Fighters and Arctic sovereignty

The Harper Government doesn’t talk about its F-35 plans very much these days, perhaps hoping that the debacle surrounding the planned procurement of the radar-evading aircraft will disappear from the radar screens of the Canadian public, enabling the purchase to proceed out of sight and out of mind.

But back when the Tories were still trumpeting the F-35 plan, one of the standard talking points that was regularly trotted out was the claim that the plane is needed to help Canada defend its security and sovereignty in the Arctic. Defenders of the F-35 may not always have known where the Arctic is, but they did seem to have little doubt that the F-35 is just the aircraft that Canada needs in the region. (Albeit less so when they were speaking in private.)

In Fighter aircraft and Arctic sovereignty, Ernie Regehr debunks the claim that fighter aircraft such as the F-35 have any significant contribution to make to Canadian security and sovereignty in the North:

[P]oliticians and generals alike find the appeal to Arctic sovereignty hard to resist – raising the insufficiently debated question of whether the particular characteristics and capabilities of fighter aircraft give them any real utility in reinforcing Arctic sovereignty or security in the context of today’s and anticipated threat environments. …

The public debate spawned by the F-35 affair begins with the assumption that the current fleet of CF-18 jet fighters must be replaced with as many new and technically more advanced fighter aircraft as we can afford. A careful, dispassionate, and transparent assessment of Canada’s interceptor and combat air defence needs has yet to be undertaken by the Government. The assumption that security and sovereignty in the Canadian Arctic require a next generation fighter aircraft is a common enough policy assertion, but not one confirmed by the current and prospective northern security environment. The available evidence indicates that the air defence role in Canada is essentially an air policing role carried out on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. James Fergusson, a prominent academic defence analyst generally supportive of increased Canadian military capacity, agrees that “in the absence of a global struggle such as the Cold War,” Canada “faces few, if any, direct military threats.” Thus, he says, the Canadian Forces at home face primarily a policing challenge, including in the Arctic. “There are few, if any, threats that necessitate an advanced multi-role fighter, even with the resumption of Russian bomber flights over the Arctic in the past several years.”

In other words, it can be said with some confidence that any Canadian plan to continue to operate a significant fleet of sophisticated fighter aircraft is not justified by an appeal to Arctic security or Arctic sovereignty

Photo credit: DND

Tags: Arctic Security, Arctic sovereignty, Canadian Arctic, CF-18, Ernie Regehr, F-35, Joint Strike Fighter, Russian bomber flights