The Saturday Debate: Does Canada need to buy new fighter jets?

Ottawa’s close ties to Washington often leads some to assume Canada does not need to spend on defence, instead relying on the U.S. to defend Canada’s territory. So do we need to buy new fighter jets? Richard Shimooka and Bianca Mugyenyi discuss in this week’s debate.

Richard Shimooka Macdonald-Laurier Institute YES

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that government preparation is essential to successfully navigate unexpected crises. Yet, despite the experience of the 2003 SARS outbreak, successive governments failed have to maintain key capabilities and knowledge, leading to a lacklustre response in the early days of the pandemic. An obvious parallel exists with the recent debate over the need for a fighter aircraft in Canada.

A standing military is tasked with safeguarding the country’s domestic sovereignty and territorial integrity. With climate change opening up access to the north, and Russia investing heavily in Arctic capabilities, the challenges facing Canada’s sovereignty in the Far North are not abating. No serious state abrogates its core responsibilities towards defending its own territory. Even Switzerland, a country with a strict neutrality policy, maintains a strong military to protect its sovereignty.

However, Canada’s situation is complicated by its proximity to the United States. Despite recent challenges with the Trump administration, no other country enjoys a stronger political, economic and military relationship with the U.S.

Yet, Canada also represents the biggest vulnerability to our neighbour. The shortest aerial route from China and Russia to strike the U.S. is through Canadian territory. As such, the idea that Canada can somehow disentangle itself from the United States, either by demilitarization or by decoupling its political alliance, is a fallacy that would only result in an immense geopolitical win for our adversaries.

Conversely, Ottawa’s close ties to Washington often leads some to assume Canada does not need to spend on defence, instead relying on the U.S. to defend Canada’s territory. Yet this would basically result in the U.S. either dictating our security decisions or taking a much tougher line on bilateral relations.

Canada also needs to maintain a competent military to safeguard our interests abroad. The country’s prosperity was founded on a stable international order, and states can and do use military force to impose their interests — as shown by Russia’s incursion into Crimea and Ukraine and China’s belligerence towards Taiwan and Japan.

Canadian prime ministers have long affirmed this view, but the country has, on occasion, bumped against the limits of contributing too little. In 1969, Pierre Trudeau unilaterally slashed Canada’s contribution to NATO, partly on the belief that military force was no longer as salient.

This was greeted with consternation by allies, but especially West Germany — to the extent that it linked the signing of future trade deals with Canada increasing its defence contribution to Europe. Trudeau Sr. reassessed his initial policies and later embarked on a major military rearmament program, which included purchasing the CF-18s we use today.

Yet what mix of forces best suits Canada’s needs today? The country has the world’s second largest land mass but the 37th largest population. It is utterly impractical to defend the country with only ships or ground troops; fighter aircraft are the only real solution to successfully deter incursions of the country’s vast territory. The total cost of the amortized acquisition of the fighter force and its operation is roughly $2.5 billion a year, or about 0.15 per cent of Canada’s annual GDP.

Air power is also arguably the most responsive capability the military has today. In addition to its North American duties, Canada regularly deploys CF-18s to defend our allies abroad in Eastern Europe, for instance.

Fighter aircraft, and air power more broadly, are considered an essential capability. Militaries require a broad spectrum of capabilities to operate effectively and neglecting one area over others creates serious vulnerabilities.

New technologies have also emerged in the past few decades, including cyber warfare, hypersonic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. This has led some to question the utility of fighter aircraft. Yet 12 next generation fighter programs are currently underway among nine countries. Simply put, manned fighters are here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Importantly, Canada’s fighter force is in dire need of replacement. The CF-18s are already a decade past their expected lifespan and cannot be expected to last more than five to 10 additional years. Our allies have taken note and have pushed for Canada to make a decision.

The CF-18 replacement saga has some parallels to the lack of pre-pandemic planning. Unlike COVID, however, the security challenges and needs facing Canada are quite visible to even casual observers of the news today. We ignore it at our peril.

Richard Shimooka is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

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Bianca Mugyenyi Canadian Foreign Policy Institute NO

Even before the UN labelled climate change “code red for humanity” and a virus upended our lives, it was a bad idea to spend huge sums on new warplanes. But now the “security” argument is wholly untenable. Procuring cutting edge new fighter jets will simply line the pockets of arms manufacturers while strengthening the air force’s ability to fight in aggressive U.S. and NATO led wars.

The federal government plans to spend $19 billion on 88 new fighter jets. But that’s just the sticker price. The full life cycle cost is expected to reach $77 billion.

These resources could be directed toward more socially useful endeavours, from ensuring all reserves have healthy drinking water, to building social housing and turbocharging a just transition away from fossil fuels.

Instead, the heavy carbon emitting fighter jets will lock in fossil fuel militarism for decades after the government has committed to reach net zero in its operations. Incredibly, the greenhouse gases emitted by fighter jets aren’t included in the calculation since the military is exempt from emission reduction targets even though it accounts for 59 per cent of federal government GHGs.

While worsening the climate crisis, new fighter jets are not needed to protect Canadians. When the procurement process began, former deputy minister of national defence Charles Nixon argued that next generation fighter jets “are not required to protect Canada’s populace or sovereignty.” He pointed out they would be largely useless in dealing with an attack like 9/11, responding to natural disasters, providing international humanitarian relief or in peacekeeping operations. Plus, you can’t bomb a virus or forest fire.

Useless in dealing with looming security threats, fighter jets effectively funnel public resources into corporate pockets. Even though Justin Trudeau repeatedly promised not to purchase Lockheed Martin’s F-35 prior to being elected, the government has quietly spent hundreds of millions of dollars to remain part of the consortium developing the $1.7 trillion stealth fighter so Canadian firms can continue to profit from the gargantuan corporate handout. The Liberals will likely break their promise and select the F-35 when the final decision is made later this year.

As is normal in the military-industrial complex, all three firms (Boeing, Saab and Lockheed) vying to build Canada’s new fighter jets have offices only blocks from Parliament Hill. These manufacturers also hire former top soldiers and make funds available to think tanks that promote their interests.

Proponents of new fighter jets repeat over and over: Canada has made commitments to NATO and NOR, which protect us from the Russians, Chinese and other aggressors.

But there’s nothing “defensive” about military alliances with a country former president Jimmy Carter called “the most warlike nation in the history of the world.”

The U.S. has over 800 international military bases and its special forces are stationed in three quarters of the world’s nations. Regarding Russia, NATO has troops in a handful of bordering states with Canadians stationed in Latvia and Ukraine, as well as Air Force and Navy assets regularly rotating through Romania and the Baltic and Black seas.

For its part, China is encircled by tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand and Guam, as well as the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Canadian naval vessels have recently patrolled the South China Sea and the military has sought a small base in Singapore, according to Canadian Press, “to support the United States’ ‘pivot’ toward Asia to counter a rising China.”

Cutting edge new fighter jets are not designed to defend Canada from China or Russia but rather to increase the Canadian military’s capacity to rain bombs on countries, often in the Global South, in U.S.-led wars. Over the past three decades Canadian fighter jets have bombed Iraq, Serbia, Libya and Iraq/Syria. Many innocent civilians were killed directly or due to the destruction of infrastructure.

In perhaps the most egregious example, Canadian fighter jets bombed Libya in 2011 against the wishes of the African Union, which opposed the NATO campaign led by a Canadian general. An upsurge in anti-Blackness, including slave markets, subsequently appeared in Libya and violence quickly spilled southward to Mali and across much of Africa’s Sahel.

Spending tens of billions of dollars in order to be able to bomb largely Black and brown people living in countries thousands of kilometres away does not make Canadians more secure. We can find far better uses for our tax dollars.