Thursday, October 14, 2010

Who needs fighters when we can buy Bomarc missiles?

Bringing the Avro Arrow into a debate on defense issues is like bringing Neville Chamberlain into a debate on appeasement (but without the Nazi reference). Both are too often used references in such debates.

I’m going to bring the Arrow into this F-35-related post however, but only tangentially. Back when production costs were soaring on the Arrow and the government was under pressure to cancel the program in the late 1950s, there was a group of expert opinion that maintained the era of the manned fighter-interceptor was over. That investing millions in jets was silly when they were already obsolete. And besides, the over the pole bomber threat would disappear with the development of the ICBM

The replacement, in their view? Long-range, often nuclear-tipped, surface-to-air missiles. In Canada’s case specifically, the Bomarc. The Eisenhower government pressured John Diefenbaker to scrap the Arrow and buy Bomarcs instead. And if we still needed some interim fighters, he’d be happy to sell us some US-made Voodoos.

In the end, we cancelled the Arrow and bought the Bomarcs, which had all kinds of performance issues and never lived up to their billing. (And, of course, the nuclear warheads for the Bomarc (and later for our fighter air craft) would be a political issue for many years to come.) We eventually scrapped them about 10 years later.

And, of course, we still bought fighter aircraft. Voodoos, Starfighters, Freedom Fighters, Hornets, and now, possibly, the Lightning. Some 50 years later, the fighter-interceptor isn’t any more obsolete in 2010 than it was supposed to be in 1959.

I bring this all up because I had a sense of déjà vu reading this article today about how, once again, the manned interceptor is about to be obsolete. This time instead of the Bomarc, it’s drones:
The government should cancel plans to spend $9 billion on a new fleet of F-35 fighter jets because they are not necessary, defence policy analyst Steven Staples says in a paper published Thursday.

Staples says the government should extend the life of its current fleet of newly refurbished CF-18 fighters by confining them to domestic surveillance and interception roles and consider replacing many of them in the long run with much cheaper pilotless drones.
This argument doesn’t make any more sense now than it did 50 years ago, and there is actually remarkable similarity in the arguments why relying on missiles was wrong then and why relying on drones is wrong now.

Drones do offer some improvements over missiles. You can’t call a missile back, but you can recall a drone. You can probe and identify with a drone; a missile is purely offensive. But the fact is there’s no substitute for having a highly trained pilot in the cockpit, making split-second decisions based on their in the spot observations. You just can’t replicate that over a drone video connection to a controller with a joystick thousands of miles away.

Drones definitely have their uses. Reconnaissance for sure, and even ground attack in high-risk areas. But I have a hard time picturing air-to-air combat with drones. And when it comes to intercepting, identifying and interrogating unknown threats on our borders, I’d feel more comfortable with a person on the spot, in the seat, evaluating the situation.

There is ample debate to be had on whether the F-35 is the right jet for our needs, or whether a more affordable alternative – the Superhornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Silent Eagle, or others – might be a better fit. That’s one reason we need to have an open competitive process.

But as far as I’m concerned, reports of the death of the manned fighter are as premature today as they were 50 years ago.

Recommend this Post on Progressive Bloggers


CanadianSense said...

I don't ask herbivores to keep me safe. Ask Georgia about those peaceful Russians.

Here is a Russian MIG-29 in Georgia being taken out.

Mark Richard Francis said...

Ask Iraq about those peaceful Americans.

ridenrain said...

About as relivent as the loonty rantings of the Rideau Institute

CanadianSense said...

Mark Francis,

How did the 70's Russian military equipment stand up to the modern American/British made weapons?

You made our point. Jeff agrees Drones won't work.

A left leaning collectivist think tank is cited for information on Defence?

Ignatieff was partially correct in 2005 for slamming the Liberals on the bogus peacekeeping reputation for 40 years. He was correct on how Liberals traded away their capacity to protect human rights for roads, bridges and hospitals.
In fact he praised George Bush and Britain for their military spending.

Mark, Ottawa said...

Related, at Unambiguously Ambidextrous:

"Two reasons we need new fighters"


Altavistagoogle said...

Nobody wants to invade Canada. Stop waisting my money on defence.

Worse case scenerio we can outsource our defence in case of need.