Canada needs stealth fighter jets so its military can sneak up on an adversary at the edges of domestic airspace and use that potential for surprise as a deterrent, the head of the air force says.
Lieutenant-General André Deschamps, the chief of the air staff, responded to critics of the government's planned purchase of high-tech F-35 stealth fighters by asserting that the aircraft will provide a needed capability for defence at home, and not just for fighting air battles abroad.
"If they can't detect us and don't know where we are, it dramatically changes their potential tactics. So it is a deterrent," Gen. Deschamps said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
The untendered purchase of 65 F-35s to replace the existing fleet of CF-18s has sparked criticism that at a price of $9-billion plus about $7-billion in maintenance costs, they are more plane than Canada needs.
The Harper government has pointed to recent flights of Russian long-range bombers near Canadian airspace in the Arctic and off the east coast - intercepted by CF-18s - to assert the need for top-notch fighters.
Gen. Deschamps said he's not seeking to amplify "the noise around the Russians," but pointed to the interceptions to argue that the F-35s will let the Canadian Forces observe foreign planes unseen, and the potential surprise will deter interlopers.
"Nobody expects somebody to come in and roll ashore here in the next little while," he said. "But it's a question of being able to exercise your sovereignty. And you can't do that sitting on the runway saying, 'I wish I could go out there without these guys knowing I'm going to be there two hours before the intercept point.'"
The F-35s can be used against any adversary that emerges over the decades, as the aircraft will remain in service for 30 years or more after they enter service in 2017, Gen. Deschamps said.
"Who knows 50 years from now? Who knows what the North Koreans will be up to? The Iranians?" he said.
Gen. Deschamps said the F-35's ability to operate with allies that have the same plane - it was developed by the Joint Strike Fighter program - will be an advantage in air battles abroad. The plane will also be able to provide air support for troops fighting insurgents in a place like Afghanistan - if cheaper unmanned drones aren't available - giving Canada the "best value" for money.
Stealth fighters are designed to be undetectable by radar, and the F-35 uses "low-emission" communications systems with hard-to-detect signals.
But some analysts say the argument that stealth capability is needed over Canada obscures the real reason for buying jets that will use the same data networks that allies have: to take part in air campaigns overseas.
No country other than Russia will be a potential threat in Canadian airspace for decades, said Philippe Lagassé, a defence analyst at the University of Ottawa. And the only reason Russia would send a fleet through Canada's airspace would be to launch a nuclear war against the United States and its allies, against which 65 fighters would be useless.
"Let's be clear: We're talking about the Russians here," Mr. Lagassé said. "And it would be thoroughly against all their national interests to ever contemplate sending a fleet of aircraft into our airspace."
Russia resumed long-range flights of its Cold War-era Tupolev bombers in 2007 in response to U.S. plans to develop a missile-defence system - demonstrating that even if its nuclear missiles could be knocked out by a shield, the bombers couldn't.
Stealth capability won't assert sovereignty against the occasional long-range Russian bomber that is intended to be seen, Mr. Lagassé said. "It doesn't fit with the threat environment. Let's be frank: The real value of this aircraft is inter-operability with allies overseas."