MASTHEAD-2Countering emerging threats, particularly Russia, and working with allies around the world, requires a fifth generation fighter, writes Aurel Braun, a noted expert on Russia and Arctic security.

By Aurel Braun, July 16, 2016

The Canadian government is reported to be rushing towards an interim purchase of F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets to replace at least part of the aging fleet of CF-18s. Though this theoretically would still allow later for an open competition to replace the existing fighter aircraft fleet, this move would certainly muddy the procurement decision making process. It also betrays both a doctrinal and conceptual confusion, just when Canada is supposed to embark on a comprehensive review of its defence needs.

First, in doctrinal terms we are looking at the larger strategy that is meant to underpin a defence doctrine that best protects our national interests. Canada safeguards itself through a triple mechanism of self-defence, North American defence (NORAD), and the NATO alliance. The three interlocking systems involve building and maintaining capabilities that respond to realistic current and future threats. Those threats have been both magnified and clarified in the past few years.

The end of the Cold War gave hope for a dramatic new international arrangement, but unfortunately Russian policies and actions as well as international instability and terrorism have largely stifled this. Though this is not the Cold War, and Russia is not the Soviet Union, Moscow has been pursuing an assertive and at times aggressive foreign policy that has not only seen the invasion of Crimea and the illegal annexation of that part of Ukraine, but the Kremlin continues to threaten Eastern Europe and challenges all in the Arctic. Further, instability in the Middle East has created a demand for Canadian military help in conjunction with allies, which at times has seen the use of Canadian air power.

Russia has earmarked enormous funds to modernize its military forces. This includes air power.

When it comes to air power, however, the most pressing need relates to Russian challenges and threats in the Arctic and to our NATO allies. In terms of defending against or deterring Russia, Canada needs not only to enhance its own defences, which entails finding the right balance between capabilities and costs, but also has to think in terms of integration via our North American defence arrangements (as well as NATO). Protecting our sovereignty in the north as well as persuading Moscow to behave in a responsible fashion when it comes to navigation and exploration in the Arctic (especially in light of Russia's outlandish claims to vast areas of the continental shelf) means that we have to have real capabilities and the ability to operate and integrate effectively, particularly with US forces.

Russia has earmarked enormous funds to modernize its military forces. This includes air power. Canada cannot match Russia in terms of numbers but as in the past we can emphasize a qualitative advantage. Consequently, Canada needs a fifth generation aircraft that will outmatch current Russian fighters and match or likely outclass the T-50 stealth aircraft that Russia intends to deploy in the near future.

Cooperating effectively with the US would mean having compatible aircraft that can keep up with the capabilities of US fighters that Washington will deploy at its bases in the Arctic. The F/A-18 Super Hornet, despite some improvements, is not a stealth aircraft, it is outclassed by most Russian Flanker fighters in virtually all high performance flight regimes, and would be difficult to make compatible with Washington's deployment of the fifth generation F-35 Lightning II stealth aircraft at Alaskan bases. It is also the case that Norway and Denmark, two key NATO states that will also use aircraft in the Arctic, have decided on purchasing the F-35.

In the case of deterrence, a numerically challenged Canadian fighter force needs a fifth generation stealth fighter.

In the case of NATO, Canada is committed both to deterrence and reassurance. In the case of deterrence, a numerically challenged Canadian fighter force needs a fifth generation stealth fighter. Canada’s brief deployment of CF-18s in Romania provided temporary reassurance but soon revealed the problem of sending aircraft that had very limited capabilities. Our allies in the Baltic who cooperate so strongly with Britain and rely heavily on the United States undoubtedly also want to see a combination of deterrence and reassurance based on aircraft that sends the right message to Moscow. When so many NATO allies including Britain, Italy and the Netherlands have chosen the F-35, both deterrence and reassurance would be undermined with Canada contributing only a 4 or 4.5-generation fighter. It would overall negate the strategic goal of effective deterrence and credible reassurance that courses through all three dimensions of Canadian defence.

Second, in conceptual terms the assessment in some circles of the F-35 is at best confused. Advanced aircraft cannot be judged in unidimensional or deconstructed terms. That is, speed alone or manoeuvrability alone, are not as meaningful as they used to be because advanced aircraft are part of a sophisticated system. They are meant to be integrated into multiple functions and it is that combination that makes the most advanced aircraft so potent. Perhaps we should think in terms of Wayne Gretzky, who was not the biggest, fastest, or strongest hockey player of his day but the combination of all his qualities, including the ability to lead, nonetheless made him by far the best player. This is why the F-35 needs to be judged in terms of a system, and as such it has prevailed in all the competitions and was able to fulfill the needs not only of key NATO members but of Japan, South Korea and Australia.

The election promise of the Liberal government to hold an open competition therefore should be more than an un-Harper gesture to get a different aircraft. It has to be a decision based on merits and on clear doctrinal needs. It is too late to credibly purchase F/A-18 Super Hornets as now the F-35s are becoming available and delivery could be speeded up (should the aircraft win in an open competition as it very highly likely would) by 2023 when the life of the current CF-18s comes to an end.

The election promise of the Liberal government to hold an open competition therefore should be more than an un-Harper gesture to get a different aircraft.

It is crucial that the decision on this pivotal part of Canadian defence should transcend partisan politics. The Canadian government needs to bring a 21st Century vision to Canadian defence, and that means that it has to give a true chance for the best aircraft system through an open competition rather than single-sourcing an older generation fighter that puts our ability to deter and reassure in doubt.

Aurel Braun is a Professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto and a Center Associate for the Davis Center, Harvard University. His forthcoming book is Russia, the West and Arctic Security.