Fighter aircraft: Characteristics and roles
“If we lose the war in the air, we lose the war
and we lose it quickly." 
- Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery
What is a fighter?
Fighter aircraft are designed primarily to ensure control of essential airspace and deny opponents the use of that airspace. They are light, manoeuverable, capable of flying for long distances, rapidly deployable, capable of reacting quickly, identifying targets and taking action, if required, against an air, sea or ground target. They are generally the fastest aircraft employed for combat operations.
Fighters are also capable of carrying out aerial reconnaissance and surveillance – again rapidly and across huge distances.
They may be armed with guided and unguided bombs, air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles, and cannons.  They are also built with high structural strength to withstand the tremendous gravitational (“G”) forces they undergo while manoeuvring abruptly during, for example, aerial combat.
Fighters are equipped with systems and sensors that permit missions to be conducted by day or by night and in good or bad weather conditions.
Fundamentally, control of airspace means denying an opponent the use of the airspace, which may culminate in destroying enemy aircraft during air-to-air combat. Fighters are the only aircraft capable of carrying out this task. However, over the years, due to their inherent flexibility, fighters have been increasingly armed with bombs and other air-to-surface armament and used as fighter-bombers. Therefore, many fighters are dual- or multi-role capable and are referred to as fighter-bombers.
The CF-18 Hornet, Canada’s current fighter, is considered a “multi-role” fighter capable of both air-to-air and air-to-surface attacks. The CF-18, which will reach the end of its lifespan by the end of this decade, was our first true multi-role fighter and is currently our only fighter. As such, it is the only aircraft we possess to carry out…
- defensive air missions: denying others access to our airspace, through detecting, identifying, intercepting, and destroying or otherwise making ineffective forces that are attempting to attack or to penetrate our airspace.
- offensive air missions: destroying, degrading or disrupting an opponent’s air power as close to its source as possible.
- close air support missions: supporting and protecting our troops through air action against opponents that are in close proximity to our troops; the action needs to be closely coordinated with the fire and movement of our forces.
- strike missions: attacking an opponent’s key targets from short or long range to destroy or damage them. 
As the First World War opened, aircraft were used for reconnaissance, that is, to provide situational awareness to the commander of army troops. Observers flying in aircraft could see deep behind enemy lines, thereby providing a major tactical advantage. However, aircraft use rapidly evolved as each side sought to deny its enemy the ability to conduct this aerial reconnaissance.
Observer aircraft were fitted with weapons to attack enemy scout planes and to defend themselves, leading to the birth of fighter aircraft; air-to-air combat quickly evolved, becoming the aerial “dog-fights” of history, legend and film. Whoever controlled the airspace above a particular sector could use the area below with greater effectiveness.
By the Second World War, aerial combat formed an important part of military doctrine. For example, the German Luftwaffe sought to establish air superiority over the English Channel in order to protect German landing craft during Operation Sea Lion – the planned invasion of England in late 1940. However, Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force fighters (flown by pilots from the U.K., Canada and several other countries) took to the air daily, holding back the German air forces and denying them control of the airspace during what has gone down in history as the Battle of Britain. Because the Luftwaffe could not establish air superiority over the Channel, Hitler cancelled Operation Sea Lion and the invasion of England was never again considered seriously by the Nazi régime.
By late 1944, Germany had effectively lost control of its skies with disastrous outcomes for their land forces.
Fighters were flown with great effect during the Korean War, fought under the aegis of the United Nations. Twenty-two Canadians, on exchange postings with the U.S. Air Force, were among those who flew fighter aircraft in the conflict.
It was the first true jet fighter conflict, and jet air power set the scene for other aspects of the conflict.
“We achieved absolute air superiority in Korea…. The Chinese said afterwards that they would have gone over us like a steamroller if it hadn’t been for Allied air power.” 
- Squadron Leader Omer Levesque
Since Korea, Canada and our Allies have used fighters to great advantage in many conflicts, including the First Gulf War (action to counter the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991) and Second Gulf War (the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003), the Kosovo campaign, and in Afghanistan.
In 1991 Canada sent 24 CF-18s to Qatar to participate in the American-led Gulf War to thwart the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Coalition forces flew more than 1,000 sorties a day and, as a result of the coalition’s undisputed air supremacy, the ground invasion of Kuwait and elimination of Iraqi forces in Kuwait took only 100 hours – a triumph due largely to the success of the air campaign.
Participation in NATO’s air operation in airspace over Serbia and nearby regions in 1999 (the Kosovo campaign) was one of the most significant offensive combat air campaigns undertaken by the Canadian Forces since the Second World War. Eighteen CF-18s were deployed. The primary objective of the campaign was to compel Serbia to cease military operations that had produced a humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo. Air power alone led to the desired outcome without the need for ground-based intervention.
The mission of the Canadian Forces
The Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces play a key role in defending Canadian sovereignty and keeping Canadians safe and secure. To this end, the Canada First Defence Strategy gives clear direction to the Canadian Forces concerning its three roles: defend Canada, be a strong and reliable partner in the defence of North America, and project leadership abroad by contributing to international peace and security.
The Canadian Forces must therefore be a flexible and multi-role military, capable of responding to a broad range of threats to our security and prosperity. To deliver on this wide range of missions, the Canadian Forces employ multiple capabilities at sea, on land and in the air.
One of the most important capabilities in the air continues to be fighter aircraft.
At home and in North America, Canadian fighters operate through NORAD  to ensure both sovereignty and air defence of the airspace of Canada and the United States. NORAD aircraft are prepared to respond to any potential threat to North America, every hour of every day, and they conduct approximately 200 such precautionary intercepts each year.
Canada is also committed to providing fighter aircraft in support of NATO if required. On a rotational basis, Canada commits its fighters to the NATO Response Force (NRF), a robust and credible high readiness force that can quickly deploy in support of the full spectrum of NATO missions. In the past, our fighters have deployed to contribute vital air power as part of multi-national operations, as they did during the First Gulf War and the Kosovo campaign in the 1990s.
Fighters perform several critical and unique functions that enable the Canadian Forces to defend and control the skies above Canada and elsewhere as required. These functions include the interception and engagement of targets, the capability to oppose a threat and impose our will (essentially air superiority) and deterrence. These are vital in both international (expeditionary) and national (domestic) theatres of operation.
The need for air superiority
Air superiority is ”that degree of dominance of the air battle of one force over another which permits the conduct of operations by the former and its related land, sea and air forces at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force." 
- Canadian Forces Aerospace Doctrine
Fighters have evolved throughout the years, but the basic principle of their use remains the same: ensuring air superiority.
Air superiority wins wars; once a force controls the airspace, the force can operate with impunity – whether that is to conduct other air operations (e.g., airlift, transportation, observation), naval operations, land operations, conduct shipping, build up reserve forces, and so on. We saw this result in all conflicts in the latter part of the 20th century and in the opening years of the 21st.
Control of airspace – air superiority – saves friendly lives, and fighters are the most feasible way to ensure successful military operations. Without air superiority, a force will always be vulnerable to attack by enemy air power and will suffer enormous casualties. That is why modern military powers have fighter aircraft.
The need for deterrence
The use of fighters in war fighting to achieve air superiority is fairly self-evident. However, another key question is “why would we employ fighters within Canada?” when we are not at war inside our borders.
The key role that fighters currently undertake within our borders is deterrence.
“The Art of War teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.” 
- Sun Tzu
The end of the Cold War triggered unique challenges in the world and made for a more complex international security environment.
Since the tragedy of 9/11, many nations have changed and renewed the emphasis with regards to security within their own borders. Although the United States experienced the worst of the attacks committed by the al-Qaeda terrorist network, other nations are vulnerable to similar attacks.
Although relatively isolated geographically, Canada remains at risk to aggression from those who have the capability and will to inflict harm. As an ally, neighbour and trading partner of the United States, as well as a sovereign nation, Canada cannot ignore the potential threats of terrorist, criminal or otherwise malicious activity to herself or to the United States.
Although the threat from state actors has abated since the end of the Cold War, the risk posed by the proliferation of and access to high technology, as well as sales of advanced weapons systems to a wide range of organizations, will create increased risk at home and abroad.
The potential costs of not acting far outweigh the costs of doing what is necessary. Therefore, if a nation or a group of nations decide to fight a threat, they need to have the proper capabilities to carry out and win the fight.
Fighters, by their very nature, possess these capabilities and are a strong deterrence to aggression by terrorist factions or other threats to our citizens and our sovereignty. Fighters send the clear message “this is our airspace”, often simply through presence rather than combat.
“The best defence of the country is fear of the fighter." 
- Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding
The first aspect of deterrence is awareness. A nation must be aware of and alert to what’s going on inside and outside its borders to be able to react. If a nation doesn’t have situational awareness of what is happening nationally and, when necessary, internationally, there is a strong likelihood of surprise – and negative outcomes. Fighters, possessing agility, speed and a wide range of sensors, allow a sovereign nation to extend its awareness to its boundaries or other desired range.
The second aspect of deterrence is the ability to act, that is, the function of integrating manoeuvrability, firepower and information to achieve desired results, against a threat. It also includes the capability of “force projection”, the timely deployment of military forces to provide presence or influence for an operation, wherever and whenever needed.
To act, a nation must, first and foremost, possess the credible tools to thwart an attack and make the risks too high for the attacking force. A nation must have sufficient ability to react to a threat to ensure that those who might consider offensive action will reconsider their choices.
A nation must also establish a suitable degree of readiness, which requires a mix of the right people, with the right training at the right time with the right equipment. Canada’s Air Force focuses very strongly on ensuring all these aspects of readiness are in place.
Finally, a third aspect of deterrence is will – the willingness of a nation to use the resources available to take action against threats. And the will to act must be clearly evident to those who would threaten the nation.
Linked with deterrence is the concept of sovereignty.
"State sovereignty denotes the competence, independence, and legal equality of states…[It] encompass all matters in which each state is permitted by international law to decide and act without intrusions from other sovereign states [including] the choice of political, economic, social, and cultural systems
and the formulation of foreign policy." 
The protection of Canadian sovereignty is the Canadian Forces’ most important mission; our national sovereignty is enhanced by our fighters’ deterrence capability – their ability to acquire, intercept and engage sea, land and air targets outside or within Canadian airspace.
We cannot rely on another nation to protect our sovereignty.
Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Canadian fighter force has been heavily committed to the protection of Canada through NORAD. Immediately following the attacks, armed CF-18s on air sovereignty alert deployed across Canada to protect Canadians from threats that might have originated within Canadian airspace or from offshore, a task that continues to this day.
More recently, fighters were employed to help ensure Canadian security and sovereignty during the 2010 Vancouver Olympic/Paralympic Games and the 2010 G8/G20 Summits.
It’s not uncommon for fighters to intercept trans-oceanic flights that are off track, have lost communication abilities or have been identified as security risks. In some cases, these aircraft are escorted to and required to land at specific locations to reduce the threat of potential terrorist action. And in the North,
CF-18s fly sovereignty missions, clearly signalling Canadian control of our arctic region and occasionally intercepting foreign aircraft approaching our airspace.
Some might ask “why not employ unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or surface-to-air missiles to carry out the air superiority role?”
Manned fighters are the only weapons platform in existence right now that allows a nation to exercise full control of its airspace. In the future, potentially, unmanned technology might mature to the point where this becomes an option. But this won’t be a feasible solution for several decades – at best.
Although UAVs can currently be armed with some air-to-surface capability, they cannot yet replace fighters entirely, especially in the air-to-air role. The technology, research and development of unmanned air combat air vehicles have not sufficiently matured to consider their use in the roles currently undertaken by fighters for at least another generation of manned aircraft. 
For now, UAVs are essentially a single mission platform, easy to attack and remove, and therefore vulnerable in a non-permissive  environment. They still require air superiority (by manned fighters) to operate within the designated airspace or accept that they may be lost in the course of their missions.
Ground-based defences (e.g., surface-to-air missiles) can protect specific sites against enemy aircraft, but they are limited by their single function, their range and their mobility. They simply are not flexible enough for Canada’s vast distances and face mobility limitations for both domestic and international employment. However, when used in conjunction with fighters, they provide a significant deterrent to potential adversaries.
“Canadians live in a world characterized by volatility and unpredictability… [W]e live in an uncertain world, and the security challenges facing Canada are real." 
- Canada First Defence Strategy
The battle space of the future will be global in scope, and we will need to ensure we are interoperable with our Allies in order to counter these global threats. Advanced military technology, including weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, and many of the systems emerging today will proliferate widely among states and also among dangerous non-state actors.
Not only will the use of technology spread globally, it will develop and improve in ways that we may not even be able to predict at this time. The technological advances of this century will build upon the current advances in sensors, stealth (low radar signature) capabilities, precision weapons targeting, networked-enabled operations, satellite communications, more massive, rapid and complete flow of data and more. Taken individually or as a whole, these changing conditions will make any future operating environment complex, dangerous and hard to predict.
Domestically, over the foreseeable future, the Canadian Forces will be expected to exercise Canadian sovereignty and perform a wide range of tasks not readily carried out by any other organization on short notice – such as protecting Canada and performing expeditionary tasks in concert with Allies.
Within this context, fighters “help the military defend the sovereignty of Canadian airspace, remain a strong and reliable partner in the Defence of North America through NORAD, and provide Canada with an effective and modern air capability for international operations”. 
A multi-role fighter capability is thus a fundamental element of the “system of systems” required to meet Canada’s requirements. 
“The only security upon which sound military principles will rely is that you should be master of your own air." 
- Sir Winston Churchill
Recent Canadian fighter missions
On May 15, 2010 Canadian fighter jets intercepted a civilian airliner destined for Vancouver after information was received about a potential threat associated with the aircraft. As a precaution, the NORAD fighters escorted the aircraft until it landed safely in Vancouver.
In November 2007, CF-18s were deployed to Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska to support NORAD operations when the United States Air Force’s F-15 fleet was grounded. During their stay in Alaska, CF-18s intercepted and provided continuous escort to Russian aircraft along the North American Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ).
A CF-18 Hornet from 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alta. intercepted a Russian Tu-95 Bear bomber on Sept. 5, 2007. The Canadian NORAD aircraft visually identified and monitored the Russian aircraft as it passed through the ADIZ in international airspace. The Russian aircraft was taking part in a publicly announced exercise. All aircraft returned to their bases without incident.
NORAD Headquarters launched three pairs of fighters on Sept. 28, 2006 from the Canadian and Alaskan NORAD Regions in response to Russian aircraft that penetrated the ADIZ.
1999 Operation Allied Force – NATO’s air operation in airspace over Kosovo and nearby regions from March 24 to June 10, 1999 (Kosovo campaign): This was one of the most significant offensive combat air campaigns undertaken by the Canadian Forces since the Second World War. The primary objective of Operation Allied Force was to compel Serbia to cease military operations that had produced a humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo. Air power alone led to the desired outcome without the need for ground-based intervention. Canada flew 678 sorties and logged more than 2,600 combat flying hours in the Balkans equating to 10 per cent of all NATO strike missions.
1991 Operation Friction – Canada sent 24 CF-18s to Qatar to participate in the American-led Gulf War to thwart the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. This was the first time since the Korean War that the Canadian military had participated in offensive combat operations. The Coalition flew more than 1,000 sorties a day and, as a result of the Coalition’s undisputed air supremacy, the ground invasion of Kuwait and elimination of Iraqi forces in Kuwait lasted only 100 hours – a triumph due largely to the success of the air campaign.
Response to 9/11
Canadian fighters formed part of the immediate response to the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. The Commander-in-Chief of NORAD directed Canadian air sovereignty assets be available as required following the attacks. In addition, because NORAD is a bi-national command, Canadian Forces fighter aircraft formed an essential part of the NORAD operation in the Canadian NORAD Region.
Two CF-18s and two U.S. F-15s were scrambled to escort a Korean Airlines commercial airplane and its passengers into Whitehorse airport on 9/11 when it failed to respond to air traffic control instructions (it was later determined that the aircraft had experienced numerous technical difficulties during flight).
In addition, on Sept. 12, 2001 NORAD deployed two CF-18 Hornets to positively identify and assist a United States Air Force Learjet on a medical evacuation flight from Anchorage, Alaska to Boeing Field, Washington.
CF-18s were also deployed on continuous 24-hour alert to several Air Force wings across Canada to be prepared for further operations.
Other recent CF-18 operations
The Canadian Forces supported the RCMP in its security efforts for the 2010 G8 and G20 Summits by providing unique military resources and capabilities, including the CF-18 Hornet.
Canadian NORAD fighters provided around the clock support to the 2010 Vancouver Olympic/Paralympic Games, helping to ensure that these special sporting events did not become security events.
Field Marshal the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, “The Role of Science in Warfare”, published in Engineering and Science, p. 22, December 1954, http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/157/1/montgomery.pdf accessed Jan. 18, 2011.
Draft Air Force Strategy, Feb. 2011, and NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions (English and French), NATO Standardization Agency, 2010. www.nato.int/docu/stanag/aap006/aap-6-2010.pdf, accessed Feb. 22, 2011.
Larry Davis “Squadron Leader Omer Levesque: RCAF Ace”, www.sabre-pilots.org/classics/v113omer.htm, accessed Feb. 16, 2011. Canadian Omer Levesque was one of 22 RCAF fighter pilots who flew on exchange with the USAF in Korea. He was the first Commonwealth pilot to shoot down a MiG 15, and earned the title “ace” for his prowess during the Second World War and Korea.
The NORAD Mission: ” The North American Aerospace Defense Command conducts persistent aerospace warning, aerospace control and maritime warning in the defense of North America.” www.norad.mil/about/vision.html accessed Feb. 22, 2011.
- Sun Tzu. The Art of War. Translated by Lionel Giles, 1910. Published by Arcturus Publishing Ltd., London, 2008.
“State Sovereignty”, The International Development Research Centre, http://www.idrc.ca/cp/ev-28492-201-1-DO_TOPIC.html, accessed March 4, 2011.
i.e., a hostile environment. According to the NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions, a permissive environment is one “where level of consent and compliance is high, and the threat of disruption is low”.
Sir Winston Churchill, March 17, 1914, quoted in Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations, www.calameo.com accessed Feb. 18, 2011.