Thursday, April 05, 2012

Air defence needs and the F-35


Here's some off-the-cuff completely armchair thinking in response to a comment by Edstock in my last post. Canada, for the first time since the Cold War has a frontier worth serious consideration in defence terms. The map on the left from Global Research captures it.  We're not used to looking at the world this way, but there's a giant sea ringed by states of which are one, some of whom are heavily armed and some of whom have been military adversaries in very recent memory. Under that sea are oil and gas deposits which are growing increasingly more lucrative as other global deposits grow scarce. Climate change is reducing the sea ice to the point where international shipping sees shorter routes between the Atlantic and Pacific ports, and opens up Arctic ports to year round trade.

Where there are economic and energy scarcity concerns, there is conflict potential. Canada's slice of the Arctic pie includes such prizes as the Northwest Passage, and serious oil and gas deposits, and even solid minerals like uranium. The region is sparsely populated with very little transportation infrastructure, and a brutal climate. Air is the way to get around up there quickly. It is an archipelago of large and small rocky, often snow and ice covered islands.   And we're a country with a small armed forces with the bulk of its population thousands of kilometres away that needs to defend it. Add that our militarily powerful ally and neighbour is going insane politically and does not recognise our sovereignty in key parts part of our North, and we might ask ourselves a question or two. 

We can't hope to defend the region in a full-on war because our armed forces are too small. But we can make ourselves prickly enough, like Switzerland, to make a potential enemy reconsider. This not the same as putting fighters on a forward operating base to intercept long-range Russian bombers at 40  or 50 000 feet. These fast jets, be they CF-18s or F-35s, require substantial runway length (and well, runways full stop)and access to maintenance infrastructure to operate for any real length of time. These facilities are few and far between in the North, even less so the further one goes. Long runways are hard to hide and make juicy targets for an adversary. For a sense of how this works, consider that if Libya or Kosovo weren't so close to friendly states with nice paved airbases and airports where we could base the Hornets, they'd not likely have been deployed.

The type of aircraft needed for a small air force supporting a small army trying to defend a vast territory need to be rugged, short and/or vertical take-off (S/VTOL) and landing machines able to transport troops and and deliver munitions with a minimal amount of support. Logistics and attack helicopters, STOL transport planes, and light attack turboprop aircraft come to mind, which are more or less militarised versions of the aircraft that already operate up there. As do items like all those Harriers the UK just retired. For the price of F-35s, we can buy many more of these other machines, which, combined with an army that learns to operate in that geography until it is second nature, creates a robust and very prickly deterrent...

But then to think about purchasing aircraft like that, we need to think about defence planning and equipment like people who have something worth defending, and not in terms of the feasibility of deploying small numbers of our forces to distant parts of the planet because our 'friends' think it's a good idea.  

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