Richard ShimookaCanada should avoid mythologizing the Avro Arrow or using it to guide current government policy, writes Richard Shimooka.

By Richard Shimooka, Sept. 13, 2017

Over the past few months, several articles have appeared highlighting the lessons of the Avro Arrow saga for Canada’s national policy on innovation or trade. Perhaps this burst of interest can be attributed to Canada 150. Or perhaps it was the desire to find clues on how the country should best approach these sectors in light of ongoing NAFTA renegotiations.

History can provide useful lessons for the present, but they must be accurate. Sadly, these discussions are replete with serious misperceptions surrounding the Avro Arrow and Canada’s aviation industry.

Perhaps one of the most entrenched myths surrounding the Arrow was its technological pre-eminence in the 1950s. While it was an advanced aircraft, the Arrow was one of only several being developed at the time. Of these, the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom represented a true technological breakthrough. Its design — a fast, multi-role fighter with a powerful radar — would define future fighter innovation, with more than 5,000 eventually produced.

The Arrow, a heavy bomber interceptor, was an evolutionary dead-end, partly due to the advent of the intercontinental ballistic missile. Among Canadian allies, this unique aircraft type would disappear over coming decades, largely replaced by the more versatile fighters of the F-4’s mould.

The Arrow program had other major flaws, but none was as fatal as its cost. Each Arrow was projected to cost more than three times that of the Phantom and still faced serious development challenges until it was cancelled. These straightforward facts, not the myth of an American conspiracy to end the program, explain the Arrow’s demise.

The Arrow, a heavy bomber interceptor, was an evolutionary dead-end, partly due to the advent of the intercontinental ballistic missile.

Continuing with such a program today would be a national scandal. To some degree, it was a scandal in 1959, given that the program’s failings were well known by 1957 yet it continued development for one more year, resulting in nearly $200 million in additional expenditure before its cancellation.

Moreover, the focus on the Arrow today overshadows the real successes of the Canadian aviation industry. A common theme is that the cancellation eviscerated the domestic aviation industry. A large number of individuals lost their jobs. But today, Canada boasts an aviation industry that punches far above its weight: it is the world’s fifth-largest by export in a country with the 16th-largest economy. What squares this reality with the apparent death of the industry with the Arrow’s cancellation?

Largely overlooked today is that Canada boasted a number of major producers in the 1950s. Canadair of Montreal made a business of taking existing American designs and substantially improving them. One such aircraft was the Sabre, a U.S. Air Force fighter that Canadair obtained the licence to manufacture in Canada.

While this may not have been as glamorous as Avro’s indigenous development program, it was a massive success. More than 1,800 Canadair Sabres were produced, becoming an essential part of NATO allies’ air forces in the 1950s.

The company would eventually be purchased by Bombardier and formed the foundation of their current aviation business.

The Avro Arrow controversy has long captured Canadian public attention. However, relying on its myths to guide current policy is foolish.

Supporting Avro and Canadair was a growing ecosystem of second-tier manufacturers that otherwise might have been in trouble. Little known to the public during the Arrow controversy, Canada and the U.S. signed the Defence Production Sharing Agreement in 1956 — an agreement that allowed Canadian firms to bid on U.S. defence contracts as if they were American, and which opened a massive new market. Subcontractors have prospered accordingly, becoming some of the country’s most vibrant firms, such as CAE, the world leader in aerospace simulations, and Pratt and Whitney Canada, which produces turboprop engines. Today, over 60 per cent of the industry’s revenue exists within the second tier.

The Avro Arrow controversy has long captured Canadian public attention. However, relying on its myths to guide current policy is foolish.

The Arrow was a costly boondoggle that should not be repeated. Instead, we should acknowledge its place in history and celebrate the other real achievements that resulted from the Avro Arrow enterprise. These include creating unfettered access to global value chains and ensuring the existence of a diverse ecosystem of firms, instead of prioritizing one or two national champions.

A national policy based on a clear-headed assessment of facts, rather than inaccurate myths, will ensure Canada’s future as an aviation powerhouse.

Richard Shimooka is senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Centre For Advancing Canada’s Interests Abroad.