It should be Sweden’s J-39 Gripen
So if you’re reading this there’s a good chance you read my book, Take Whiteman. Take Whiteman is fiction of course, but there are real world events that I like to offer my two cents on. Defence matters is one of those topics. And what fighter jet Canada is going to select in the coming months is perhaps the biggest defence policy issue in Canada right now.
So to give my readers some unsolicited thoughts on Canada’s jet fighter and in an effort give you a sense of my writing/analytical chops beyond my creative writing efforts, here’s an essay on why Canada should be choosing the J-39 Gripen from Sweden.
At present, there are only two fighter jets that remain in the competition for Canada’s new fighter aircraft. Until recently, it was three and these included:
- Lockheed Martin’s F-35
- MacDonald Douglas’ F/A 18, Block III Super Hornet; and
- Saab’s JAS 39 Gripen
The following Politico article does a nice job of laying out the considerations for each platform, so I won’t go through rehashing this reporter’s fine work.
If you read my book Take Whiteman, you’ll know that I forecasted that the Royal Canadian Air Force would be flying the Super Hornet. Turns out, I got this wrong.
Nevertheless, let me take the opportunity of this post to make an argument for one of the other two entries in Canada’s jet fighter competition and that’s the Gripen.
Now, before I make my pitch, we need to put on the table the fact that I have no technical expertise on modern fighter jets and that I’m not a pilot myself. That said, I am a keen student on Canadian politics, I think I have an above-average understanding of Canada’s military/strategic situation, and I’ve done a fair bit of research on the fighter planes that Canada is considering.
So in offering these caveats, here are my thoughts on the Gripen and why I think it’s the right choice for Canada. I’ve broken down my thoughts into the following sections:
2) We won’t fight wars by ourselves
4) Credibility with our allies
5) Economic benefits
6) Canada’s independence
Let’s be clear. Canada will never, ever spend what it should on its military. Even in a World War III type situation, I can’t see Canada spending more than 2 percent of its GDP on its military. It pains me to write this but it’s just not in the country’s DNA.
When you look at what it will cost to purchase and then fly the F-35, the front runner to the ongoing competition, you are looking at too much money. The purchase of 88 F-35s will run between $15-19 billion but the estimated life-time cost of the platform will be far above this. The internet is littered with articles on the expense of the F-35. No matter how you cut it, it’s one very expensive machine.
In the past year, the Government Accountability Office in the US, an arms-length watch-dog outfit, indicated that the operational cost of the F-35 far exceeds the original estimates of the US Air Force and would cost that arm of American military an extra $7 billion per year over what they had expected to pay.
Regarding affordability, Canada only has so many defence dollars. No matter how you do the math, the F-35 is going to eat up a huge amount of DND’s budget. Some reports suggest the Super Hornet or the Gripen could be 50 percent less expensive to fund over the course of their operational lifetimes.
If the Canadian Armed Forces (the CAF) was just going to be an air force then I would put forward that the F-35 is the right choice, but in my view, Canada is best served by having a well-rounded military where all three of its fighting arms are well equipped. Unless Canada wants to increase its defence spending by some measure, the purchase of the F-35 is likely to be at the expense of other platforms in each of the Royal Canadian Navy and the Army.
We won’t fight wars by ourselves
In learning about the competition to replace Canada’s legacy Hornets, one of the arguments you’ll hear is that Canada needs to buy the best fighter jet because when it goes to war, it will be fighting the best jets Canada’s enemies have to offer. This may be true, but there are several other truths to be considered:
- There is no situation where Canada would fight a war on its own. If we go to war, it will be beside key allies such as the US or the UK. These allies will be flying the F-35 and other high-end fighters. Whatever planes we have will contribute to the fight in a meaningful way. If the US, UK, Australia and other countries want to shell out the big bucks to purchase the F-35, they are free to. The bottom line is that Canada has never been a tier-one fighting nation, so we’ll be forgiven if we’re not flying a 5th gen fighter aircraft when and if we get into a shooting war. We will fight with the planes that we have and we’ll be respected for it.
- Is Sweden a non-entity? Is anyone suggesting that the Swedish Air Force is incapable or that it isn’t capable of fighting with its allies in the defence of its territory? No one is suggesting this. Sweden’s very capable air force would most certainly hold its own against the Russians until other countries joined the fray. How is this scenario any different than what would happen in Canada if Canada was to chose the Gripen or the Super Hornet? The answer is that it is no difference. Were Canada to mix it up with the Russians (or anyone else), we need to hold our own only so long as it takes our allies enter the fray.
I listened to an excellent podcast featuring retired RCAF Lieutenant Colonel and test pilot Billie Flynn and it ends with the colonel making a solid pitch for Canada to buy the F-35. (As an aside, if you’re reading this post, it means you’re interested in this topic and you should do yourself a favour and listen to this podcast – Flynn is a GD legend).
He makes two points worth repeating: 1) that when a multi-national war breaks out, those nations who don’t have the higher-end machines, sit at the back of the room; and 2) that in simulated future conflicts that break out between Canada and other nations that have 5th gen fighters (namely the Russians), Canada gets its ass handed to it if it’s not flying the F-35.
These are two important points, so let’s address them.
Regarding the point of becoming a second-class contributor to any future multi-national war, I have news for everyone. With the exception of 1943 to 1945, this has always been Canada’s fate. In my living memory, I can think of several situations where Canada’s air force was not up to snuff and received secondary responsibilities. In the Gulf War in 1990, Canada had failed to modernize its CF-18s and at the time, there was lots of hand wringing about what type of contribution we could make.
The fact of the matter is that when you only have 88 planes, the most you could send to anyone conflict is 18 or so. Will this number make a difference in a multi-nation conflict? Perhaps, but only a small one. Yes, we need to be part of the action and make a genuine effort, but let’s not overstate our importance to any particular future conflict. If we’re flying the Gripen, we would be able to make an immediate and respected contribution to any conflict, and while we wouldn’t be at the front of the room when missions are being divvied out, we wouldn’t be at the back either. The Gripen is highly capable platform.
Regarding Flynn’s second point and our ability to defend our own air space. According to Flynn, if Canada doesn’t buy the F-35 it will leave this huge undefended gap across the artic that the Russians can exploit in order to get to the continental United States and this is something that Canadian and American politicians should be concerned about.
There are few rebuttals to this key point. Setting aside the doomsday scenario where the United States is unable or unwilling to defend North America, it was always going to be the case that the US would assist Canada in defending its air space. While it may be true that the Super Hornet or the Gripen would fare poorly against whatever high-end fighters the Russians send over the top of the world, it was always going to be the case that the US would help Canada, and Canada not having F-35s wouldn’t make this less or more likely.
But aren’t we giving up Canadian sovereignty by relying on the US Air Force to defend our northern reaches? Isn’t there a risk that the Americans will pre-emptively stage their fighters on Canadian soil to address any strategic gap they see in our defences?
Folks, I have news for you. We have already ceded sovereignty in the artic with the limited submarine force that we have. The Americans, Russians, and perhaps even the Chinese are operating in our territorial waters with impunity. This being the case, if things come to a boil with the Russians, what does it matter if the Americans slide over a squadron of interceptors from Alaska into Canada? It doesn’t matter because this was inevitable.
Credibility with our allies
I’ve touched on this point several times already, but it’s a key point. Here’s the deal folks. While operating a platform such as the F-35 is going to contribute points to our international rep, it is not the end-all and be-all toward building up a credible reputation with your allies. F-35s by themselves will not fix Canada’s lagging credibility. Not by a long shot.
Successive Canadian governments have created this credibility gap and it’s going to take successive serious governments to fix it. Just as your own personal credibility is made up by many factors, Canada’s credibility with its allies is made up of a range of considerations.
A whole other post (or several) could be dedicated to this topic, but for the sake of brevity, let me make this quick point. Spending boatloads of national treasure on the F-35 at the expense of other priorities (e.g., subs) that will contribute as much or more to Canada’s credibility with its allies, will make the next thirty years as frustrating as the past thirty for those of us who want Canada to be a respected middle power.
This is an important consideration, but I’m not going to say much about it because at the end of the day, I think it’s a wash. All three of the companies that are competing to provide Canada’s next fighter jet have indicated that there will be significant economic payoffs for the country. But rather than try to analyze these numbers, let me just suggest that in an economy as large as Canada’s whatever economic benefits are to be gained will be modest in the grand scheme.
In my mind, “cost per plane” and “can the plane do what we need it to do” are the most important factors when selecting our next fighter jet. Economic benefits are just something that comes along for the ride.
Having said that, let me just point out how crafty it was for Saab to commit to building assembly/manufacturing facilities in Quebec.
Now for my last point. It’s an important one and it can be summed up as follows: We are not the 51st state of the US and if we want to purchase a fighter plane that is particular to our nation’s unique strategic interests, then that’s what we should do.
To help colour this statement, let me throw out the following questions?
- If by buying the F-35 is Canada further intertwining itself into the American military-industrial complex?
- If by buying the F-35 is Canada more likely to be pulled into some American-led conflict where through reasons of seamless interoperability we’re more likely to get involved?
- If by buying the F-35, Canada is not in a position to purchase other military platforms, are we limiting ourselves to make contributions to a more diverse range of military and diplomatic situations in the future? Put another way – if Canada buys the F-35, will it be able to afford other necessary and expensive platforms like subs?
As I mentioned above, Sweden is seen by many across the world as a serious country. For many years, Sweden has implemented a variety of independent and respected domestic and foreign policy decisions. Its approach to addressing COVID-19 is but the most recent example of such independent thinking. Among many other policies, the presence of the Saab J-39 Gripen contributes directly to Sweden’s independence. Sweden is independent of Europe, just as Canada should and must be independent of the United States.
Now let me be clear. I love the US. It has many, many good qualities. But the United States is not Canada, and despite all of the rhetoric that we’re the closest of friends and that we share the world’s longest undefended border, we are not that close when it comes to defence and foreign policy. The United States has and always will follow its own course when it comes to these issues. Canada will always be an afterthought.
Over the next twenty-five years, Canada must chart its own path. While working closely with our American friends, we must look to make important decisions that separate us from our neighbours to the south and that tell the world Canada is its own entity. The very capable and relatively affordable J-39 would be an important and respected decision in that direction.
Links and other info
If you stuck with me this far, here are a few links that I found interesting/helpful to my thinking on this topic:
Fighter Pilot Podcast – Interview with a Swedish Pilot who flew the Gripen: https://open.spotify.com/episode/6zuSGsgoCCxQZAB3A5B9hO
Detailed/interesting articles on the Super Hornet: https://www.wearethemighty.com/mighty-tactical/first-block-iii-super-hornets/
Some guy writing about how Canada shouldn’t buy fighter jets. I’m not sure how this gets published in a paper that claims to be a serious news outlet, but here you go: https://nationalpost.com/news/politics/canada-spends-another-us71m-on-f-35-amid-calls-to-cancel-fighter-jet-purchase-2
Thanks for reading. Comments, thoughts? Leave a comment or write to me at: email@example.com
Ryan Flannagan (of R.A. Flannagan Writing)
The R.A. Flannagan Writing blog is written by R.A. Flannagan, the author of Take Whiteman: A CANZUK at War Novel, Book 1.
Ryan’s blog is grab bag but tends to focus on defence-related topics, topical items that set off the curmudgeon in Ryan, and updates on his writing projects. If you’re interested in getting regular updates from R.A. Flannagan Writing, whether for Ryan’s writing or blog posts, please sign up here: https://raflannagan.ca/join-ras-newsletter/
Ryan Flannagan is the author of Take Whiteman, A CANZUK at War novel. Visit Ryan’s website: www.raflannagan.ca to learn more about Ryan and his writing.