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Pilot and Captain Mark Remington climbs out of his CF-18 in CFB Cold Lake. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Pilot and Captain Mark Remington climbs out of his CF-18 in CFB Cold Lake. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Part 4: How much is Arctic security worth? Add to ...

The "Q" is a lot like any other office: There's cake today (an unspecified occasion), coffee is brewing, and sports highlights play on a big screen in a lounge.



Just another office - except for the siren. And the top-secret maps. And the stable of fighter jets waiting just outside the door.

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A bunker in the heart of rural Alberta, the Quick Reaction Area, or Q, is a staging ground for one of Canada's two fighter jet squadrons. From here, CF-18 Hornets patrol half of Canada, from Vancouver Island up to Baffin Island, and everywhere in between. When Russian bombers brush up against Canadian air space (three or four times a year), it's these pilots who go to meet them - on this recent fall day, cake day, pilots are returning from doing just that. It's known as Northern Sovereignty Operations, and it's one of their two current mandates. The other is anti-terrorism under Operation Noble Eagle - if an airliner were hijacked, the Q would respond.



"The aircraft are put up to be ready on short notice, or a no-notice situation," explains Major Travis (Brass) Brassington, the deputy commanding officer of Cold Lake's fighter squadron. "We're here to do whatever we need. I think what I'm getting at is, we don't just do Russian bombers."



For more than a decade, they didn't do Russian bombers at all - The Tupolev "Bear" bombers were mothballed at the end of the Cold War. But in August of 2007, they began flying sorties once again. Many describe the flybys purely as a propaganda tool, sabre-rattling by Russia to show its deterrent credibility in light of the U.S. missile-shield plan.



Nevertheless, with a warming climate opening the Northwest Passage and rich oil fields of the Arctic, there's been hot talk of who-owns-what and a chill about Moscow's plans. Cue Canada's Northern security blanket: its CF-18s.



Major Brassington's team is the most pointed part of a multi-pronged Canadian government presence in the North. There's the Aurora maritime surveillance planes, the Twin Otter utility and search-and-rescue planes, the Coast Guard, the Navy, a small Canadian Forces detachment (200 soldiers who make up Joint Task Force North in Yellowknife), and the Canadian Rangers, who are effectively reservists scattered across 57 far-north communities.



Altogether, they're tasked with four key jobs: basic military defence; preventing or intercepting terrorists or other unwanted interlopers; affirming Canadian sovereignty amid border disputes; and responding to disabled planes or ships to rescue those aboard.



As Ottawa looks to ramp up its presence in the North, it has to make choices. The CF-18s need to be replaced. But aging too are the Otters, Auroras, and many of the Coast Guard's ships (five of its six largest are at the end of their lives; not one of its 33 biggest ships were built after 1996). Canada's North is served by aging hardware in pressing need of replacement at every turn, and funding is tight. For instance, a $3.1-billion deal to buy six new Arctic offshore patrol ships for the navy may be revisited - Canada will either need to pledge more money, buy fewer ships, or buy poorer quality.



Despite those needs, Ottawa is set to pledge $16-billion - at least - in an untendered contract to replace the 80 or so remaining CF-18s with 65 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, to the development of which it contributed $150-million (U.S.) eight years ago. It's a top-end aircraft being used by many of Canada's allies.



Defence analyst Steven Staples calls the single-source contract purchase "fundamentally flawed." Some wonder if it's too much plane, and suggest a cheaper fighter augmented with unmanned aircraft for surveillance.



"The big question is, who is your enemy? The idea that Russia will invade Ellesmere, go down to Baffin and into Northern Quebec is preposterous," says Ken Coates, an arctic historian and dean of arts at the University of Waterloo. "What we're really trying to do is prove to all that we have a presence in the area and are capable of putting our feet on the ground almost anywhere, almost any time."



Ottawa could seek less costly planes, sacrificing bells and whistles to free up cash for buying more day-to-day hardware. A competitive bidding process might result in a cheaper options - European, Swedish and French jets or the SuperHornet, the successor to the CF-18 - all capable of intercepting a hijacked jet or escorting a Tupolev. Some argue that Eurofighter Typhoons cruise faster and are more manoeuvrable for air-to-air combat, and the F-35's real advantage is dodging anti-aircraft fire and other defences in a bombing campaign overseas. The F-35 isn't an ideal Arctic plane, because it has only one engine. The CF-18 has two, leaving pilots with a way to get home if the other quits above unforgiving Arctic terrain.



Every dollar saved could be devoted to other critical needs in the north, including ships, satellites and new search planes.



But it would leave Canada well short of the most advanced options. The alternative fighters are often characterized as being between fourth and fifth-generation. The F-35 is an elite plane. It's one of the world's two fifth-generation fighters, and the only one that's for sale. Since Ottawa plans to keep these planes for decades, it wants to buy the best. But it may be overkill - the F-35 is a stealth fighter. The Bear bombers, with their massive frames, couldn't be any less stealthy.



Colonel David Wheeler - the commanding officer of the Cold Lake air base, known as 4 Wing - says his fliers "absolutely" need new fighters and the F-35 is the best choice.



"Bottom line is there's a number of nations buying it, it is a new aircraft, so it will allow us to keep this aircraft for - what'd we keep the Hornet for? 40 years? - probably another 40 years," he says.



"It's to ensure that we are secure, that we are comfortable with our sovereignty, and that we're about to be interoperable with our allies. Without a fighter - and specifically this fighter - that would be very difficult to do."



Lieutenant-Colonel Rob Carter, 4 Wing's operations officer and one of its three pilots to have dropped a live bomb in combat, thinks the new fighters need to be able to do anything, as Canada's future military role is unclear. Stealth, as such, is useful.



"A lot of people may not buy into that," he acknowledges. "But I'm sure most people have life insurance. And the reason you have life insurance is just in case something bad happens."



The fighter decision comes as the world's five Arctic Ocean nations - Canada, the United States, Russia, Denmark and Norway - continue to firm up borders, mapping parts of the continental shelf so that disputes can be resolved through international law. Canada and Russia continue to debate where to draw the line on an underwater Arctic shelf between the two countries.



A nation can claim a shelf if it proves it is a part of its land mass, and in doing so gets everything under the shelf. In this case, a country would own any oil discovered below. Surveying looks promising, but it's impossible to tell what reserves lie below.



Canada also continues to claim the Northwest Passage as its own internal waterway, while the U.S. and many other nations insist it's an international strait, and they have a right to sail through it without asking. The new Arctic ships would help patrol the waterway as it continues to open - though traffic is currently light and only a few dozen ships have so far navigated its waters - to regulate future traffic and deter interlopers.



Many say the boundary disputes are often over-emphasized. "Frankly, virtually all the claims have been settled," says Peter Harrison, a Queen's University professor, northern sovereignty expert and former senior associate deputy minister in Canada's Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.



It will be diplomatic negotiation through the United Nations that will settle the Arctic shelf issue with Russia, "and it could take a long, long, long, long time," he says.



So, without threat of a Russian invasion and boundary disputes largely solved, there's less domestic footing to defend the blind buy of top-tier fighters. What role they could play internationally remains unclear. The fliers at the Q will take what they get, but insist a multi-role fighter is a necessity.



"If they want to do surveillance of the North, I'm sure we can have satellites, [unmanned planes] stuff like that. But that's not what the mandate is," Major Brassington says. "If you're going to protect your sovereignty, if the protection of your border is that important, you can't protect it by looking at it."

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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