Chapter 2: Canada’s Air Force (B-GA-400-000/FP-000, Canadian Forces Aerospace Doctrine)

Aerospace Doctrine

 The best basis for sound judgement is a knowledge of what has been done in the past, and with what results.

- Air Vice-Marshal J. C. Slessor


A complete understanding of doctrine requires an appreciation of its historical underpinnings. The history of Canada’s Air Force is rooted in the earliest days of military aviation. Shaped by the experiences of two world wars, numerous regional conflicts, and United Nations (UN) operations, the Air Force has unique characteristics based not only on these experiences, but also on Canadian geography, culture, and political heritage. To meet the well-being and security needs of the country, and to keep pace with rapid advances in technology, the Air Force continues to evolve, as does its doctrine, to enable it to operate independently, jointly, or alongside allies and coalition partners. This chapter provides an overview of the evolution of the Canadian Air Force (CAF) and its related doctrine. For those who would like to explore Canadian Air Force history in more detail, a list of references is provided in the footnotes.[1]

The Early Years

Canadian military air power played a significant role in the First World War when Canadian airmen provided both quantity and quality to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), and the Royal Air Force (RAF). For example, although Canada’s population represented less than 10 per cent of the British Empire, approximately 25 per cent of all RAF flying personnel were Canadian. In addition, Canadian pilots like Raymond Collishaw and Billy Bishop were among the greatest aces of the war.[2] Furthermore, Canada became a world leader in aircrew training, producing at least 20 per cent of the aircrew reinforcement needs of the British Empire and providing vital assistance to the US just before it entered the war in April 1917.[3]

While Canadians were prominent in tactical level operations, Canada had few senior officers involved in higher command. In contrast to the Army’s Canadian Expeditionary Force, which became a symbol of Canada’s growing wartime independence, there were few proponents in the Canadian military or government for an independent Canadian air arm. Nevertheless, in the last months of the war, the government felt that the large numbers of Canadians serving overseas in British units merited the formation of a national organization and established a Canadian air force consisting of two squadrons based in England. At the same time a desire to enhance national defence against German submarines operating against Allied shipping off the East Coast of Canada led to the creation of the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service (RCNAS) in Canada. It is from these formations that today’s Air Force is descended, highlighting both a domestic and expeditionary heritage. After the war, these organizations disappeared, but there remained some 13,000 trained aviators in Canada whom some believed could form the basis of an “air militia.”

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In June 1919, an Air Board was created to supervise all air activities in Canada, both military and civilian, and on 18 February 1920, the CAF was reformed as a non-permanent force under the Air Board.[4] On 1 April 1924, the CAF became the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), a permanent force intended to foster commercial applications of the new air technology, a healthy aircraft manufacturing industry, widespread flight training facilities, and an active program of technical research. Based on a national concept of a strong civilian base for air activities, RCAF doctrine emphasized peacetime applications of aviation, especially mapping, forestry patrols, and communications. As a result, early Canadian military pilots were described as “bush pilots in uniform,” and the RCAF remained a small organization consisting of permanent, non-permanent, and reserve elements. By regulation, every licensed pilot in Canada was a member of the Reserve.[5]

While the Department of National Defence (DND) was established in 1922 to take over the responsibilities of the Department of Militia and Defence, the Naval Service, and the Air Board, the RCAF did not have the status of a fully independent military service because its headquarters was a directorate within Militia Headquarters. This was not to change until 1938 when the first Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) was appointed to be a coequal with the Chief of the General Staff and the Chief of the Naval Service on Defence Council. This change occurred just in time for the RCAF to become, in a very short period, one of the largest air forces in the world.

During the Second World War, the RCAF expanded to almost 200 times its peacetime strength, from 1,150 all ranks in 1938 to a wartime peak of 206,350 at the end of 1943.[6] In total, 93,844 RCAF personnel served overseas in both RAF and RCAF formations; the majority were operational aircrew supported by approximately another 35,000 Canadian ground crew.[7] Within Canada, squadrons and formations operating the Home War Establishment engaged German submarines off the East Coast, participated in combined operations against the Japanese in Alaska, and worked with the US to ensure North American security. At its peak in 1943, there were 37 squadrons engaged in home defence duties.[8] Once again, Canada excelled in aircrew training; the more than 100 British Commonwealth Air Training Plan schools in Canada[9] furnished 44 per cent of the 340,000 Commonwealth aircrew trained between 1939 and 1945.[10] Forces were organized functionally into Commands dedicated to the tasks of training, strategic bombing, air defence, transport, tactical support to land forces, and maritime patrol.

The RCAF accumulated considerable domestic and expeditionary experience in all major air power roles during this period. Of the 48 RCAF squadrons overseas by 1944, 16 were in Bomber Command, 18 (including day fighter, fighter-bomber, fighter-reconnaissance, night fighter, intruder, and air observation post) were with the 2nd Tactical Air Force, 5 were Fighter Command, 5 were in Coastal Command, and another was supporting the 8th Army in Northern Italy. There were also 3 RCAF transport squadrons, 1 operating on the Western Front and 2 in Burma. Based upon its experience, the RCAF had written doctrine for offensive and defensive air operations to allow for British-Canadian interoperability, and was little different from the RAF’s. Offensive doctrine guided those forces engaged in tactical air support, antisubmarine warfare, and strategic bombing. Defensive doctrine was written based upon the extensive experience gained by using fighter aircraft in the air defence role.

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The Cold War

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization created in 1949 was the West’s answer to the economic and military threat posed by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to a war-ravaged Europe. In the fall of 1949, the USSR threatened North America directly when it successfully test detonated its first atomic bomb and began building a fleet of strategic bombers to carry this strategic weapon. The cold war had begun.

There were two key developments in the Canadian military during this transition from post-war demobilization to its build-up to meet the USSR threat. First, the three services moved from the traditional peacetime force structure of small permanent forces to act as a nucleus for the mobilization of reserves to one that relied on forces-in-being. Although the RCAF through the early 1950s relied heavily upon its reserve and auxiliary components, the RCAF became an increasingly full-time service. The RCAF Regular Force reached an unprecedented peacetime strength of over 3,000 aircraft in 41 squadrons, with personnel strength of 54,000.[11] The second development that affected the cold war RCAF was the decision of the Canadian government to commit itself to three international organizations: the UN in 1945, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949, and the North American Air Defence Command (NORAD) in 1958. Although it was under a UN banner that Canada went to war in 1950, from an Air Force perspective, it was the RCAF’s commitment to NATO’s Integrated Forces of 12 fighter squadrons based in eastern France and southwest Germany, and several Maritime Patrol squadrons based in eastern Canada that took the most effort. The RCAF also provided 11 Regular Force all-weather air defence squadrons as well as personnel to man the various radar formations— PINETREE, Mid-Canada, and Distant Early Warning (DEW) lines—in support of NORAD.

To deal with this expansion, the RCAF organized itself into six functional commands: Maritime Air Command, Air Defence Command, Training Command, Air Materiel[12] Command, Tactical Air Command, and Air Transport Command. At this point, RCAF doctrine began to diverge from its RAF heritage, as the RCAF began to align its operational procedures, tactics, and communications with its United States Air Force (USAF) partner in NORAD and its other Allies in NATO. At the same time, Air Force support of UN peacekeeping and nationally directed humanitarian assistance grew. In a relatively short period of time, RCAF aircraft and personnel were to be found in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. As practices in Europe were often markedly different from those in North America, given the broad divergence between mission types, there was no overriding RCAF air power doctrine. During this period the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Army had small but effective aviation branches flying fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. Some of these units trained regularly with the RCAF at the Joint Air Training Centre (JATC) at RCAF Station Rivers, Manitoba, based on concepts of joint operations that had been practiced during the Second World War. The JATC was closed with the unification of the Canadian Forces (CF).

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The RCAF ceased to exist on 1 February 1968 as stipulated in the Canadian Forces Reorganization Act passed in 1967. Aside from removing the last vestiges of British heritage with new uniforms and rank nomenclature, the Act had a dramatic effect on the Air Force’s organization. Its assets were distributed among the functional components or commands of the CF: Mobile Command (the army plus ground support aircraft), Maritime Command (the navy plus maritime support aircraft), Air Transport Command, Air Defence Command, and Training Command. Canadian aircraft based in Europe came under Canadian Forces Europe, a geographically based command that included all CF units in Europe. From a doctrinal perspective, the elimination of the RCAF also eliminated the processes and institutions for the development and promulgation of air force doctrine. The Air Force Council, previously the authority for approval of air force doctrine, was dissolved. As well, the RCAF Staff College, a key source of air power concepts and doctrine development, and the central repository for air power theory and doctrine publications, was transformed into a unified CF staff college.

What was referred to as “the Air Element” suffered an identity crisis for the next seven years because with unification, unlike the Army and Navy, which kept their separate identities and command structures in Mobile Command and Maritime Command, air assets were dispersed throughout the CF. Some of these problems were solved with the formation of Air Command in Winnipeg on 2 September 1975. Air Command was given responsibility for all Canadian military air assets (“everything that flies”), including policy and standards for training and flight safety. However, operational control (OPCON) of tactical aviation and maritime air units remained with their respective land and naval force commanders. Air resources were organized into functional groups such as Air Transport Group and Air Defence Group. The groups that served the land and maritime components of the CF, 10 Tactical Air Group (10 TAG), and Maritime Air Group (MAG), continued to function as integral operational formations of their respective commands. At the same time, they responded to Air Command for all other requirements, such as administration, professional training, maintenance, career management, and flight safety.

The Air Force entered the 1980s with a sense of renewal. New equipment, such as the CF18 Hornet, the CP140 Aurora, and modernization of the North Warning System, were all seen as indications of the reinvigoration of Canada’s Air Force under Air Command. However, there was very little accomplished to promulgate air force doctrine. Without a coordinating body, by 1981, air doctrine could be found in 58 different documents.[13] To address the problem, the Commander of Air Command (Comd AIRCOM) convened an Air Doctrine Symposium in 1984, consisting of senior officers from every part of the Command. Among other things, the Symposium’s deliberations led to the formation of the Air Force Doctrine Board, which assumed responsibility for the development of the B-GA-400 series of Aerospace Doctrine Manuals.[14]

However, as the cold war came to an end in 1989, there was a sharp reversal in the Air Force’s fortunes and a subsequent reduction in personnel and equipment. During the later stages of the cold war, few people recognized the need for coherent air force doctrine. Many believed that since the Canadian Air Force was committed to specific roles in NATO and NORAD, the doctrine of those organizations would suffice. But lacking the guidance of Air Force doctrine, National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ) staffs found it difficult to prioritize the numerous projects that comprised the air portion of the capital budget.

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Post-Cold War

By 1994, the government decided to reduce the Canadian Forces from 80,000 to 60,000 Regular Force personnel and to dispose of both equipment and facilities. Along with the other commands, Air Command reduced its level of Regular Force personnel and equipment so that it could fulfil its major assigned roles within a defence budget that had been reduced by one-third. The resulting cuts to staff and equipment saw a major reduction in the number of Air Force personnel and a 50 per cent reduction in aircraft. At the same time, the reductions in Regular Force personnel were offset to a small extent with the increase in the size of the Air Reserve from 1,000 to 3,000 members, or approximately 19 per cent of Air Command’s military strength.

This period also saw the Air Force’s command structure realigned. In the summer of 1997, the functionally based groups (Transport, Fighter, Maritime, Air Reserve, and 10 TAG) were dissolved, and 14 Training Group was absorbed within Air Command Headquarters. 1 Canadian Air Division was stood up in Winnipeg to exercise operational command (OPCOM) of all CF air assets. At the same time, the Commander of Air Command also became the CAS and was relocated to NDHQ with a small staff. Concurrent with the stand-up of 1 Canadian Air Division, the publication of Out of the Sun – Aerospace Doctrine for the Canadian Forces captured the significant restructuring and cultural changes of the 1980s and the 1990s. The 1990s also witnessed the birth of joint CF command and control (C2) structures. This had a major impact on the Air Force, which was assigned an almost exclusively force generation role, except for routine operations. Force employment became the purview of the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (DCDS) organization for all contingency operations.

After the end of the cold war, many expected that the “peace dividend” represented by the cuts to the CF would be permanent in a relatively benign international climate. But the events of that decade were to change the view of almost all regarding the nature of the post-cold war world. Instead of a stable and peaceful international community, the loss of the bipolar balance of power brought forth regional and terrorist unrest and conflict on a global scale. Canada’s involvement in the Gulf War, and in the Balkans and other international operations, especially following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, quickly revealed that the cuts to the Canadian military and the years of consistent reduction to the defence budget had severely constrained the military’s ability to maintain the high operational tempo demanded by government commitments.

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Cuts notwithstanding, all war-fighting and support communities of Canada’s Air Force became heavily engaged in various domestic and overseas crises during the decade and a half following the end of the cold war. Fighter forces, supported by air-to-air refueling (AAR), participated in the First Gulf War and in the air campaign to force Serbia out of Kosovo. Airlift forces provided tactical and strategic support to a myriad of deployed and national operations ranging from humanitarian assistance to flood victims in Manitoba and Quebec, earthquake victims in the Far East and Haiti, peace support operations in the Balkans, Africa, and elsewhere, and to supporting combat operations in Afghanistan. Maritime patrol squadrons provided support to national security operations, including drug interdiction operations in cooperation with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and they participated in both UN and NATO operations in the Middle East and the Adriatic. Ship-borne helicopter crews supported deployed naval operations worldwide. Tactical aviation crews supported UN missions in Southeast Asia, Central America, Haiti, and rescued flood victims nationally. This non-stop operational tempo validated Air Force doctrine at the tactical level, but placed great stress on the Air Force’s ability to sustain lengthy operations that required continual personnel rotations. The heightened operational tempo also left little time to focus on the Air Force as a form of military power or as a separate institution, which included the development of new concepts, the procurement of new equipment and weapon systems, and the positioning of the Air Force for the next conflict. This reality highlighted the need for the Air Force to evolve and focus efforts on strategic and operational-level doctrine to match its tactical counterpart.

Although tactical doctrine has been developed effectively, it has been without clear direction or reference to higher-level air doctrine since May 2004 when Out of the Sun was rescinded without replacement. To serve as the engine of change for Air Force transformation, the CAS authorized the creation of the Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre (CFAWC), which was stood up in October 2005. Among other tasks assigned to the Aerospace Warfare Centre was the publication of a complete series of aerospace doctrine manuals.

The shift to develop a comprehensive suite of Air Force doctrine came at a most apropos time. The acquisition of new equipment, such as the C177 Globemaster, the C130J Hercules, the CH148 Cyclone, the reintroduction of the CH147D Chinook, and the acquisition of unmanned aerial systems (UASs), has underlined the need to examine new methods of employing/sustaining Air Force capabilities. At the same time, the stand up of the Joint Task Force-Afghanistan (JTF–Afg) Air Wing in Kandahar on 6 December 2008 brought a more focused application of Canadian aerospace power in support of coalition expeditionary operations. The experience gained in operating medium-to heavy-lift helicopters, fixed wing transport aircraft, and UASs in combat as part of a composite wing will be incorporated into doctrine at all levels.


Throughout its proud history, Canada’s Air Force has taken many forms, from a niche air force as “bush pilots in uniform,” to one of the largest air forces contributing to the Allied coalition during the Second World War, to the highly professional, combat capable, multi-purpose air force of today. Canadian Air Force doctrine has always been congruent with that of its principal allies, and this congruence is reflected in this manual. Since a strategic goal of the CF today is to achieve seamless operational integration at short notice with our allies, and particularly with US forces, it is likely that this congruence will continue for the foreseeable future. However, congruent doctrine does not mean identical doctrine. Canada’s unique geography, history, and culture have shaped its military into a unique force; and, therefore, Canada’s Air Force requires doctrine that, while interoperable with our allies, reflects the distinct nature of Canadian aerospace power.   

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1. The following books are also recommended for those who would like to explore Canadian Air Force history more deeply: W. A. B. Douglas, The Creation of a National Air Force: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, vol. 2 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986); Brereton Greenhous, et al., The Crucible of War 1939–1945: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, vol. 3 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994).  (return)

2. “The Aerodrome.” Available online at October 28, 2010). (return)

3. Hiram Bingham, An Explorer in the Air Service (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1920), 11–22. (return)

4. Leslie Roberts, There Shall Be Wings (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Co. Ltd, 1959), 33. (return)

5. Douglas, 47. (return)

6. Douglas, 138. (return)

7. C. P. Stacey, Arms, Men and Governments: The War Policies of Canada, 1939–1945 (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1970), 48. (return)

8. S. Kostenuk and J. Griffin, RCAF Squadrons and Aircraft, (Toronto: AM Hakkert, Ltd, 1977), 20. (return)

9. Douglas, 226–67. (return)

10. John Terraine, The Right of the Line (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985) 258; Douglas, 247. (return)

11. J. A. Foster, For Love and Glory (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989), 124; Brett Cairns, “Canadian Military Aerospace Power,” (Toronto: Canadian Forces College, nd), 1: 21. (return)

12. “Materiel” is a military term used to cover all supplies, materials and equipment used in operations. See glossary for official definition. (return)

13. Cairns, 2: 59–60. (return)

14. Cairns, 2: 60. (return)

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