified combat drones as the United Kingdom’s go-to weapons system of the future – largely because of their ability to provide field commanders with vital “armed intelligence and situational awareness” and complete the “find, fix, track, target, engage, and assess kill chain” in one fatal and effective stroke. Their growing importance can be further illustrated by highlighting the U.S. Air Forces’ recent efforts to train more drone pilots than actual aircraft pilots.

The bottom line for modern defence forces is that UAVs are efficient, lethal, surreptitious, mobile, and can be deployed in multiple environments. Additionally, drones can remain airborne for a considerable amount of time – “impermanence” has been acknowledged as one of greatest weaknesses of contemporary air power systems – and some U.S. defence contractors have begun work on high altitude and extreme endurance solar drones.

The other obvious benefit is that they are machines. Should one fail, malfunction, or succumb to counter-measures, no one dies. Importantly, in their prefigured capacity as surveillance and combat vehicles they can perform almost all of the same tasks assigned to advanced fighter jets. (Sending combat drones to Syria to confront the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, in our opinion, would have been a far better and cost effective option than Ottawa’s CF-18 decision.) They can support infantry and special operations units in the field, neutralize tanks and armed insurgents, interdict enemy supply columns, and provide valuable actionable intelligence to military and civilian planners.

Admittedly, growing interest in more potent UAVs has driven an increase in cost, but at between US$5-70 million, drones still represent substantial savings compared to their piloted counterparts.

Ballistic missiles, too, are a low-cost alternative to buying a whole new fleet of next generation combat aircraft. For example, Patriot missile batteries are listed at roughly US$3-4 million per unit, and can be used to destroy bombers, other ballistic missiles, UAVs, and fighter jets.

Photo - ADATS

Expanding on the Army’s inventory of self-propelled air-defence anti-tank weapons (ADATS) would likely add some much needed capacity to Canada’s sky defence network as well – most of these units could be used to protect population centres, military installations, and main supply routes. Outwardly, this may look like an endorsement for some form of ballistic missile defence. However, to recognize the utility and qualitative improvements in missile technology since the 1990s is to simply identify a defence option that Ottawa has yet to explore in adequate detail.

No invading force – with the exception of the United States – could take Canada without first breaking its will to fight – a security reality that could be suitably clarified by a comprehensive defence review. As a matter of course, this would require softening up civilian and military targets via aerial assault. The thought of maneuvering through several hundred super-sonic, long range sub-sonic, and surface-to-air missile stations – similar to Taiwan’s SkyBow III air defence system – would likely dissuade any potential adversary from launching an air strike on Canadian soil. The advantage of pursuing an air defence scheme like this would be that it would conform better to Ottawa’s desire to rein in budget costs vis-à-vis military spending. Moreover, it would arrest fears of an unlikely Russian and/or Chinese invasion and ensure that Canada remained firmly committed to the concept continental defence.

Modern jet fighters, then, need only supplement a more broadly integrated, intimidating, and stable national air defence network. Canada just needs to make the idea of an attack unacceptable – that is, signal to an adversary that any actual show of force will result in substantial losses – and this is precisely what an investment in drones, missiles, and a number of mobile air defence platforms would do.

We would grant that drones and ballistic missiles do have some limitations. Hence, it may be useful to purchase a small fleet of modern jet fighters to augment a multi-layered and more tactically and operationally sound national defence policy. To this end, we wonder why the Eurofighter or the French-built Dassault Rafales have never been given serious consideration. The Eurofighter Tranche 2 appears to be the perfect fit for Canada’s Air Force. It costs about $96 million per plane, has established its credentials as an effective dogfighter, has completed several successful ground strike missions, and seems to be more in line with Ottawa’s purported fiscal conservatism. Shouldn’t some evidence-based considerations be central to the process of selecting a replacement for the country’s aging CF-18s fleet?

Canada’s size, geography, and fiscal reality are in need of some creative thinking when it comes to the issues of operational needs, enforcing territorial claims, and equipment procurements. When all of the latest developments in drone and missile technology are taken into account, we sense that the days – and efficacy – of piloted combat aircraft are coming to an end. UAVs and missiles are clearly the way forward – both from a military and economic perspective.

The Harper government has a genuine opportunity to save money and commit to the purchase, development, or license production of drone technology for territorial surveillance, weapons delivery, and other military and civilian applications (an area in which Canada has considerable expertise). We are in no immediate danger from Russia, China, or an unstoppable wave of monochromatic militants. Nor do we have the fiscal capacity to support a new legacy fleet of combat aircraft. Perhaps these “realities” should be better reflected in military procurement plans.
Dr. Jason Lacharite is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Northern British Columbia. Lieutenant-Colonel (Ret’d) Richard Lacharite served for 38 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, including as a staff officer at NATO headquarters in Brussels and SACLANT in Norfolk, Virginia.