Despite the presence of three cabinet ministers and a military band, there was something missing when the federal government announced its plan to spend $9 billion on 65 new fighter jets earlier this month. The politicians talked plenty about Canada’s long involvement in U.S. aerospace giant Lockheed Martin’s development of the new Joint Strike Fighter F-35, and about the contracts they hope will now flow to Canadian companies involved in the huge project. They stressed how Canada’s allies—mainly the U.S., but also Britain, Australia and others—are also buying F-35s. What they didn’t offer was a plainly worded description of what the new jets might actually do.
Asked for “specific examples of the uses of these aircraft,” Defence Minister Peter MacKay was imprecise. He mentioned “patrols over Canadian airspace” and “future missions with NATO,” then quickly switched to stressing how the “new gear” will make it easier to recruit pilots. That left critics to question the need for fighter jets, arguing they made more sense during the Cold War, when air-to-air combat with Soviet jets was a plausible scenario.
But experts say buying F-35s doesn’t amount to preparing to fight the last war. Elinor Sloan, an international relations professor at Carleton University and a former analyst inside the Defence Department, said this jet is particularly well-suited to firing satellite-guided missiles at enemies on the ground. “The primary role today is not against other advanced countries with fighters in the air,” Sloan said. “It’s close air support of army forces on the ground.”
Yet the government didn’t tout the F-35’s capacity to launch such air-to-ground strikes. Perhaps that reflects current qualms about using air power in that way. Last summer, U.S. commanders vowed to sharply curtail the use of air strikes in Afghanistan, in a bid to reduce the number of unintended civilian deaths. Still, while they vowed to reduce attacks from the air to avoid alienating Afghans, the Americans said they would still use air strikes in cases where their ground troops were in danger of being overrun in battle.
If boasting about air-to-ground capability is out of favour these days, the potential for using the new F-35s to patrol Canada’s Arctic seems far less sensitive. Indeed, the government said the core mission for the jets will be “defending Canadian and North American airspace.” But what exactly does that entail? Sloan said reacting fast when Russian jets fly too close to Canada’s territory in the Far North is one obvious job for the F-35s. Only last month, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin climbed into the cockpit of one of his new T-50 fighter jets, Russia’s first all-new warplane since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and boasted it was better than anything the Americans have in the air.
But MacKay didn’t explicitly mention anything about countering Russian boldness. Again, he might have been trying to avoid a political misstep. Last year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and MacKay complained publicly about intrusive Russian flights, sparking a round of diplomatic sniping between Ottawa and Moscow.