Canada

New wings and a prayer

John Hay April 21 1980
Canada

New wings and a prayer

John Hay April 21 1980

New wings and a prayer

Canada

John Hay

As the chief of the defence staff conceded, there are probably better planes being built. But Admiral Robert Falls was eager to defend the F-18A as cabinet’s choice for Canada’s new fighter. “It can do the job and it can do it well.” He had a right to sound relieved. The government took three years to find a jet to replace the ramshackle fleets of Voodoos, Starfighters

and CF-5s, but it finally endorsed the military’s own choice. The F-18A rides the reassuring thrust of twin engines, is burly enough to take later alterations and boasts the rugged landing gear drawn from its first design as a carrierbased fighter for the U.S. Navysuiting it to touch down anywhere from northern strips to the German autobahn. Likely cost for 137 planes with all the extras: $4 billion-plus by the last delivery at the end of the decade. But its

maker, McDonnell Douglas, had to overcome a scrappy last-minute lobbying assault by competitor General Dynamics and its one-engine F-16 (see box). With plane specs sewn up months ago, the two builders could only bid with industrial offset packages. After a final all-night negotiating session, officials judged McDonnell Douglas the winner,

with a promise of $2.9 billion in business brought to Canada by 1995.

Falls says the F-18A emerged as the best compromise within the government’s stringent spending limit—a fighter to meet “the declining bomber threat” to North America, dogfight with the Warsaw Pact in Europe and support NATO ground forces along Germany’s central front. Even if such a paragon exists, it doesn’t take an armchair general to wonder whether a defence policy so served is anything more than an accident of history dressed up to impress our friends.

For all the flap over the new plane, the defence department has avoided any wide-open policy review which might raise public doubts about the need for this or any other fighter. Though there has not been a thorough review since the white paper Defence in the 70s came out in 1971, neither boffins nor brass think a new one is due. They argue that the only real military threat to Canada is a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. It

follows that Canadian interests lie in preventing a new holocaust by guarding the American deterrent—the power to strike back at the Soviet Union so painfully that Moscow will not dare attack. Hence the need for fighters to discourage any Soviet bomber assault across the Arctic and the jets and tanks in Germany to help dissuade the Red Army from any attempted rush to the Rhine. What has not been publicly asked by any government in 10 years is whether 5,000 Canadian soldiers and airmen in Germany matter a whit to deterrence, or whether a treasure should be spent launching jets into northern skies that would surely be defended by the Americans anyway.

“Canada,” as one top defence official acknowledges, “has the luxury of being able to do nearly nothing for its own security.” Like it or not, he says, we live under the American nuclear shield; any attack on Canada would provoke American response, and the Soviets know it. Notes Toronto-based military expert Nicholas Stethem: “For a country that prides itself for shedding nuclear weapons, we rely on the bomb more than most.” As a middling power with a small armed force (80,794 in uniform at last count, including 5,440 women), nothing reasonably within Canadian re-

sources could be done to affect the global military balance.

What Canada can and does influence, though, are relations within the 15-nation NATO alliance. Buying new German Leopard tanks for the mechanized brigade in Europe hardly struck fear into Soviet hearts, but it pleased the Germans and was meant to help Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau cobble better commercial and political relations with Europe. Nostalgia for the days of Pearsonian diplomacy should not obscure the truth that alliance politics have always dominated Canadian attitudes toward the Atlantic alliance. In his newly published fourth volume of In Defence of Canada, historian James Eayrs stresses Ottawa’s concern both to commit American power to Europe’s defence after the Second World War and to hobble what seemed dangerously belligerent tendencies in Washington to challenge Stalin. At the root of Canada’s keenness for NATO was the fear of being stuck alone with Washington in North American defence while Europe stood separate, and so went the line among Canadian diplomats at the time: “Less chance of rape with 12 in the bed.” NATO was set up in 1949; the North American Air Defence Command (NORAD) nrA until 1957.

If the pliable bonds of alliance set the limits of Canadian defence policy, and not the iron logic of military force, then there is far more scope for changing defence policy than the silence on the Rideau implies. George Ignatieff, a former ambassador to NATO, argues for a new policy pivoting in the Arctic and including NATO-Soviet disarmament of the polar region (see page 6). A similar proposal has been put by Nils 0rvik, head of the Centre for International Relations at Queen’s University, though 0rvik says Canada should keep forces in Germany while bolstering the existing commitment to fly to Norway’s aid in time of trouble. Banning arms from the Arctic also claims supporters within the external affairs department; the problem would be to persuade the Americans, who view the North as a possible front that must remain open. Privately, diplomats more interested in security than arms races favor transforming Canada’s forces into indisputably defensive units—selling off the tanks and fighters now based in Germany.

As for the new fighters just ordered, planners say between 36 and 54 will be based in Germany and 25 more committed to the northern flank of Europe but based at Cold Lake, Alberta, and Bagotville, Quebec. The rest will patrol Canadian airspace. And if the long delay in the decision to buy them reflects our lack of enemies, at least they will make for dandy air shows. f¡?