RAAF Base Williamtown, Australia – The Trudeau government’s plan to buy as many as 28 second-hand Australian F-18 Hornet fighter jets has been common knowledge for some time at this major airbase three hours’ drive north of Sydney.
Canada, as a long-time friend and ally, is more than welcome to the decades-old planes, said an Australian air force F-18 aircraft technician I spoke with as we watched several of the fighters screaming into the sky last week, headed to an exercise over the Pacific Ocean.
The Hornets had been well maintained and considering their advanced years were in good shape, said the jet engine specialist. He warned, however, that because their airframes were old and had been pushed hard during multiple combat deployments to the Middle East, they had in some cases become badly corroded and needed repairs. There were also issues with outdated avionics. In other words, before they can enter service alongside Canada’s own aged CF-18s they will require costly, time-consuming upgrades.
Why, wondered this airman and others, was Canada buying 4th generation fighters from Australia, aircraft tracing their design back to the early 1970s, when the Australian government had concluded more than 10 years ago that its fleet of aging classic Hornets should be replaced—not upgraded—because upgrades would be a waste of public money?
With China and Russia buying sophisticated new aircraft designed in this century, it is a question Canadians should be asking too.
Australia’s Hornets are for sale because that country has had governments that regard national defence as a top priority. Canberra has already started replacing its legacy Hornets with 72 stealthy, computer-linked, 5th generation F-35 jet fighters.
Canada was on a path to eventual purchase of the F-35. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau backed Canada into a corner by vowing during the 2015 election campaign never to buy them. “They clung to a plane that does not work and is far from working.” Trudeau said last year in ridiculing the F-35 although many were already flying at the time. The F-35 has since been declared operational by both the United States Air Force and the United States Marine Corps and has recently been deployed to the Far East to confront North Korea if its nuclear weapons and missile programs trigger a war.
The strategic point is this. The Trudeau government, as a stopgap on the way to an eventual competition to select a new fighter, has decided to buy an aircraft type that first flew in 1978 instead of the cutting-edge F-35s chosen by nearly all Canada’s allies, including Australia.
Ottawa’s pending purchase of 30 year old F-18s provoked light-hearted derision from pilots and aircrew at RAAF Base Williamtown, although they would not speak for attribution because they had not been authorized to do so. Speaking privately, however, they were astonished that Canada, which like Australia made an initial investment of $150 million in the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35) development and acquisition consortium in 2002, was the only country not to have joined the other seven consortium partners in buying F-35s.
Because of the perceived threat from China—which is spending hundreds of billions of dollars to try to make its military a match for the US and its allies—South Korea, Japan, Singapore have also bought the F-35. So has Israel, while Germany and Belgium are considering doing so.
The Trudeau government had said that an emergency interim purchase of fighter jets was needed to close a capability gap because Canada would soon be unable to meet its commitments to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and North American Aerospace Command (NORAD), although the leadership of the two military alliances have never declared that such a gap actually exists or might soon exist.
The RAAF took delivery of its first two F-35s earlier this year and expects to declare No. 3 Squadron operational at Williamtown in 2020. All of those jets are to replace the F-18s that Australia will be sending to Cold Lake, Alberta and Bagotville, Quebec.
That the RAAF has leapfrogged the RCAF in fighter jet capability by at least 10 years is only one part of a much larger story.
The RAAF began to receive 15 state-of-the-art P-8A Poseidon long-range reconnaissance aircraft last year. The P-8s, which are a military version of Boeing’s 737 passenger jet, are to replace P-3 aircraft that are similar to the RCAF’s fleet of nearly 40 year old CP-140 Auroras. Rather than buy new surveillance aircraft, Canada opted to upgrade the ones it has. The Australians have also purchased attack helicopters, while Canada chose to mount door guns on its Griffin utility helicopters.
As bad as things are for the RCAF, procurement is even more problematic for the Royal Canadian Navy. Australia has taken delivery of two massive Spanish-designed assault ships that can also be used as humanitarian aid platforms and is spending $50 billion on a fleet of French-designed submarines. New frigates and destroyers are also in the mix.
Although Australia has had a few embarrassing procurement hiccups, it does not dither. It gets on with the business of preparing its military for what may lie ahead.
Canada has a much bigger economy and about 10 million more people than Australia. The emerging difference in capabilities results from very different attitudes about military spending and procurement. The usual Canadian answer for this is that Australia must spend a lot more on defence because it lives in a much tougher neighbourhood.
This is simplistic and ignores geography. North Korea is closer to Canada than to Australia and Canada and Australia are nearly equidistant from China. The real reason Canada has fallen so far behind militarily is that since the 1950s Canadians have counted heavily on the United States for protection—have taken it as a given.
Australians once felt that way too, but as US power and the will to use it have declined under the Obama and Trump administrations, there has been a growing realization that Australia cannot depend on the US like it once did and that they must act accordingly. How to do that was the main question posed in a white paper on foreign affairs policy released late last month in Canberra.
Canada confronts many of the same problems as Australia in the Pacific, as well as a resurgent Russia in Europe. But even in the age of Trump and his America First agenda, Canadians continue naively to assume that the US will always be there for them—or not to think about the matter at all.
One manifestation of this is Canada’s continuing refusal of Washington’s requests to join or help pay for an anti-missile umbrella to shield North America from nuclear-weapons-tipped missiles coming over the Pole or down the Pacific coast even as North Korea ups the ante by testing missiles that can now strike every part of Canada.
The Canadian decision to buy used jets that Australia considers to be junk and yet again postpone the tough political decision about buying new combat aircraft to meet the complex, rapidly changing security challenges of the 21st century is further proof that Canada is not to be taken seriously on security matters. Canadians would do well to study how Australia has forged a broad political consensus in support of armed forces with the teeth necessary to defend its strategic interests. Small hope of that.