Comparisons between Canada and Australia are easy to make; history and geography are obvious starting points and many statistics for both countries are extremely similar. It is not surprising then that Canada looked to Australia when the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was in need of some additional jets to bolster the current fleet of CF-18s while Ottawa decides on a future aircraft to buy.
The Liberal government announced in December 2017 that it was cancelling a planned purchase of new F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters from Boeing, originally intended as a stop gap measure, in favour of 18 used F/A-18A/B Hornets from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Choosing older Australian aircraft was seen as a much more affordable option while the government opens a competition to select a new aircraft for the RCAF. Australia is already in the process of procuring the F-35 and their experience in selecting a future fighter has many lessons for Canada.
The easy comparisons between the two countries extend to the respective air forces, the RCAF and the RAAF, making the decision to buy second hand from Australia an obvious choice. Because of this, it is tempting to stretch the similarities between Canada and Australia even further but there is a another way for Canada to consider Australia, one in which a smaller country lives in the shadow of a dominant neighbour. Canada is certainly very similar to Australia but, in many ways, it might more closely resemble New Zealand. Canada’s relationship to the US resembles New Zealand’s relationship to Australia and, if Canada is America’s New Zealand, then maybe the RCAF could look to the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) rather than the RAAF.
The reason for buying second-hand jets to fill gaps in the ageing fleet of CF-18 Hornets, was to give Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government more time to initiate a competition for the CF-18’s replacement but what if Canada decided to abandon a fast jet capability altogether, just as New Zealand did in 2001? Up until 2001 the RNZAF operated two types of fast jet aircraft, the Douglas A-4K Skyhawk and the Aermacchi MB-339, the decision to disband the RNZAF’s air combat capability was taken by an incoming Labour government who cancelled an order of F-16A/B jets intended to replace the ageing A-4K fleet. Labour Prime Minister at the time, Helen Clark, explained her decision "The simple fact is that New Zealand cannot afford modern combat aircraft and the weaponry needed to equip them, and also maintain adequate army and navy capabilities. This new defence plan aims to develop adequate depth in our defence capability, rather than try to carry on with inadequate breadth.". The decision faced much criticism and it was argued that New Zealand would be freeloading defence from its larger neighbour.
If RCAF followed in the RNZAF’s footsteps, whether by accident or design, the global political fallout would be far greater than New Zealand faced at the turn of the century. Canada has more obligations, through NATO and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), than New Zealand and Ottawa has been far more sympathetic to US foreign policy than Wellington. Canada regularly deploys jets on air policing missions in Europe and was engaged in bombing operations against ISIS targets until February 2016. The RCAF fleet is considerably larger than the 17 Skyhawks scrapped by the RNZAF in 2001; Ottawa’s current plan would see Canada procure 88 new aircraft by the mid-2020s. Abandoning current and future manned fighter capabilities would severely curtail the country’s ability to engage with allies on foreign missions and severely diminish Canada’s standing on the world stage. Such a retreat would be hard to imagine under Trudeau’s current aims but some believe it should be considered.
Critics of Canada’s fast jet capability see new aircraft as unnecessary and expensive, arguing that they are a throwback to the Cold War and likely to be surpassed by advancements in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or other weapon technologies. Some would rather see investments in alternatives such as early warning systems, anti-air missiles and patrol UAVs instead of traditional jets. Canada’s geographical requirements make jets more practical in patrolling the vast areas of the country’s North where it would be impossible to station adequate missile or radar systems. Jets also offer flexibility and interoperability to easily incorporate new technology over the aircraft’s lifespan. The 5th generation of jets might very well prove to be the last traditionally manned of its type but aircraft such as the F-35 are not expected to be superseded entirely in the next few decades. The case for the RCAF abandoning jets is generally built on the assumption that Canada will always operate alongside coalition partners and based on the West’s recent experience of UAV operations in uncontested environments such as Iraq or Afghanistan.
Without a fast jet capability Canada would need to fulfill NORAD obligations in some other way, likely through the basing of US aircraft across the North. Any savings made from abandoning a fast jet fleet would likely be lost through increased spending elsewhere to mitigate the capability loss and restructuring the armed forces. The RCAF provides a small but vital contribution to NORAD and the basing of dozens of US jets and thousands of personnel across the country is unlikely to be popular.
Whilst Canada might share the anxiety of existing in the shadow of a larger cousin as New Zealand does, the RNZAF and the RCAF have varied greatly in their postwar experiences. The lack of NATO commitments has allowed New Zealand to forge a different foreign policy, distancing itself from US led interventions and focusing on United Nations-led peacekeeping missions in Africa and the South Pacific. Canada’s global influence has been growing steadily, Trudeau’s government has aspirations to develop the country’s foreign relations, particularly by growing military reach in areas such as peacekeeping and NATO operations. To abandon a capability such as conventional jets would hamper any progress and restrict Canada to acting as a regional rather than global power.