The RCAF and Canadian sovereignty

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News Article / May 18, 2017

From Lieutenant-General Michael J. Hood

In April 2017, at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, the Royal Canadian Air Force held its third Airpower Symposium, attended by Air Force personnel, members of industry and academics. This year’s topic was “Air Power and Sovereignty”, touching on subjects ranging from NORAD, to space, to data sovereignty and security to the philosophical and legal definitions of sovereignty. Here are the commander of the RCAF’s opening remarks.

Welcome officially to the 2017 Royal Canadian Air Force Airpower Symposium.

Also welcome to the Canadian Museum of Nature, an inspired choice of venue for a symposium that will, over the next two days, focus our thoughts on sovereignty.

This building was first created to house a national museum, as some of you may know, and it was intended to mirror the architecture of the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings. Ironically, following a fire in the Parliament Buildings in 1916, Parliament moved into this building.

It conducted its business here for four years from 1916 to 1920. Many laws were enacted in this building, including a very important one that gave women the right to vote, a little over 100 years ago. And it’s really where the Canadian government coordinated most of the Canadian response to the First World War.

There’s a real connection, then, with Canadian history and where you sit today: Canada, Canada’s sovereign history.  I think it is fitting that we are in this location, as we talk about what sovereignty means in the 21st century.  

All of you here are probably well aware of the emphasis I have placed on our need to achieve professional airpower mastery since I took command of the RCAF in 2015.

It is vital that we continue to nurture the conceptual component of airpower as much as the moral and physical components.

And I think we have made great strides with a very active program that includes research lists and reading lists – I’ve delivered my reading list in book form to most wings and units. And I was told yesterday that every Air Force student at the Joint Command and Staff Programme is doing a project from the Air Force research list, which is a positive step for our institution.

We have webinars for those of you who have had the chance to listen in. I do from my desktop from time to time and they are pretty inspiring. Symposia like this – this is the third – as well as new post-graduate studies opportunities and on-line discussion fora. We have made a lot of efforts.

We must keep at it, deliberately stretching our thinking. I cannot overstate the importance of developing a deeper understanding of airpower and the importance that it has for our institution.

This intellectual mindset, coupled with the innovative culture we are developing, is as critical for our success in airpower as is avpol [aviation petroleum, oil, and lubricants].

Our intellectual efforts must match our efforts to flatten our organization when it comes to innovation. Through Vector Checks, our innovation “Flight Deck” at Communitech in Waterloo, that many of you might be hearing about for the first time, and in other ways we must demonstrate and reap the benefits of the reality that “Great Ideas Have No Rank”, so that innovation in our air force propels us forward.

I reiterate our needs for us all to develop our habit of thinking, analyzing, researching, questioning….

And that is why we are here. This is not the kind of airpower symposium where we will drill down into a specific facet of the airpower tactical problems of the day, or ponder the pros and cons of new military capabilities, technologies or concepts.

This instead is a symposium where we will very much take ourselves out of the cockpit and away from the hanger floors.

We will focus our thinking on a subject that is at once both esoteric and of existential importance; abstract, yet central to our role within the armed forces of Canada.

We will spend the next two days considering the issue of sovereignty, and we will do so in a very broad sense. Of course some aspects of this important topic will relate directly to our air force missions and roles, but we will also try to discuss a range of different contexts to better realize our essential position within the sovereignty of this great country.

To help shape our discussions I am pleased to welcome fellow general officers who we will hear from this morning.

This afternoon and tomorrow we will hear from a number of subject matter experts from academia and industry, to whom I express my thanks for their support.

It is of value for you to know that this symposium was preceded by three roundtables – in Calgary at the Canadian School of Public, at Massey College in Toronto, and at l’université de Laval à Québec – where a number of different  connotations of sovereignty were discussed at length..

The outcomes of those discussions have, in part, shaped tomorrow’s agenda. 

Some of you may be wondering why sovereignty and why now?

This year is the 150th anniversary of confederation.

It is also the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge

I was privileged to be there ten days ago. Aircraft from the Vimy Flight, flown by former RCAF pilots plus one of our own pilots from Moose Jaw, flew over the memorial recreating a scene from the 1936 dedication. It’s very important to recognize the role of Canada’s air force at Vimy Ridge.

The importance of airpower in the days before that battle is not well known. The thousands of flights over the front in the days preceding that battle helped map virtually every German position and allowed the artillery barrage that preceded the launch of the attack to move forward. And many Canadian airmen died in or around that area. Billy Bishop had victories over Vimy Ridge.

But it is not well known in our culture that we really did a fantastic job so it is really important that we tie the Air Force, and its importance as a national institution, to the incredible commemoration in Vimy.

2017 is also the 60th anniversary of the creation of NORAD [Editor’s note: the U.S. and Canadian governments announced the NORAD agreement on August 1, 1957, and the headquarters was established in Colorado in September. The Agreement was formalized in May 1958].

The NORAD arrangement is clearly a special one, and one that has served Canada well over the years.  But we should remember that at the time of its formation NORAD raised concerns in Canada that such a construct would equate to the ceding of sovereignty. So that’s contextual to the discussion that we are having right now.

NORAD continues to evolve and we must continue to assess what the sovereignty implications of such changes as may occur could be. 

2017 is thus an anniversary year that brings focus to our history as a sovereign state, and focus to the RCAF’s role in support of our sovereign state’s defence and security. 

We have to learn from our past, understand today’s context, and anticipate the effects of this changing idea of sovereignty– all while we consider the requirements for the Air Force of the future.

We will hear about sovereignty as a concept from our academic colleagues, and they will describe how it has evolved over the years.

Not being as expert as they in the finer points of the Westphalian principle of sovereignty or the writings of Bodin and Hobbes, I will avoid the minefield of sovereignty theory at this point.

Instead, as the commander of the RCAF I want to start the symposium by describing the relationship I think exists between Canadian sovereignty and airpower today using a very simple sovereignty characterisation.

Sovereignty relates to supreme authority domestically, free from interference. With this authority comes the right to exercise power but also the obligation to protect.

Sovereignty relates to independent authority internationally in state-on-state relations.

Let us work with that model and consider what the RCAF delivers for Canadian sovereignty.

Any consideration of domestic affairs, by definition, includes sovereign air and maritime spaces that extend well beyond our land mass.

Our government requires the ability to survey to the outer reaches, to be able to maintain an awareness of activity at the extremities as well as at the heart of our country. 

When necessary, we need to be able to take action to prevent outside interference, to defend and secure our borders, and to enforce law and order.

For the Canadian Government, the RCAF alone possesses the means to reach, surveil and act in every square foot of Canada. And we can do so with an agility and speed that is unmatched.

It’s why the North Warning System and our fighter force are so important.

It’s why we asked for long range fuel tanks on our new F-model Chinooks.

It’s why we continue to expand the operational capability of our air mobility force, particularly the CC-177 Globemaster.

It’s why the Royal Canadian Air Force has the highest percentage of its force on high readiness, among the three services.

And it’s why our operational integration and interoperability with the United States Air Force and NORAD is so important to us.

Our contribution is not, of course, limited to defence operations. We have responsibility for search and rescue throughout Canada and into the adjoining seas and oceans, conveying to the government an ability to provide Canadian citizens with a level of assured security. 

We support fire-fighting and flood relief operations, evidence of the contribution we make to the government’s ability to provide domestic security.    

At times, sovereignty is expressed simply by being present. The ability to project presence is of particular importance in areas where sovereignty is disputed or contested, as is the case in certain parts of the Arctic.  And where permanent presence is not possible, airpower has the agility to demonstrate presence at range, on short notice, and without incurring the costs associated with an enduring land- or sea-based activity.   

Clearly, the Royal Canadian Air Force allows the government to exercise its supreme authority domestically, to fulfill its security obligations to its citizens, and to defend its borders against external interference. And with speed and reach and agility, the RCAF does so more effectively than others can.     

The defence of Canada includes not only national operations but also those carried out as part of the binational NORAD agreement. The defence of North America is inextricably linked with national defence. The enduring success of NORAD is testament to the key role airpower plays in deterring would-be adversaries from carrying out concerted attacks on mainland North America.

More broadly still, we address defence as a NATO partner nation. Through arrangements such as NORAD and NATO, Canada is able to enforce its independent authority internationally.

Some may question if shared defence and security implies the sharing of sovereignty. But Canada enters such agreements of its own free will, influences the terms, and has the option of withdrawing if it chooses to do so. So I do not see these as sharing of sovereignty.

Canada occasionally employs military power internationally beyond the frameworks of NATO, the United Nations, or established coalitions – such as in humanitarian and disaster relief operations. This may also relate to the protection of Canadian citizens overseas, such as non-combatant evacuation operations. Rarely, if ever, would I imagine doing any of these national operations occur without airpower, often as the first response.

Within the sovereignty framework I put forward, airpower is a key enabler. Indeed, I believe it is THE key enabler.

The RCAF allows the government to execute its supreme authority domestically by defending and securing our borders, and by protecting and securing Canadian citizens in case of accidents or disasters. 

We hold the force posture and readiness to project airpower globally, thus allowing Canada to act independently internationally.

While not all actions require military involvement, airpower’s characteristics makes it an attractive option where speed and precision is required.

Furthermore the range of options that the RCAF enables, from non-combatant evacuation operations to humanitarian and disaster relief to combat operations, means that when a military response is required to protect Canada’s vital national interests, airpower will play a role.

And it’s for these reasons that I am on record as saying that the RCAF is the guarantor of Canadian sovereignty. The acid test is not a difficult one. Imagine Canada without an Air Force, and tell me that sovereignty would not be eroded as a direct result.   

Now we must move beyond the simple interpretation of sovereignty that I just presented. We live now in a world that is changing more rapidly than ever before.

What might that mean for the concept of sovereignty?

Are we entering a new sovereignty paradigm?

Think about the airpower and sovereignty in an information age.  

It has been said that “what walls and fences were to security in the 20th century, information flows are to security in the 21st.” Personally I sense that walls, fences and other physical security measures will always be required but the secure passage of information will indeed be a major defence and security challenge into the future.

We must also understand from where information originates and how reliable it is; we must manage our own information as we would any other national resource. Hence the idea of ‘data sovereignty’ must be considered. What is it, how does it relate to cyber security, and what are the implications for the RCAF?    

Think about airpower and sovereignty in both state and non-state conflicts.

Our understanding of extra-territorial sovereignty is based on legal relationships between sovereign states. While state centred threats are a concern, some of our most pressing security challenges today are from non-state actors or from organized trans-national crime. We must ask, therefore, how sovereignty relates to state relations with non-state actors. 

Think about airpower and sovereignty in the context of globalization.

This extends beyond crime and terrorism. Finance, industry, trade and commerce have been globalized for some time. In fact, defence could be considered globalised as well if we consider UN-sponsored coalition operations.

Some would argue though that we are now seeing signs of an adverse reaction to globalization. If recent world events portend a reversal of globalisation – what does that mean for sovereignty? 

In a globalised world we would need to concern ourselves with things like economic sovereignty and industrial sovereignty. Conversely, in a de-globalising world we would need to pay attention to our sovereign rights within a new international order in which traditional nationalistic defence and security threats could be the most pressing.   

Given these factors and more, it is not surprising that there has been much debate recently in academia about what sovereignty may come to mean.

I have not even touched here on other notions such as food sovereignty and energy sovereignty. With responsibilities now for Defence’s space-based capabilities, the RCAF must also concerns itself with sovereignty in space.

In conclusion – though as an opening to this symposium – I suggest that sovereignty is at once both esoteric and of existential importance; abstract, yet central to our role within the armed forces of a civilised country.

Ensuring Canadian sovereignty is, in essence, why the RCAF exists.

It is central to the role we have within the Canadian Armed Forces.

Yet if we dissect the notion of sovereignty a little, we see that as a concept it is complex and nuanced. And as we consider the current and future security environment we must see that it is also fluid.

We must continue to study and understand it to understand ourselves and our airpower mission.    

I am very much looking forward to the next couple of days and I am very glad that all of you were able to take the time to join us here. I am deeply committed to ensuring that we in the RCAF think about these issues.

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