F35s and the Canadian “Military-Technical Condition” (RCAF Journal - SUMMER 2014 - Volume 3, Issue 3 - Point-Counterpoint)


Alternate Formats

F35s and the Canadian “Military-Technical Condition”





By Major J. D. McKillip, MSM*, CD, PhD, with contributions by R. W. H. McKillip, CD, MA


The elemental task of the Canadian Armed Forces is, as it is for the armed forces of all nations, to provide the government with a force of last resort. Such a resort to force against a direct attack cannot be allowed to fail; this means that the military must be able to overmatch any threat to the nation’s existence. This is a straightforward and unambiguous requirement and allows for the structuring of the military forces of many countries on the basis of perceived or anticipated threats. By contrast, the situation with respect to the use—actual or anticipated—of military force internationally is much more complicated and uncertain.

For many in the Canadian defence community as well as for numerous observers and commentators, the contrasting nature of domestic versus international defence requirements represents a conundrum. Generally speaking, it has been more or less accepted that Canadian military forces should be organized, trained and equipped on the basis of the perceived requirements of the collective defence needs of the day. This has been the case for the entirety of Canada’s history and will almost certainly remain so for the foreseeable future. Although Canada went through a transition by which its status changed from organic element of the British Empire to sovereign nation, a process that took some time, the essential fact is that Canada was originally a junior partner in British defence arrangements, those which protected and secured Canada. More recently, and primarily as a result of the reordering of power that resulted from the Second World War, Canada has become an important but still junior partner in United States defence arrangements that, as with previous British arrangements, also protect and secure Canada.

Often the design of military forces available for use as a “force of last resort” domestically has been based logically, some would argue, on the assumption that pretty much any military structure good enough for collective defence would be more than enough for any domestic challenges. The problem with this approach is that it is well-nigh impossible to determine a force structure based on any specific threat criteria. The question of how much military force Canada should have available for commitment to collective defence arrangements is rather like asking the question: How long is a piece of string?

Since Canada can never hope to field a force that can act single-handedly against a major adversary, the question always becomes one of determining how much is enough. Although there have been efforts to tie defence structures to cost benchmarks such as percentage of gross domestic product or percentage of federal government spending, these measures have never proven very useful. As a consequence, the Canadian military has inevitably been limited in scope and scale by the amount of money that successive governments have been willing to allocate to defence generally, and the amount allocated has always been determined by political and financial considerations rather than by military ones. With the widespread acceptance of the argument that any collective defence structures will be more than capable of handling domestic defence needs, Canadian defence procurement, unless diverted by political imperatives such as regional economic development initiatives and industrial offsets, has generally consisted of a struggle between the Navy, Army and Air Force for the most high-end, high-tech and high-priced equipment that any given budget permits.

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This approach is both understandable and wrong-headed. First of all, the notion that Canada needs to organize and equip its military forces on the basis of being able to effectively participate in collective defence missions was long ago debunked. In 1972, Colin Gray, in what is probably the only truly objective strategic analysis of Canadian military requirements ever conducted for the post–Second World War era, properly observed that it was more or less irrelevant what forces Canada had available for collective defence tasks. Since Canadian military forces would inevitably form a significant but still modest part of any real collective defence effort, the importance of those forces would be more political than practical. Since their political importance outweighed their practical value, Canadian military contributions would always be welcomed, regardless of the specific nature of those forces. Rather than trying to build a force structure on the shifting sands of vaguely conceived international defence challenges, Canada should build its forces on the basis of its domestic requirements, understanding that whatever resulted from that process could and would be of value for collective defence. Gray further offered that “the Canadian Armed Forces should only be charged with the performance of tasks that are in themselves believed by Canadians to be necessary. The performance of these tasks should not be defensible solely in terms of the friendliness that they are deemed likely to evoke in allied capitals.”[1]

The other problem with the high-end, high-tech approach is that it is undermined by what I will call here the essential “military-technical condition” that confronts Canada. The great powers may well, and frequently do, challenge each other in efforts to gain and maintain a fighting edge through something akin to a low-level arms race, but this is not something that Canada can do. Major equipment acquisitions by Canada are rare, and the huge expense of the latest weapons systems guarantees that, once Canada purchases something, it will be in use for a long, long time. If a premium is paid for the most up-to-date technology available at any given time, there is great risk, in fact a near inevitability, that money thus spent will have been wasted when the moment of battle approaches. Simply put, Canada will always be in the position of having out-of-date systems simply because the leading nations will always be developing new weapons, new techniques, new tactics and even new technologies that quickly render obsolescent anything that comes before.

If these criticisms and observations are valid, what then is Canada to do with respect to an approach for equipping its military forces? Fortunately, an alternative suggests itself as a result of the near total collapse of anything approaching a consensus on the best way to deal with the not-quite-imminent end of the service life of Canada’s only in-service fighter aircraft, the CF18. In fact, the current impasse presents a rare opportunity to rethink the problem, not only of the CF18, but of equipment acquisitions generally. Unfortunately, most public discussion on the topic revolves around this or that airplane and which one is the best fighter for Canada. The lack of a coherent discussion is also clouded by the apparent willingness of the public to accept the idea that nothing less than the current “state-of-the-art” will do—thus the continued invocation of the near-meaningless concept of fourth, fifth and now even sixth “generation” fighter planes. It is astonishing—at least to this writer—that it was only when the price of a potential F35 fleet approached the $40‑billion mark that the public started to have sticker shock. Even at the original, wildly optimistic estimate of $9 billion, the expenditure of such a colossal amount of money should have given pause.

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If we really want to “reset” this discussion, or any of the equipment-acquisition discussions, the first thing to do is to determine the actual requirements of any weapon or “system” on the basis of filling clearly articulated strategic/tactical considerations. The next thing to do is to design to or purchase to these requirements with an understanding and acceptance that: (1) the thing purchased will be in the inventory for a long time; (2) the technology of the thing will certainly change, probably rapidly and often; (3) thus, the thing will need to be of a design that will permit frequent and rapid updating; and (4) perhaps most importantly, whatever the thing is, it will almost certainly be acceptable as a Canadian contribution to a collective defence initiative more as a result of its representational significance than its operational value.

For virtually every major military platform—from tanks to airplanes to ships—this means that certain characteristics will of necessity be obtained. Generally speaking, the platforms should be big. This will allow them the sheer space to accommodate new weapons, new technologies and new conceptions of employment. The platform should be of solid, sturdy construction. Although this may seem trite, consider the limitations of ships made of aluminum or airplanes made of brittle radar-absorbing panels. And finally, the platform should have plenty of power. Once again, this is to ensure that the demands of any improvement or adaptation can be met.

If we accept that everything we build or buy should be big, sturdy and powerful, we can easily imagine filling requirements based on strategic demands. We can see how this might work by returning to the question of purchasing a new fighter for the Royal Canadian Air Force. There have been many reasons proffered why Canada requires fighter aircraft. Some of these have merit; the ability to contribute meaningfully to coalition operations being perhaps the easiest to defend. Others are less convincing. Though the requirement for air-to-air weapons seems clear enough, the need to engage in single-aircraft combat with a sophisticated enemy—dogfighting—is not well articulated and has a weak foundation in the history of the Canadian use of air power since the Second World War. Some are downright ridiculous; the idea that we need to spend billions of dollars to attract pilot candidates being perhaps the most egregious example.

It has also been suggested that the future in the skies belongs to remotely piloted aircraft, the so-called drones, and that there is really no requirement for crewed aircraft at all. Others have argued that Canada should dispense with fighters completely and that we would be better off building a niche capability that could serve various domestic needs and then be available as Canada’s contribution to any expeditionary operations that we elected to join. An example of this is the idea of purchasing a large fleet of heavy‑lift aircraft which could then be “chartered‑out.”

But if we accept that the single most important task of the Canadian Armed Forces is maintaining our sovereign territory (as has been routinely asserted in numerous defence papers, public policy statements and government declarations), a compelling need remains. Canada needs to have the ability to respond more or less immediately and independently to any intrusion into our territory with an unambiguous demonstration of resolve, a resolve backed up by real force. Given the vastness of the land and the expanses of our waters, the only practical way to do that now, and in the foreseeable future, is through the possession of a fleet of long‑range, high‑speed manned aircraft that are capable of engaging air, ground and marine targets.

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If we accept the arguments regarding technology, money should not be wasted on premium aircraft capabilities and exotic technologies such as stealth that will soon be rendered irrelevant and are not of much use in the Canadian context at the best of times. With money saved by avoiding the premium of buying state‑of‑the‑art aircraft, new weapons can be purchased as they become available. State‑of‑the‑art weapons and sensors can be fitted to existing aircraft, at a fraction of the cost of acquiring new aircraft, as long as the aircraft have sufficient space and power. It is no accident that ancient aircraft such as B‑52s are still flying. Armed with modern weapons such as satellite and laser‑guided bombs and missiles, they are still highly effective platforms. Closer to home, our own venerable CF18s, armed with modern precision weapons, contributed to the recent coalition operations in Libya, garnering nothing but praise—both domestically and internationally.

So, what does this long-range, high-speed, manned and armed aircraft look like? Who knows? While consideration might be given to buying less-costly derivative aircraft that are already in service, aircraft shopping is not the only option. Why not pose the question to the Canadian aircraft industry and find out what they can offer? But whatever the acquisition method we choose, it should not be founded on a vain and costly attempt to be at the leading edge of high-end, high-tech aircraft or be based on impossible to define coalition requirements. The requirements we set for our aircraft and other military equipment should, instead, be based primarily on our fundamental self‑defence needs and our middle-power status. Our needs will be better met and our allies will certainly eagerly accept any contribution Canada draws from the forces we create.


Major James McKillip is an armour officer with considerable overseas experience who is currently employed at the Directorate of History and Heritage in Ottawa. He holds a PhD with specializations in comparative colonial, Aboriginal and military history. Uniquely, he has been awarded two Canadian Meritorious Service Medals (Military Division).[2]

 Bill McKillip is a former naval officer who works in private industry supporting the testing of naval weapons and sensors. He has military and civilian experience in equipment acquisition and holds an MA in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada.


[1]. Colin S. Gray, Canadian Defence Priorities: A Question of Relevance (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin and Company, 1972), 70. (return)

[2]. The asterisk in this article’s byline denotes this double awarding of the MSM. (return)

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By Colonel Kelvin Truss

My thanks to the McKillips for their contribution, in which they raise some interesting points worthy of further consideration. In part, their article deals with the specific question of the F35 as a CF188 replacement. The fighter-replacement debate has been raging for some time now, attracting commentary from a number of contributors—some informed and some less so. The RCAF position has been clear and consistent throughout, and there is little to be gained from using this journal as a forum to compare the merits of one fighter type against another at this stage in the process. The McKillips’ paper, though, goes beyond the question of “which fighter,” and, instead, questions if due consideration has been given to whether a fighter is needed at all, concluding that it has not. Much as I may disagree with some of what has been presented here (and that is the purpose of this section, after all), it would not normally be my position, as Editor-in-Chief, to critique the authors’ logic; however, as this is the first of these “Counterpoint” articles, I will take the liberty of fuelling the fire a little on this occasion.

The authors ask the reader to accept much unsubstantiated rationale, for example, as stated on page 58: “Generally speaking, . . . (major military) platforms should be big.” Aside from this type of leap-of-faith statement, three observations made by the McKillips definitely merit additional consideration, and hopefully, in due course, will spur you to comment.

Firstly, the assertion that Canadian military contributions would always be welcomed, regardless of the specific nature of those forces, does not resonate with my own experience of air operations in which influence, political and military, is achieved by a seat at the targeting table, and a seat at the targeting table is dependent on participation with the right forces, not any forces. One could argue that the only thing worse than not being a member of a coalition established for a worthwhile cause is to be a burdensome member of that coalition, unable to integrate seamlessly with other coalition partners or to accept an appropriate proportion of the task. Given Canada First Defence Strategy aspirations to demonstrate Canadian leadership abroad, tokenism on operations does not seem to be an appropriate approach. I would be interested to hear what others think on this issue.

Secondly, the authors decry “the continued invocation of the near-meaningless concept of fourth, fifth and now even sixth ‘generation’ fighter planes,” [see page 57] and in this they are perhaps right. We could, and some would argue should, stop using the misnomer “fighter” for small, fast, agile platforms that can generate aerospace-control, surface-attack and intelligence-surveillance-and-reconnaissance effects simultaneously, as doing so would make it easier to view any CF188 replacement in holistic capability terms, thus breaking unhelpful mental models of what fighters are for. Lieutenant General David Deptula (Retired), United States Air Force, makes this point in his recent article, “A New Era for Command and Control of Aerospace Operations,” when he states that aircraft such as F22 and F35 are not fighters at all, and that “they are F-, A-, B, E, EA, RC, AWACS 22s and 35s.”[1] Is our (Canadian) apparent fixation with the notion of fighters an unfortunate diversion that is undermining the quality of debate on capability requirements?

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Finally, the authors ask the readers to accept that “money should not be wasted on premium aircraft capabilities and exotic technologies such as stealth that will soon be rendered irrelevant and are not of much use in the Canadian context at the best of times.” [see page 58] Aside from noting that I would want such capabilities to be of use to us in the worst of times, not the best, I struggle with this logic if I extend it beyond the narrow context of CF188 replacement. If it is that we should not invest in stealth because counter-stealth technology will likely be developed, should we dispense with ship camouflage because surveillance capabilities will render current masking techniques ineffective, or cease to armour our tanks because armour-piercing weapons technology will improve to a point where to do so would be pointless? I think not. The point is, perhaps at some point we need to say, “enough technology is enough” and should avoid chasing unaffordable goals driven by an irrational desire to be at the cutting edge for the sake of it. Is that where we are? Are we, from an equipment-capability perspective, institutionally courageous enough to settle for “good enough” when “excellent” is dangled in front of us?

I again thank the McKillips for their valuable contribution and hope they can forgive me for using their article as a catalyst for debate, to which end I have offered what I believe to be some reasonable critique. Key here is that they care enough to have voiced their personal opinion, and I ask you to show equal commitment and take the time to respond to their views or mine.


RCAF―Royal Canadian Air Force

RAF―Royal Air Force

UK―United Kingdom

 Colonel Kelvin Truss was born in Maldon, England, in 1962. He joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1982 as a gunner in the RAF Regiment but was commissioned shortly thereafter and, after flying training, was posted as a first-tour flying instructor. Thereafter, he flew the Tornado F3 as a front-line pilot and instructor until 1993, when he joined the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows. While in the Red Arrows, Colonel Truss was promoted to squadron leader, and he completed his time with the team as the lead solo pilot. During his three years with the Red Arrows, Colonel Truss completed over 300 displays in the United Kingdom (UK) and overseas, including South Africa, Australia, and the Far and Middle East. Colonel Truss returned to the Tornado Force in 1997, first as a flight commander and Deputy Commanding Officer of 5 (Army Cooperation) Squadron and later, in 2004, as Commanding Officer of 111 (Fighter) Squadron. Colonel Truss not only has flown operationally in the Falkland Islands and Iraq but also was a force commander for air defence of the UK. He has over 4000 flying hours on Jet Provosts, Hawks and Tornado F3s.

During his time in the RAF, Colonel Truss held staff appointments in the UK Directorate of Flight Safety as a squadron leader and, after completing Canadian Forces Staff College in 2002, in the Air Resources and Plans Directorate of the UK Ministry of Defence, initially as a wing commander and subsequently as a group captain.

After transferring to the RCAF in 2008, Colonel Truss was posted to the Directorate of Air Strategic Plans during which time he was seconded for one year to the Defence Force Structure Review Team. In 2011, he deployed to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Combined Joint Force Air Component headquarters in support of Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR, where he was responsible for strategy and targeting. Colonel Truss subsequently held the position of Detachment Commander, Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre (Ottawa). Following his promotion and appointment as the Director of Air Readiness and Plans in 2013, he is currently the Commanding Officer, Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre in Trenton.


[1]. David A. Deptula, “A New Era for Command and Control of Aerospace Operations,” Air and Space Power Journal 28, no. 4 (2014); 8, accessed September 10, 2014, http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/digital/pdf/articles/2014-Jul-Aug/SLP-Deptula.pdf. The abbreviations listed in the quotation represent fighter, attack, bomber, electronic warfare, electronic attack, reconnaissance, and airborne warning and control system. (return)

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