It has been a little over a year since the Conservatives put their plan to buy 65 Lockheed Martin F-35s on hold, and almost two years since the auditor general accused National Defence and Public Works of misrepresenting the price of the stealth fighters. The ongoing debate over whether Canada should buy the F-35 stealth fighter will soon be renewed as defence officials will be finishing a review of the stealth fighter and its competitors in the near future.
One of the things that make this a difficult decision is that there are a number of viable options. The purchase of a fleet of Fighters is as much a strategic as a technical calculation. The amount of money being spent and the long term consequences for military, industry and foreign policy means that the purchase must be considered from a wide variety of viewpoints.
Dassault Aviation, as it is now known, originally made its’ name selling light, comparatively inexpensive, jet fighters. Their first, and perhaps greatest, success was with the Mirage III and Mirage V line of fighters. This was followed by the Mirage F1, an air-superiority fighter and attack aircraft, designed and built as a successor to the Mirage III family. The F1 was followed in turn by the Mirage 2000, which reverted to the classic delta winged shape of the Mirage III.
Each of these aircraft was larger and more complex then its predecessor, but all could still be considered ‘light’ and relatively simple fighters. To put it in context, the Mirage 2000 was widely seen as a direct competitor to the F-16. However, Dassault wanted to develop a heavier, more complex aircraft. The resulting Mirage 4000 was noticeably larger and heavier than the single-engined Mirage 2000.
Financed as a private venture by Dassault, the Mirage 4000 was comparable in size to the United States F-15 Eagle, and was designed to be both a long-range interceptor and a capable fighter-bomber. Dassault ended the program shortly after the Saudis chose the F-15 as their preferred aircraft. The French Air Force preferred to concentrate on the Mirage 2000, leaving Dassault with no customers. In the end, though, some of the expertise gained would influence the development of the Rafale.
The Rafale on offer these days is in fact much more of a middle weight, more sophisticated aircraft, an F-18 class jet, then its simpler and lighter Dassault predecessors. Perhaps because of this, Dassault has not enjoyed the sales success with this offering that they have had in the past with earlier generation aircraft. In Canada Rafale was dismissed, by some, as a CF-18 replacement because of concerns about the aircraft’s ability to operate alongside our US allies; in fact the jet flew seamlessly with U.S. and other fighters during the 2011 Libya bombing campaign. As the manufacturer points out, “It has been proven in war”.
Dassault Aviation is now offering lower long-term support costs if its Rafale fighter is chosen as the new air force jet. The offer includes the unrestricted transfer of technology, such as software source codes for servicing the planes. That could shave hundreds of millions of dollars off the life-time price tag to operate and upgrade the fighter, which is already in service with the French air force and was recently selected by India.
It is said that a transfer of technology would allow Canada more flexibility to service the aircraft without involving the French parent company. It might be a boon to domestic aerospace firms, especially those that are already making parts for the Rafale fighter. In sharp contrast the issue of how much technology the U.S. is willing to share with its allies has become a major sticking point and a barrier to the participation of other countries. Washington has not helped matters by refusing to share the jet’s software source codes.
If the purchase of a fleet of Fighters is as much a strategic as a technical calculation then Dassault Aviations' success surely illustrates the effect of the mutually beneficial relationships between the company, the Armée de l'Air and the national government. The ability to independently develop and field advanced war planes is important to French military, industrial and foreign policy.
In Canada, as in all nations, strategy is linked to interests, which change slowly, if at all. One illustration of this is the similarity between the calculations made by military professionals in the past and their modern equivalents.
In 1935, the Chief of the General Staff (Major-General Andrew McNaughton) noted that the need for a large Militia had been mitigated by the Washington Conference, an agreement marking parity between the U.S. Navy and Royal Navy. By making American naval supremacy in North American coastal waters possible, it was no longer practicable to rely on reinforcement of Canadian land forces by sea in a theoretical war with the U.S. Without such reinforcement, McNaughton concluded that "war for Canada could only be unfortunate" and thus considered such a war unlikely, in light of political developments. With no need for a military based on maximum available manpower what was needed was an organization capable of providing for aid to the civil power in peacetime, of use for home defence and for maintenance of Canadian neutrality should the U.S. become involved in a war in which Canada did not participate, as well as an expeditionary force to support other members of the British Empire or implement a decision of the Council of the League of Nations..
With only a few changes, substituting U.S. for British Empire and United Nations for League of Nations, this conclusion still informs much of Canadian military strategy.
The F-35 was designed as a coalition aircraft, an F-16 replacement, which had become the fighter of choice for the western world. Part of the motivation behind the governments’ original choice of the F-35 was that as coalition aircraft it promised to fulfill Canada’s need to support other members of the Western Alliance and take part in U.N. sanctioned actions. It is not, however, the only aircraft that can meet these requirements.
It is not necessary to purchased US built aircraft to remain an ally of the United States. Purchasing the Rafale would not necessarily distance Canada from the mainstream. As well as having an aircraft perfectly capable of integrating with other western fighters, we would have a fighter used by two of our other important allies, France and India.
Nations, it has been said, do not have friends, they have interests. Friends may change, interests are less likely to. Canada’s interests do not necessarily reside in expending the necessary capital, both monetary and political, to maintain a completely independent fighter capability. Canada does have an interest, however, in maintaining and managing its alliances. A degree of autonomy in military affairs is necessary to do this. Having greater national control over our fighter fleet, which the unrestricted transfer of technology promised by Dassault would bring, increases national autonomy and therefore increases our ability to manage our foreign and military policies.
It is also in Canada’s interest to have an industrial policy which brings the maximum benefits to the greatest number of Canadians and the government has said that it seeks to align military, industrial and domestic strategies with the use of its procurement policies. In many ways a Rafale purchase would appear to meet all of these goals more efficiently then any other aircraft.
While Canadian Defence Matters advocates a split purchase of different aircraft to fulfill the different roles the RCAF is tasked to perform, it can not be denied that the Dassault Rafale is a true multi-purpose fighter and a purchase of these aircraft to fulfill all roles would follow the philosophy which motivated the original CF-18 procurement.
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