Wednesday, 10 July 2013


It was in 1948 that the first jet fighters, in the form of de Havilland Vampires, entered service with the RCAF. In the sixty five years since that time there have been only eight different types, including those original Vampires, in Canadian service. It may be true that History does not repeat itself, but there are still lessons to be learned from our involvement with those aircraft.

In the 1930’s Hans von Ohain in Germany and Frank Whittle in the UK pioneered the development of jet engines. The slow pace of development of that decade was followed by the intensive competition of WWII. The result was the Messerschmidt 262 in Germany and the Gloster Meteor in Britain. They were effective aircraft but had little influence on the final outcome of that conflict. One of their main contributions was to show military forces everywhere that jet powered fighters were the wave of the future.

By 1948 the RCAF had purchased 85 de Havilland Vampires for use by both regular and auxiliary squadrons. The Vampires, which essentially employed Second World War technology, served along with the vast reservoir of aircraft left over from the war. It was a successful experiment, providing the experience necessary for the next wave of jet powered fighters.

The beginnings of the Cold War, informed as it was by war time experience, brought about an unprecedented expansion of the peacetime Air Force. Canadair was licensed to manufacture the F-86 Sabre. Considered to be the preeminent day fighter of its era, the later marks with Canadian designed and built Orenda jet engines were widely believed to be among the best of the breed. They were stationed in Canada, with both regular and auxiliary squadron, and in Europe where the four wings of the Canadian Air Division made a substantial contribution to NATO strength.

The stable mate for the Sabre, both in Canada and in Europe, was the Avro Canada CF-100 Canuck. A long range, two seat, all-weather interceptor, it never enjoyed the status conferred upon the Sabre. However it does have the distinction of being the only jet fighter designed and built to Canadian standards to meet Canadian requirements. As such, they successfully served with both regular and auxiliary squadrons in the air defence role in Canada, both before and after the formation of NORAD, as well as in Europe where they provided a useful all weather capability.

Little remembered now, but well regarded in their day, was the McDonnell F2H-3 Banshee, nicknamed the "Banjo”. It was a carrier based air defence fighter used by the RCN from 1955 to 1962. It was also the first, and possibly last, carrier capable jet fighter in Canadian service. Advanced, for its day, with all-weather capability and air-to-air radar, the Banshee was the only Canadian military aircraft to be armed with sidewinder missiles until the advent of the CF-18.

In order to replace the Sabre in Canada's air forces in NATO, the CF-104 Starfighter was selected for use as a nuclear strike aircraft in Europe. In 1959 Canadair was chosen to manufacture 200 aircraft for the RCAF under license from Lockheed, its General Electric J-79 engines were manufactured under license by Orenda and the CF-104 entered Canadian service in March 1962. The RCAF also acquired one F-104A, and 38 two-seat CF-104Ds manufactured by Lockheed.

Originally the CF-104, which still holds pride of place as the fastest aircraft ever to serve with the CAF, was a tactical-bomber assigned the roles of nuclear strike and tactical reconnaissance. In 1970, in part because of the decision not to purchase attrition aircraft, the Canadian government decided to reduce the strength of the Air Division to only three squadrons and to relinquish its nuclear strike role in favour of conventional attack. The role of the Starfighter was changed and the aircraft was armed with 20mm internal cannon along with Mk.82 bombs, BL755 cluster bombs and Canadian-designed CRV-7 rocket pods.

In the same era the McDonnell CF-101 Voodoo was acquired to replace the Avro CF-100 Canuck in the RCAF's all-weather fighter squadrons.  At the time 66 nuclear armed aircraft were believed to be the bare minimum number necessary to fulfill our NORAD requirements. Manufactured by the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation for the United States Air Force, and later sold to Canada, it was in service with the RCAF between 1961 and 1984. The 56 F-101B interceptors and 10 F-101F trainers received from the U.S. Air Force were later replaced by a similar number of updated aircraft with lower airframe times. Of note, particularly to aircrew, was that the CF-101 had one of the lowest accident rates of any fighter of its generation, certainly far less then that of the CF-104.

As the Sabres being used for tactical support were phased out of service the lack of a true multi-role fighter became increasingly apparent. In 1965 the RCAF decided to replace those fighters with a new aircraft and the Northrop F-5 was chosen and Canadair was selected to manufacture it, with Orenda building its General Electric J85 turbojet engines. The first aircraft entered service with the CAF in 1968.

The CF-5 procurement was the result of confused industrial and military policies; some of the aircraft went straight from the manufacturer to storage. Selected originally to provide a tactical support role based in Canada, the CF-5 was also committed to NATO's northern flank to act a rapid-deployment force. Its service with the RCAF was changed frequently and this small but potent fighter would serve as a light attack strike fighter, reconnaissance platform and trainer. It was as an advanced trainer that the fighter would see the most service, flying in that role until 1995.

In 1980, the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet was declared the winner of the New Fighter Aircraft competition which had been designed to replace the NATO-assigned CF-104 Starfighter, the NORAD-assigned CF-101 Voodoo and the CF-5 Freedom Fighter. The order included 98 single-seat variants and 40 dual-seat variants, for a total of 138 purchased. It is not clear if the CAF really felt 138 aircraft were sufficient to replace all the previous aircraft as there was also an option for 20 more, which was not exercised. The modernized CF-18, of which there are currently 77 available, is used for air defence, air superiority, tactical support, training, aerobatic demonstration, as well as aerospace testing and evaluation.

The reasons for the selection of the CF-18 listed by the Canadian Forces were that many of its requested features were included in the aircraft; two engines for reliability (considered essential for conducting Arctic sovereignty and over-the-water patrols), an excellent radar set, while being considered more affordable than other aircraft under consideration. As well the government had stressed that the winner of the competition be a proven off-the-shelf design and provides substantial industrial benefits as part of the order, requirements which the CF-18 fulfilled.

This exceeding brief look at Canadian jet fighters brings us to the present day where the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning is widely believed to be the front runner to replace the CF-18 in Canada. It is interesting to look at that choice in light of previous experience.

It seems unlikely that in the future jet fighters will be purchased in the quantities that marked cold war procurement. In the unlikely event, however, that aircraft were ever to again be acquired in those kinds of numbers it seems certain that to the greatest extent possible they would be built and designed in Canada.

Our experience with the F2H-3 Banshee, on the contrary suggest that should Canada ever again want maritime fighters they would probably be purchased in small numbers on an off the shelf basis. As the F-35B is the only foreseeable candidate in this role it only increases the likelihood of a small, discrete purchase.

The CF-104 purchase can be seen in retrospect as flawed program. Acquired to meet NATO requirements, and because they could be built in Canada, in many ways they did not meet Canadian requirements. They were primarily strike aircraft and had less utility when a role change was called for.

The CF-101 Voodoos on the other hand served their purpose well. The need for what might now be called Air Sovereignty never changed and having the Voodoos in the inventory helped to maintain the minimum number necessary.

The CF-5 aircraft acquisition is another cautionary tale. Procured to fill a perceived lack of a general purpose fighter, there was nothing wrong with the aircraft and everything wrong with the lack of a clear operational mandate with which it entered service. 

On the other hand the CF-18 Hornets have been a great success. Purchased in reasonable numbers they have been in service for over thirty years and seem likely to be in use for some time to come. It is interesting to note that the CF-18 was procured from 1982 to 1988, at a total capital cost of $4 billion, or $8.9 billion in 2011 dollars

It would appear that a purchase of F-35s would run counter to everything we have learned in sixty five years of jet fighter operation. They are not a true general purpose aircraft, being optimized for strike duties. They are not affordable in sufficient numbers as roughly the same amount that we paid for 138 CF-18’s will buy barely 65 F-35’s.  They are not an off-the–shelf design and the consortium building the aircraft is not in a position to guarantee any manufacturing offsets.

If there is anything to be learned from our experience of the past, it is that if we go ahead with the acquisition of 65 F-35s we will almost certainly end up having to buy other aerial platforms, piloted or un-piloted, which are capable of delivering the kind of effects we need and which we will find we lack.

de Havilland
531 mph
855 kmh
11,970 lb 5,430 kg
32O Mi/
515 Km
F-86 Sabre
606 mph 975 kmh
14,613lbs 6,634 kg
330 Mi/
530 Km
Avro Canada
CF-100 Canuck
552 mph 888 kmh
33,000lbs 14,969kg
650 Mi/
McDonnell F2H-3 Banshee
580 mph  933 kmh
20,555lb, 9,324kg
625 Mi/
CF-104 Starfighter
1,450mph 2,334kmh
28,779lbs 13,510kg
420 Mi/
675 Km
CF-101 Voodoo
1,134mph, 1,825kmh
39,900lbs 18,097kg
690 Mi/
66 x 2
Canadair CF-5
Freedom Fighter
978 mph 1,575 kmh
15 745lbs
200 Mi/
321 Km
CF-18 Hornet
1,127mph, 1,814kmh
400 Mi/
645 Km