So much in modern life is a combination of problems that have already been solved and problems that can’t be solved at all. Take Emirates Airlines Flight 201, which was escorted by Canadian fighter jets through Canadian airspace on Oct. 29 as it flew from Dubai to New York City. The airplane was carrying cargo from Yemen. This was a day when other airplanes were found to be carrying cargo from Yemen of the potentially explosive variety. So Flight 201 found itself sprouting fighter escorts. Out of an “abundance of caution,” NORAD said later.
Dimitri Soudas, who speaks for the Prime Minister, could hardly contain his glee. Here was a chance to show that the Harper government is spending wisely when it allocates $16 billion to buy 65 F-35 fighter planes. Soudas put out a news release: “Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals and their coalition partners would cancel the deal to buy the F-35s. They would rather use kites to defend Canada than fighter jets. Canada’s air force needs the right equipment to protect Canadian airspace.”
In examining whether F-35s would have constituted “the right equipment” on Oct. 29, it may be handy to recall precisely what NORAD was worried about. Cargo on other planes had been found to contain explosive devices. So “the right equipment” would need to sort through the cargo compartments of this plane, at a distance, while airborne, to detect, isolate and remove the explosive.
In my mind, I imagine “the right equipment” as some extraordinarily nimble variation on the Canadarm that travels aboard space shuttles. And since no further shuttle missions are planned after next April, there may be a niche for a new DisarmingYemeniCargoArm, ideally emblazoned with a jaunty maple leaf so the TV cameras would know what was what.
Unfortunately a CF-18—for that was the equipment that actually did the escorting—does not count cargo sorting among its many capabilities. Nor, and here’s where things get difficult for our man Soudas, does the F-35. So if there had been explosives on Emirates Air 201 (there weren’t) and if they had detonated, the F-35 would not have been the “right equipment” for much, except perhaps to give its pilot an uncomfortably close view as the Boeing 777 alongside fell from the heavens in a fireball.
One thing a superb new fighter jet can do is coerce compliance. A pilot who was reluctant to co-operate but who wanted to survive might, I suppose, be persuaded to fly where he was told if he spotted a fifth-generation, single-seat, single-engine stealth multi-role fighter off the starboard wing. In that situation, an F-35 might indeed be “the right equipment.” This wasn’t that situation. The Emirates Air pilot was, by all accounts, entirely co-operative and in full control of his aircraft. A radio message from the ground was all he needed. Fifty thousand pounds of hurtling ordnance was overkill.
And if the pilot wasn’t co-operative? Experience suggests such pilots are also uninterested in appeals to their survival instinct. The F-35 would have had to shoot Emirates 201 from the sky. Since the plotters’ fondest hope was to detonate the plane, we would gain little by detonating it first, beyond maybe bragging rights.
All of this is to say that Emirates Airlines Flight 201 was a combination of problems. One problem had already been solved: NORAD needed the pilot of Flight 201 to be co-operative—but he already was. Another problem couldn’t be solved at all: who was going to get that explosive out of the cargo hold, if there was any there?
For neither problem is an F-35 “the right equipment.” In fact it’s entirely useless. Or nearly: it does make some people feel better. And by “some people,” I mean “Dimitri Soudas.” Do taxpayers need to spend $16 billion to make Dimitri Soudas feel better? Perhaps. He’s a nice guy. But perhaps he can be made to feel better for cheaper.
I nominate Omar Khadr.
The 23-year-old scion of his family’s jihadist business will now, it appears, be returning to Canada to serve part of his sentence. The Harper government fought hard to keep him at Guantánamo Bay, and much of the country has applauded the government’s attempts to ignore Khadr’s Canadian citizenship and its determination to ignore the notion that a child combatant cannot be held fully responsible for his actions. Never mind all that. Khadr is coming home. Might as well be put to good use.
I propose that Omar Khadr be put in charge of security for all flights operating in Canadian airspace. This would be simple enough. Put a desk with a telephone in his cell. At intervals, inform him that there is an airliner somewhere carrying suspicious cargo. On these occasions, Khadr’s keepers would glower at him and say, “If anything happens to that flight, you’re in BIG trouble, Buster!”
The phone on the desk in the cell need not even be connected to anything. Omar Khadr couldn’t sort through airborne cargo or coerce an already willing pilot any more than a fifth-generation stealth multi-role fighter could. But he would be more than $15.9 billion cheaper. That’s enough for another GST cut. Everyone wins.