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Opinion Which fighter jets should Canada buy? That depends on our vision for the future

George Petrolekas is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He has served in Bosnia and Afghanistan and has been an adviser to senior NATO commanders.

The recent stir created by the Liberal announcement that the party would do away with F-35s raises a few very big questions. What does Canada wish to do in the world, what role do we wish to play, and in what environment will Canada be operating in the future?

Without answers to those questions, choosing what we will or won't buy is bound to be an uninformed decision.

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Replacing the F-35 with an F/A-18 Super Hornet or other aircraft such as the French Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon or even the Swedish Gripen are viable options at present. But like most defence debates in Canada, the premises surrounding what aircraft should follow the CF-18 are superficial at best. To their credit, the Liberals and the NDP have promised a complete foreign policy and defence review to inform future decisions.

But we must extend the vision of our defence future past the next five to 10 years, because Canadians can expect that whatever fighter the next government buys will have a service life of up to 40 years.

Here are three considerations the next government must weigh before making the next investment in future fighter jets:

Stealth

This has been the most derided, but least understood aspect of the plane. In the Canadian context, stealth has become synonymous with a first-strike capability. Advancements in air defence systems, and low observatable designs which support the argument that the F-35 is a first-strike fighter, are migrating to other fighter aircraft. This is particularly evident in the advancements seen in Chinese and Russian built aircraft which we may one day face. The trend in modern air combat is to sweep the skies to see opposing aircraft first and engage with beyond-visual-range missiles. Who sees first, wins – or at least survives. The classic image of aerial dogfights, requiring a certain amount of manoeuvrability, has not disappeared, but is slowly becoming consigned to history.

Networking and sensors

Aerial battlefields are complex and airplanes see ground-based threats but also aerial threats that are dynamic in nature. The trend in warfare is to have a comprehensive picture available to pilots. In simple terms, that means that a pilot must assimilate information not only from his own sensors, but what an airplane 100 miles away can see. Pilots can then engage using another airplane's data. In defending North America, Canadian fighters responding to an incursion would see data coming from Alaska-based fighters, or in turn share information with other Canadian aircraft. How that is done has much to do with the aircraft chosen. Current fighters generally sense what is happening in a forward cone and can only engage within that, while so-called fifth-generation fighters can see and engage in a 360-degree sphere – above, below, behind and also in front of them.

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Future limitations

Our NATO commitments could easily see us defending European airspace, something we presently do. This is about being a match for any adversary we might face. It also affects the projects we undertake with coalition partners and allies, such as the liberation of Kuwait or the Kosovo campaign.

For the first time in 50 years, Canada might not be flying the same front-line fighter as the United States in North American defence. Nevertheless, future affordability is a factor. Having the best fighter technologically in very limited numbers or choosing a fighter that limits other capital programs is not a solution either, but we need to be clear on the pluses and minuses of any acquisition and the risks and limitations of each.

At the end of the day, governments must balance the above considerations and the fiscal latitude available with what they want to do in the world, and what option will best defend Canada.

There are other effects, including what jobs are produced, what technology transfers are included, our ability to be interoperable, particularly with the United States, and what each party envisages as the transparent competition to be held.

Our national debate has barely touched on those.

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