Would Canadian F-35 warplanes be a “strategic mismatch” to defend “our northern skies”?

Published by Brent Patterson on

Share This Page

Photo: A CF-18 fighter jet at the 3 Wing forward operating location in Iqaluit, Nunavut.

The “Canadian Arctic” covers 40 per cent of Canada’s territory and is home to more than 200,000 people, more than half of whom are Indigenous. The Arctic Circle, at 66° 33′ latitude, includes the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Canadian fighter jets are based at 3 Wing (Bagotville, Quebec) that includes a forward operating location in Iqaluit, Nunavut, and at 4 Wing (Cold Lake, Alberta) with forward operating locations in Inuvik and Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

Late last year, Canada’s top military commander, General Wayne Eyre, warned a parliamentary committee that Canada’s hold on the Arctic is “tenuous”.

Eyre commented: “Right now, today, we don’t see a clear and present threat to our sovereignty, not today, not this week, not next week, not next year. However, in the decades to come, that threat, that tenuous hold that we have on our sovereignty, at the extremities of this nation, is going to come under increasing challenge.”

Eyre’s framing of the Arctic obscures “the violent history of expropriation” of Indigenous lands and lacks a decolonial approach to sovereignty. As Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders has bluntly written: “The Far North is, in short, our colony.”

Eyre’s framing could perhaps though be seen to confirm that climate change is a factor in military interest in the Arctic as shipping lanes open and resource extraction is set to intensify there. The Arctic, after all, holds an estimated 90 billion barrels of crude oil as well as rare earth minerals deemed critical by the Canadian government.

Can the F-35 defend Canada’s Arctic region?

CBC reporter Murray Brewster reports: “During his visit to Canada’s Far North last summer, Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, remarked that the shortest route for Russia to attack North America is through the Arctic. Canadian officials have stated repeatedly that the planned purchase of F-35 stealth fighters and the introduction of modern over-the-horizon (OTH) radar will go a long way toward easing that fear.”

But is the F-35 the best choice for the defence of the “Canadian Arctic”?

Back in October 2011, the Arctic Institute reported: “Canada’s future multibillion-dollar stealth fighter may be ill-equipped to communicate from the country’s Arctic region. The F-35’s radio and satellite equipment may not be suitable to provide reliable communication uplinks in the northern latitudes of the country.”

In April 2012, the National Post further reported: “Retired colonel Paul Maillet, an aerospace engineer and former CF-18 fleet manager, said the F-35 does not meet the needs of the government’s Canada First Defence Strategy, a key pillar of which is Arctic sovereignty.” Maillet described the F-35 a “serious strategic mismatch” for Canada’s needs.

In One Dead Pilot: Single-Engine F-35 a Bad Choice for Canada’s Arctic (published in June 2014), Michael Byers argues: “The F-35 has only one engine. This fact alone renders it problematic for use in Canada’s Arctic and extensive maritime zones.”

Byers concludes his report by quoting a former CF-18 pilot who said: “A single engine is stupid. There’s no backup. If it fails, you’re dead.”

Then in an article titled The F-35 And The Arctic: Does It Fit The RCAF’s Needs? (NATO Association of Canada, 2014), Christopher Cowan notes: “Its short range (only 2,200km), poor maneuverability, and low payload capacity (i.e., the number of weapons it can hold) would hinder its ability to intercept aircraft in the vast Arctic region.”

And in November 2018, Radio Canada International reported: “Lt.-Col. Stale Nymoen, commander of the 332 Squadron of the Royal Norwegian Air Force and one of the first Norwegian pilots to learn to fly the F-35s [said] operating and flying them in Norway with its harsh North Atlantic and Arctic climate is a whole new experience.”

The F-35 in the Arctic

That said, Air & Space Forces magazine has highlighted Canada’s new fleet of F-35s would join Norway, Finland, Denmark and the United States as “Arctic nations that either operate or have agreed to buy F-35s.”

But experience with F-35s in the Arctic is not deep.

By the spring of 2022, 54 US Air Force F-35s were to be stationed in Alaska. (Defense News has previously reported: “Amid the cold winds and snow, a ghost is haunting F-35 jets in the far north, and it’s causing pilots to divert flights and land immediately.”)

As of January 2022, 24 of Norway’s 52 new F-35 have arrived in Norway. It is expected that by 2025 all the new planes will be in service.

The first of Finland’s F-35s will arrive in 2026 and all 64 will be in operation by 2030.

Denmark will welcome the first F-35A on its soil in 2023.

While this is far from an exhaustive research review, it does suggest that there are reasons to question the choice of the F-35 for the Arctic and that the F-35 does not have a real track record yet of use in Arctic conditions.

In November 2016, the Government of Canada began its announcement that it would be buying new fighter jets with the line: “A modern fighter jet fleet is essential for defending Canada and Canadian sovereignty – especially in our northern skies.”

It appears, however, that beyond the Canadian government’s arguably colonial perspective of Indigenous territory and extractivism, it’s choice of the F-35 “stealth fighter-bomber” to defend “our northern skies” is also questionable.

Photo: Innu land defenders protest at 5 Wing/Canadian Forces Base Goose Bay, Labrador in opposition to NATO simulated bombing runs over Nitassinan.

Share This Page
Categories: News Updates

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *