Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia
"Our pilots cannot do their jobs from 15,000 feet!" the retired Air vice-marshal exclaimed. "We need our Harriers down low where they can see the enemy."
It was March, 1999. The Air vice-marshal was speaking at Oxford University; the Harriers were subsonic jets favoured for ground attack missions by the Royal Air Force and U.S. Marines. And NATO leaders had just ordered their pilots to bomb Serbian paramilitaries in Kosovo while staying safely beyond the reach of their guns.
Three months, thousands of precision-guided bombs and a ceasefire later, the paramilitaries drove most of their armoured vehicles out of Kosovo. NATO had destroyed bridges, houses and even a train, but few actual military vehicles and even fewer militiamen.
The lessons of the Kosovo campaign apply to the air operation in Iraq today. Supersonic fighter jets are of limited utility against enemies who hide their military vehicles, blend into local populations, and travel by foot or civilian cars.
Canada's CF-18s were designed to fly fast and dogfight with Russian MiGs. They can conduct ground attacks when equipped with precision-guided bombs, but their effectiveness in this role is compromised when clear military targets are absent. At worst, pilots and commanders make informed guesses, which can lead to unnecessary civilian casualties, a loss of good will on the part of the local population, and violations of the laws of war.
For these reasons, the United States has already deployed AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and A-10 "Warthog" ground attack planes to Iraq.
Armed drones are also being used, although unmanned vehicles have their own limitations, including slight communication delays between the remotely situated pilots and the aircraft, and a lower degree of moral engagement with civilians at risk on the ground.
All of which raises a question about the plan to replace the CF-18s with another full fleet of supersonic fighters, most likely F-35s.
During more than three decades of service, CF-18s have only ever been used in anger during situations of complete air superiority, where the only mission is destroying targets on the ground.
In 1991, after the Americans had destroyed the Iraqi air force, CF-18s dropped bombs on ground forces as well as a patrol boat. In 1999, they took part in the Kosovo campaign. In 2011, they engaged in operations in Libya, where they once again faced a shortage of clear military targets.
Most significantly, CF-18s were never sent to Afghanistan. For an entire decade, air support for Canada's troops was provided by the United States, often using Apaches and Warthogs.
It is true that the F-35 is designed for ground attack, but only against "peer adversaries" such as Russia or China. Its stealth characteristics are only needed in the face of radar-guided anti-aircraft systems, while its precision-guided bombs are best suited for clear military targets such as command and communication centres, anti-aircraft emplacements, and supply lines.
And, like the CF-18, the F-35 is not designed to fly low and slow.
The F-35 is also remarkably expensive. In the United States, the cost of the F-35 has led the Air Force to recommend retirement of the A-10 Warthog – to the consternation of the US Army, whose soldiers are appreciative of the protection provided by these basic but highly effective planes.
Air forces, in fact, are rarely interested in optimizing their capabilities against irregular ground forces. They desire expensive, high-tech aircraft capable of fighting peer adversaries.
Canada still needs at least some supersonic aircraft that can dogfight. But we also need aircraft that can fly low and slow, protect our troops, and identify and kill irregulars. One possibility is the BAE Hawk, a popular subsonic jet that the Royal Canadian Air Force already uses for training.
Sending supersonic jets to Iraq is like using a sledgehammer to fix your laptop. Our pilots need aircraft that are purpose-built for the kinds of missions we ask them to fly.