last time the government of Canada went shopping for new fighter
aircraft, three decades ago, it conducted a careful evaluation of a
half-dozen different aircraft from a competing plane builders.
Eventually, the choice was narrowed to two candidates, both from the
United States---the F-16 Fighting Falcon by General Dynamics, and the
F-18 Hornet by Northrop (now Boeing).
After much deliberation, the
Hornet was chosen and Canada bought 138, christening them the CF-18.
A primary reason was reliability and safety. The CF-18 was to replace
both the CF-101 Voodoo, a twin-engine all-weather interceptor used
for patrol and protection of Canada, and the CF-104 Starfighter, a
single-engine ground-attack, reconnaissance and interceptor aircraft,
based in Europe with Canada's NATO squadrons.
the Voodoo, the Hornet had two engines while the Fighting Falcon had
only one. The decision-makers 30 years ago realized that a single
engine was a distinct liability for long-distance patrols across the
Canadian North and along long coastlines. If the engine failed---and
engines do fail---how would the pilot get back?
Experience with the
single-engine CF-104 Starfighter drove the safety point home.
Although the Starfighter had performed adequately under training
conditions in Arizona, the weather in Northern Europe was a different
story. The plane had a nasty habit of falling out of the sky and into
forests and mountains.
The German Luftwaffe, which also
flew the Starfighter, called it the "Witwenmacher"---which
translates as "Widowmaker," as it became known among the
Canadian Forces. Over the years, the Luftwaffe lost 30 percent of its
F-104s in accidents. The attrition rate in the Canadian Forces was
nearly 50 percent---accidents claimed no fewer than 110 of the 238
Starfighters. Thirty-eight Canadian airmen lost their lives.
The decision to opt for two
engines when the time came to replace the Starfighters and Voodoos
seemed like a no-brainer. Since the twin-engine CF-18 came into
service in 1982, it has proved to be reliable. Although some aircraft
have inevitably been lost, its safety record sets off no alarm bells.
Yet today Ottawa is proposing to abandon the caution and concern for
safety that characterized its CF-18 decision 30 years ago. Why?
from Washington is clearly a factor. The Americans want their allies
to participate in its Joint Strike Fighter program, meaning everyone
would buy and fly a version of the same aircraft. A US-made aircraft,
naturally. Washington selected the single-engine F-35, built by
Lockheed, the same people who built the star-crossed Starfighter.
Among the competing aircraft it
passed over was Boeing's Super Hornet, the newest---and
of Canada's CF-18 Hornet. Canada, like the other allies, had no voice
in the decision to go with the F-35. There was no competition for the
contract, no evaluation here of other aircraft, and no bidding on
price. The price is staggering. No one seems to know for sure, but it
looks at least $20 billion for 65 aircraft. (This compares to $2.4
billion for twice as many CF-18s, admittedly three decades ago.)
That $20 billion is a huge
commitment to make without a debate in Parliament, without
examination by a parliamentary committee---and without, in fact, any
considered explanation to the Canadian public as to why the country
needs this particular plane at this immense cost. Defence Minister
Peter MacKay brushed off the safety issue when he was asked last
summer what would happen if the F-35's single engine failed on patrol
in the Far North. "It won't," he replied.
His confidence is unnerving.
Here's a comment from a former Conservative cabinet minister who
knows the North extremely well: "Single engine? In the Arctic? I
wouldn't put my worst enemy in one!" Yet the Harper government,
trying to please the Americans, is proposing to do just that. But
it's not a worst enemy who will be flying the plane. It's Canadian
aviators who will be put in harm's way by their own government. (X)
resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and
managing editor of the
Globe and Mail,
teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the
University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at