The Harper government is publicly rejecting a pitch from a former senior soldier to adopt the legendary Avro Arrow as Canada’s next war plane, saying that, emotional attachment notwithstanding, the design of the much-loved fighter would prove too expensive and time-consuming to upgrade.
The Prime Minister’s Office was prompted to respond after retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie unveiled a proposal he’d been quietly shopping around Ottawa to revive the made-in-Canada Avro interceptor, a plane that was scrapped half a century ago despite capturing the imagination of the nation.
“While we appreciate the sentimental value of the Avro Arrow, which was cancelled 53 years ago, analysts looked at the proposal and determined that this is not a realistic option,” Andrew MacDougall, director of communications for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said Monday.
“The proposal to develop, test and manufacture what would effectively be a brand-new aircraft is risky and would take too long and cost too much to meet Canada’s needs.”
Separately, Julian Fantino, the former associate minister of defence, wrote Mr. MacKenzie a letter this summer shooting down the Avro on the grounds that required add-ons would jack up its price.
The Harper government is already familiar with what it feels like to be wedded to an over-budget plane. It’s been forced to hit pause on a decision to buy the American F-35 jet in the face of a rising price tag for a fighter that was selected by the Department of National Defence without proper scrutiny.
Mr. MacKenzie, representing a group of engineers and logistics and design experts, argues a revamped CF-105 jet with new engines would be superior to the increasingly expensive F-35 Lightning, a fighter bomber that Canada still appears set on buying. With an upgraded Iroquois engine, he said, it would fly twice as fast and 20,000 feet higher – with twice the operating range.
The Arrow was considered among the most advanced aircraft of its time in the late 1950s. It was the Diefenbaker government, another small-c conservative and populist administration, that famously cancelled the CF-105 project in 1959, saying that intercontinental ballistic missiles rendered a human-controlled interceptor obsolete.
Canadians have a hard time forgetting the Avro. Research in Motion founder Mike Lazaridis was reported to keep a wooden model of the Avro Arrow on his desk at RIM – a reminder, he once told The Globe and Mail, of the country’s “great engineering capabilities” and the danger of missed opportunities.
The Conservative government has made a big show of rethinking its decision to buy the F-35 in the face of evidence that National Defence gambled on the fighter jet without running a fair competition, all the while lacking cost certainty or any guarantee the plane could replace the current fleet of CF-18s by the end of the decade.
But there’s little evidence the Tories are seriously considering buying any other plane than the F-35, the express choice of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Mr. Fantino’s letter, dated in late June, is peppered with reasons that Defence officials came up with to counter the Avro pitch.
“The risks associated with undertaking this developmental effort would be too high to consider,” the minister wrote Mr. MacKenzie.
The government wants a stealth aircraft with special communication and targeting technology, as well as the ability to operate in “no-light conditions,” Mr. Fantino said.
The CF-105’s airframe, or body, would not allow it to be transformed into as stealthy a plane as Canada would like, he said.
NDP defence critic Jack Harris said cabinet ministers shouldn’t be vetting proposals for new jet fighters. He said the Tories had promised any further decisions regarding which plane to buy would be left to a new secretariat of civil servants that the government set up in the late spring of 2012.
Mr. Harris said he was not sure whether a revamped Arrow is the right choice. But he said it should be up to the secretariat – not Mr. Fantino.
“Here’s another plane that seems to have been rejected without being considered by the group that was set up to do just that.”
“Canadians who know the Avro story are shocked a plane with that capability was cancelled and the prototypes were destroyed – what appeared to be an obvious attempt to prevent anybody from building the plane,” Mr. Harris said. “It’s a shocking story of a Canadian technical advancement that came to naught.”
The Harper government recently hired consulting firm KPMG to conduct an independent review of controversial projections on how much it would cost Canada to buy, maintain and operate a fleet of 65 F-35s.
Mr. MacKenzie said he’d like KPMG to consider his Arrow proposal as well.