University of Ottawa defence analyst Philippe Lagassé argues the F35s stealth and networking advantages are in evading defences in a foreign air war, not, as the government and air force argue, in meeting threats to Canadian airspace.
“Let’s be clear: we’re talking about Russia here,” he said. China has no intention of coming near our airspace and has no long-range bombers to do it, and another country like Iran would have to fly through the airspace of several countries to get here, he said. Russia doesn’t have a stealth bomber to intrude unseen. And if Russia or China enters our airspace, it will be a massive attack with more planes than 65 fighters can handle, triggering U.S. retaliation and risking nuclear war.
The F35, designed to be flown in thousands by allies, with stealth technology and high-tech networked systems, does have advantages for evading air defences if Canada joined an allied campaign to knock out a foreign country’s air force and launch a bombing campaign, as it did in Kosovo or the first Gulf War. But Canada could send only a dozen or so fighters; U.S. and NATO allies fly thousands. Even if the F35 costs only $2-billion more, Mr. Lagassé argues, it means the military won’t have money to do something else.
The world is more likely to need a Canadian naval task force, or its advanced troops confronting factions in failed states.
“The problem is, we’ve been there, done that, and didn’t like it,” said Fen Hampson, head of Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. “But we may come under pressure to do it again. And there may be a lot of them.”
Having a military isn’t a reason to go to war. There will be missions to avoid. For Canada, the question is not just whether a failing state might pose a future threat to our interests, but whether there is a political strategy, backed by the United States, the UN, or regional powers, to broker with factions including combatants, to reach stability – not create a western democracy.
In Afghanistan, international strategy was lacking. Goals swerved from capturing al-Qaeda fighters to eradicating Taliban to democracy and nation-building; efforts to build the Afghan government and army lagged, and the insurgency was fuelled by years of police abuses and weak and corrupt government.
The Canadian Forces arrived in Kandahar in late 2005 optimistic its 2,500 troops could secure the province, but fought pitched battles with the Taliban throughout 2006. When they won, insurgents with rifles returned hidden among the people, in twos and threes, setting IEDs and ambushes.
Canadian generals now concede that for years the thin presence of Canadian troops could only fight to not lose, waiting for a surge of U.S. troops, concentrated in Iraq, so they could start a real counterinsurgency campaign, focusing forces in smaller patches to improve security, bring back a few Afghan officials, and launch projects such as road-building to convince terrified villagers to point out insurgents, not join them.
But Canadian troops, now concentrated in Panjwaii, have over time developed beyond Cold War training and have gained tactics and tools for needle-in-haystack fighting: electronics to counter IEDs, heavy-lift helicopters to reduce risk by taking troops by air, with Griffons with long-distance sensor cameras escorting them.
At Kandahar airfield, Canadians control unmanned aerial vehicles that hang unseen with sensors that intercept radio signals or transmit video. Guided by intelligence, image analysts can distinguish farmers from insurgents, see weapons-stashing, and call in air strikes, or more often, send reports to troops and special forces. Individuals can be spotted, and bigger operations thwarted, said Captain Chris Radl, a reconnaissance officer. “When they move around in big groups,” he said, snapping his fingers, “we’ve got ‘em.”
In Kingston, Gen. Fraser, is gearing up a virtual headquarters of 130, First Canadian Division, for any future mission, such as relief to Haiti or another Afghanistan.
He counts the Canadian Forces among a few with crucial tools – strategic-lift and transport, Chinook helicopters, UAVs, intelligence, special forces, experienced troops and commanders, and the ability to set up command-and-control, satellite and radio communications for a multi-national force of 20,000 across 400,000 square kilometres – to enable a multi-national force many times larger.
“So you may have a small force, but that small force delivers far more weight on the ground,” Gen. Fraser said.
In a world that faces a proliferation of destabilizing conflicts of factions within nations, that capacity will be needed. Afghanistan will mark the Canadian Forces for a generation, as corporals and captains who served here become warrant officers and colonels; it revealed limits of scale and scope for militaries that can only provide space for political strategies. It has marked Canada with bitter reluctance. But Canada will need to confront threats in the world again, with realism, and will need to shape the military to do it.