They can fly at more than twice the speed of sound and as high as 19 miles. They are armed with heat-seeking and radar-controlled missiles, 1,000-pound bombs and machine guns that can fire up to 100 rounds a second. They can spot and destroy an en-
emy more than 100 miles away. They are the newest, jazziest jet fighters around, and Canada is going to buy between 130 and 150 of the little devils next year for $2.34 billion. Following close on acquisition of new patrol planes (one billion dollars) and tanks ($187 million), the forthcoming gaggle of jets will be the biggest single purchase yet in the government’s new, openwallet approach to military equipment.
and the most awesome responsibility that Defense Minister Barney Danson has had to face since he took over the portfolio a year ago.
The cabinet decided earlier this year to replace the 15-to-20-year-old American F-101 Voodoos and F-104 Starfighters in service here and in Europe. A 35-man team, under the direction of Brig.-General Paul Manson, was set up to oversee the purchase and six companies—four U.S., one French and one British-German-Italian—were invited to submit bids by February 1.
The sales efforts are heavy, with most companies actually setting up offices in Ottawa and providing employment to retired air force officers. Lobbyists have festooned themselves around Manson and his staff like the Montreal Canadiens around a goal. And, because the competition is among countries as well as companies, embassies in Ottawa have also been enlisted. Even visiting prime ministers have dropped plugs for their planes on their way through Ottawa, and when Canadian MPS were touring NATO bases in Europe last summer, U.S. officers pressured them to Buy American.
If the government sticks to its track record when it makes its decision next October, it will buy wrong. Dating back two decades to the Avro Arrow, a Canadiandesigned jet fighter that was scrapped by the Diefenbaker government, Ottawa has
had problems with planes. The Starfighter, for example, was purchased as a nuclear attack plane, but was converted to an infantry support role when the Trudeau government got squeamish. That’s like using only one speed on a 10-speed bike. The Starfighters also had a nasty tendency to crash—93 have gone down and no fewer than 32 pilots were killed. Then there was the American CF-5, bought in 1967 to back
up NATO’s ground forces. It was found wanting and is now all but mothballed.
Manson’s team is determined to avoid the mistakes of the past. But the choice is not as simple as “the best plane,” or even the best plane that can fit into Canada’s budget, which Manson is under strict orders not to exceed. He must also consider its ability to play two different roles: defense of Canadian skies as part of the NORAD commitment, and support of NATO troops in Europe. The first requires a fast, high-altitude, long-range fighter; the American F-15 Eagle and F-14 Tomcat would qualify easily. But the second role requires a smaller, more manoeuvrable aircraft such as the F-16. Manson would like to buy just one aircraft for purposes of efficiency, but he may have to settle for two. The situation is made even more complicated by the constant improvements in aerospace technology that are taking place as Ottawa ponders its decision. “No matter what plane you buy,” says one retired U.S. Air Force colonel not too reassuringly, “it will be obsolete by the time it is delivered.”
Another consideration for Manson and, ultimately, the cabinet is what Canada can get out of the purchase in the way of subcontracts, or “offset,” to use aerospace jargon. Canada’s aerospace industry badly needs more business and the company that offers the most may get the contract, even if its plane isn’t “the best.” This fact of life galls military men, who say that Canada’s preoccupation with offset has led to purchase of the wrong plane in the past.
There are also, of course, political considerations involved in the purchase of any military equipment. Lessened economic dependence on the United States—the socalled “third option”—is still official government policy, a fact that may tilt the balance in favor of a European plane. British Prime Minister James Callaghan, German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Italian Premier Guilio Andreotti did not hesitate to press this point when they met separately with Prime Minister Trudeau in the past year or so. Because their governments are directly involved in the Panavia consortium, they may try to link purchase of its Tornado to some larger economic deal with Canada.
Nearly lost, in this mosaic of political, economic, and military considerations, is the answer to the question whether Canada really needs a new jet fighter. The costs are enormous, especially at a time when the government is preaching restraint. As a make-work project, the jet fighter is inefficient and lacks the compensating social benefits, of, say, a massive investment in urban transit, a promise on which the government has reneged. No pilot has fired a shot in combat on Canada’s behalf since the Second World War, and even if our continuing commitment to NATO makes sense, new fighters to maraud Canadian skies for NORAD seem even less defensible in this ICBM era. General J. A. Dextraze, former chief of Canada’s defense
staff, admits that a bomber attack on Canada is now nothing more than “a remote possibility.” In the United States, NORAD is being questioned and its future is cloudy. In addition, President Jimmy Carter’s decision to kill the B-l bomber may lead to a disarmament deal with the Soviet Union that would eliminate the bomber threat entirely and render NORAD obsolete.
But the generals want the plane and the Trudeau government, once considered anti-military, is prepared to oblige them. “If we didn’t get this new fighter, the air force would die,” argues Manson. But, says NDP defense critic Andrew Brewin, “We cannot have it both ways. We cannot spend our money on useless hardware and, at the same time, spend it on the social needs of the people of Canada.” <dc:creator>IAN URQUHART</dc:creator>
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.