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Cold Lake wing commander David wheeler at Cold Lake CFB September 28, 2010. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Cold Lake wing commander David wheeler at Cold Lake CFB September 28, 2010. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Q&A with Colonel David Wheeler Add to ...

Who is pushing our borders? Just Russia?



In our north right now, it's the Russians. They push the limits. Generally, we're pushing them back early enough. We need to let them know we have the capability to do so. We don't necessarily want them flying over our territory. One: We're not sure why they're doing it so we don't know what their plan is, what they hope to do. And it's a sovereignty issue. It's our right to do so and we plan to do it.



How do the CF-18s at your base fit into the overall Canadian presence in the North?



The North is very important to us. The government certainly says it is, and we do what the government tells us to do. We certainly have managed to intercept a number of foreign aircraft over the northern air space. We do have the Rangers out there and they're a great asset. They're the eyes and ears. There's 1,500 of them in 57 locations. But they don't cover the entire north either. There's a lot of unpopulated areas. Forty per cent of Canada is the North. To do that without air is very difficult to do. To do that by the sea is also obviously very difficult to do, because it's frozen.



You're set to get new F-35s to replace the CF-18s. Do you need them, and why?



Absolutely. It's a fifth-generation aircraft which will allow us to be interoperable with our partners. It's much more efficient as far as fuel, as far as sensors picking up things farther away. It does have some stealth capability. But 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 probably another 40 years. It's to ensure that we are secure, that we are comfortable with our sovereignty, and that we're able to be inter-operable with our allies. Without a fighter - and specifically this fighter - that would be very difficult to do. I think that when our allies look for us to go and operate with them elsewhere, it does more than provide just a couple of jets. It also provides them with the capability to know that we stand beside them. It is intangible, but I think it should matter to them.



What about extending the CF-18's lifespan?



They are at the end of their life, and we have pushed them as far as they can go. They will not be capable of conducting operations beyond the time we plan to put them to bed.



Unmanned aircraft, or UAVs, couldn't fill that role?



Well, we don't have one that would do that. So no. The best unmanned aircraft we're using in Afghanistan are the Predator and the Reaper. The Predator flies about 110 knots an hour. The Reaper does about twice that, 220 or 240. The CF-18 does 1.7-Mach [about 1,120 knots] So, you know, any aircraft that the Russians have or any other nation could certainly outfly a current UAV. Now, they are in development, looking at fighter-sytle UAVs, but they haven't come up to reach a technological standard that would be appropriate to replace a fighter aircraft. A fighter is the only aircraft that can actually shoot down another aircraft.



Can we do without fighters altogether? Could something else intercept a hijacked airliner or escort a Russian bomber?



No. No. It's your sole choice right now. You could stick surface-to-air missiles in a couple spots on the coast but you're never going to cover the whole coast. You could arm a helicopter, but a helicopter is not going to go to 30,000 feet and it's not going to fly the speeds you want to. This is really your only option. It does cost a lot of course. It's not one lump sum of money. If we had zero fighters, who do you think would be defending Canadian air space? Somebody's going to, because they have a vested interest in doing so. If we're unable to protect our own airspace, that is a huge hit on the capability of our claim to sovereignty as well.



We're buying 65 expensive F-35s. Is that enough planes?



Well, when we bought the Hornet, we bought 130 [about 80 of which are still upgraded and running] To go to 65 is much less than that. Canada's huge. You split those up and you put in a training unit somewhere, that doesn't leave too much for either side of the country. That's not a lot of fighters to spread out and to, I guess, cover the NORAD role both east and west and to potentially use the aircraft for some sort of expeditionary role over seas in support of our troops and our allies. I would, you know, numbers is always an interesting topic of conversation. What happens if you lose one aircraft? Well, not you'e lost 1/65th of the fleet, which is significant.



Do Canadians understand the role CF-18s play, with Russian bombers and distressed planes?



Whether they understand we are the only Canadian asset that can do that, I highly doubt it. I look today and I see all the debate going on about fighters in the news, with some people querying about why we need fighters, and I think this is a pretty good testament to the requirement for that. I do understand that Canada is a very safe place to live. People don't understand what it's like in countries outside of Canada, so therefore they feel extremely safe. And that's great. If people are feeling safe and saying "we don't need an armed forces," more power to them. It is a little bit naive, potentially, and that's why we do have an armed forces, the Canadian Forces, so that they can feel as safe as they do.



This has been edited and condensed

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