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Why Canada might not want to – but probably has to – buy American to replace the F-35s

The U.S. Marine Corps version of Lockheed Martin’s F35 Joint Strike Fighter, F-35B test aircraft BF-2 flies with external weapons for the first time over the Atlantic test range at Patuxent River Naval Air Systems Command in Maryland in a February 22, 2012 file photo.

HANDOUT/REUTERS

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Just how big is the "reset" button hit by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government after the high-flying promise of F-35s hit harsh reality? It would need to be huge if Canada were to buy a non-U.S. warplane.

Among the options touted as alternatives to the American F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from Lockheed Martin Corp., is France's Rafale, a modern, sophisticated fighter-bomber that flew alongside Canada's aging F-18s during the Libyan air war in 2011 and, more recently, pounded targets as France attacked Muslim militants in northern Mali.

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Picking a French warplane would be a huge departure for Canada's air force.

It's nearly a century since New Brunswicker Major Albert Desbrisay Carter shot down more than a dozen Germans while flying a French Spad biplane in a British squadron. Those First World War exploits (Canada didn't yet have an air force of its own) may be the last time a Canadian fighter pilot has gone into combat in a French warplane.

Of course, Canadian fighter-bomber pilots haven't been in any air-to-air combat since the Second World War and the era of Spitfires and Hurricanes. Ottawa refused to send the Canadian air force to either Korea or Afghanistan, leaving the dangerous, difficult work of close air support to allies more willing to risk men and machines. In the 1991 Gulf war, the then-Progressive-Conservative government kept Canada's F18s out of Iraqi air space until Saddam Hussein's air force and air defences had been destroyed. In the 1999 Kosovo bombing campaign and the 2011 Libyan air war, Canada's F-18s flew hundreds of bombing missions but – in both cases – the air space was relatively 'safe.' Mostly Canadian warplanes have – at least in recent decades – been used to bomb targets in countries where air defences were either non-existent or had been attacked and destroyed before Canadian missions began.

So why not a proven performer like the Rafale, a far cheaper and already flying alternative to the soaringly expensive F-35s that are seven years behind schedule and may not be ready by the time Canada's worn-out F-18s are not worth the maintenance costs to keep them flying.

Dassault, manufacturer of the Rafale, is evidently taking Ottawa's interest seriously. Chief Executive Officer Eric Trappier said the company will spend the time and money to pitch Rafales to Canada. Other countries, notably India, which has a large but unconfirmed order, and Brazil, which is still deciding, consider the Rafale a worthy contender among modern, western fighter-bombers. France is a major arms exporter and its combat aircraft fly in many first-rate air forces.

But there's a lot more to buying a warplane than an aircraft that can survive hostile airspace while raining death and destruction on adversaries.

In Canada's case, the relationship with the United States – and U.S. military suppliers – affects every stage of the process, from purchase and industrial trade-offs, to deployment, integration into combat and information systems, and even (and most secret) the delivery of real-time intelligence.

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Interviews with several former senior Canadian officers with experience both in air force expeditionary campaigns and the hugely complicated process of aircraft selection, suggest that – for political and military reasons – any choice but American would be stunning and represent a major policy shift.

All agreed that the Rafale is a fine aircraft and that its predecessor, Dassault's Mirage, could have easily flown any and all of the missions given the Canadian air force in recent decades.

Even 'interoperability,' the never-quite-achieved goal in military alliances like NATO of getting different aircraft from different manufacturers flown by different air forces to fly and fight together in a seamless fashion, wouldn't pose any problems were Canada to buy Rafales.

They also agreed that the government's "reset" button might mean taking a serious look at the Rafale but that – as with every warplane purchase in the last half-century – the choice would probably end up between among American contenders.

Imagine the reaction in Washington if Ottawa opts for a French or Swedish or even Russian fighter-bomber, said one. Canada's fighter pilots might be happy with 60 Rafales (already a cut of more than half from the 138 F-18s that went into service three decades ago), especially if the alternative is waiting another decade and finding the F-35 purchase gets cut back to only 30 or 40 aircraft. But the choice isn't about making Canada's fighter pilots happy.

Far more likely – if Ottawa really wants to save money and sacrifice some of the stealth and sophisticated data system – is that the most serious alternative to the F-35 won't be Dassault's Rafale but Boeing's newest version of the F-18. The much-delayed F-35 program prompted Australia – another reliable U.S. warplane buyer and closely-integrated ally – to buy some new-version F-18s and more are under consideration, although Canberra is still considering the F-35.

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Paul Koring reports from The Globe's Washington bureau.

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