F-35: Why Canada needs an Air Force and supersonic fighters – Part One

Introduction: What if the F-35 is the Right Plane, at the Right Time, for the Right Price?
Part One: Why Canada Needs An Air Force And Supersonic Fighters
Part Two: A New Generation Of Fighters
Part Three: The Joint Strike Fighter Program
Part Four: Replacing the Cf-18
Part Five: The Cost Controversy

Let’s start with the fundamentals. Why does Canada need an air force? And why fighters like the CF-18 or the F-35?

The short answer is self-defence. Canadians have lived a privileged existence for most of their recorded history, safely distant from the troubles which have afflicted other people. But they cannot count on geography to protect them as it once did. Their territory is enormous, spanning five and a half time zones, and their open society is highly vulnerable to the new dangers the world presents. Their oceans are no longer barriers but approaches to the heartland. Their airspace and the aerospace above it are heavily trafficked. And their cyber space is a global commons.

Canadians cannot hide from these realities, hoping that inoffensive behaviour will spare them. If they don’t have the ability to defend themselves in their own national interest, the superpower next door will — in its own interest. And Canada will have been a noble idea whose moment came and went because its inhabitants didn’t care enough to put the effort into keeping it.


Canada’s airspace extends 4,500 kilometers from east to west, another 4,500 kilometers from north to south. Satellites and sensors can keep an eye on it; but to deter, confront, and defeat a physical threat before it causes damage requires a capacity to project lethal force across vast distances at great speed. This is only possible with supersonic fighters able to establish air supremacy over a contested area and to engage and dispose of a danger on the ground.

Canada has had such aircraft since the early 1960s: the CF-101B Voodoo and the CF-104 Starfighter, later the CF-5 Freedom Fighter, and today the CF-18 Hornet. These have been among the most capable aircraft in any allied air force and a match for any adversary. Such aircraft are still a vital necessity.

For 40 years, the Soviet Union tested North American air defences by flying long-range Tu-95 “Bear” bombers at and along the Canadian and US borders, with Canadian and US fighters dedicated to NORAD (the jointly operated North American Aerospace Defence Command) scrambling to intercept them. These encounters were not an exercise in gamesmanship. At issue was nothing less than the credibility of the US nuclear deterrent on which world peace depended. If the Soviets believed they might be able to attack the US nuclear arsenal successfully, their calculus about the feasibility of nuclear war could change dramatically.

The practice of patrolling right up to the edges of the air defence identification zone around North America tapered off when the Cold War did. But forward deployments, albeit with very limited approaches to North America, restarted around 2000. Then, in August 2007, Vladimir Putin officially announced that Tu-95 patrols would resume. Since then, Canadian and US fighters have been making 12 to 18 interceptions per year of modernized Tu-95s carrying a new generation of precision cruise missiles.

A Canadian CF-18 intercepting a Russian Tu-95 long-range bomber in the Arctic

A Canadian CF-18 intercepting a Russian Tu-95 long-range bomber in the Arctic

Since 9/11, NORAD-controlled fighters have also been making 300 or more interceptions per year of civilian aircraft without a verified flight plan, failing to abide by flight restrictions over sensitive areas, or thought to pose a potential terrorist risk. Canada and the United States really do share the burden of defending the continent. At NORAD headquarters in Colorado Springs, mixed US-Canadian crews mount the watch together; on occasion, it is Canadian CF-18s which help patrol the skies over US sites when special events are held there.

The issue for Canadians is whether they aspire to continue to have a world-class air force able to assert their sovereignty over Canadian territory and air space, to defend Canada and North America in cooperation with the United States, and to participate in international operations to maintain world order.

Continue to: Part Two: A New Generation Of Fighters

Paul H. Chapin

Paul Chapin is Executive Editor of The Vimy Report. During a 30-year career in the Canadian foreign service, he served in Tel Aviv, Moscow, at NATO, and in Washington where he was head of the political section. He can be reached at pchapin@rogers.com.

Leave A Comment