Welcome to Hindsight 2020!  For this series we will be taking a look at Canada's past fighter purchases and asking a simple question:  "Did we make the right decision?"We will look at the aircraft itself, compare it to the alternatives available at the time, and determine whether or not Canada picked the right aircraft.  

Canada's history of fighter selection has been a bit of a mixed bag.  

While there have been nothing that can be classified as a dismal failure, there are a few instances where we simply could have done better.  In some instances, better options were available.  In other cases, we picked a decent fighter, but placed it into the wrong role.  

The Winners:

The CF-18 Hornet, CF-100 Canuck, and CL-13 (F-86) Sabre all stand out as excellent fighters.  Not just for Canada, but all around.  Each one has earned their place in history.  

The CF-18 earns it place thanks to its workhorse nature.  As it nears its fourth decade in RCAF service, the Hornet has been ready for whatever mission asked of it.  While it may lack the "sexiness" of the F-15, it has been far more affordable and versatile.  It has outlived the "superior" F-14 Tomcat.

Being the only Canadian-designed fighter is not enough to consider the CF-100 a "winner".  Dumping taxpayer dollars into a lousy, uncompetitive design for the sake of nationalist pride is counterproductive.  Thankfully, the Canuck was anything but a lousy design.  For its time, the "Clunk" was a spectacular aircraft; as good if not better than anything coming from the USA.

No arguments have to be made for the CL-13 Sabre.  The F-86 was one of the first fighters to truly take full advantage of the turbojet engine.  It is, simply put, an icon.  Canadian Sabres were even more special. By taking an existing design and adding a Canadian twist, the CL-13 was considered to be the superior variant thanks to its additional power.  

The Losers:

The CF-115 (F-5) Freedom Fighter, CF-104 Starfighter, and CF-101 Voodoo were not terrible aircraft.  In fact, the F-5 offers exceptional value while the F-104 offers blistering performance.  The F-101 was...  okay.  The biggest problem with these three aircraft is the simple fact that Canada could have done better.  

The CF-5 is a fantastic little fighter in most respects.  For many air forces, the Freedom Fighter was the only affordable way to field a modern western fighter.  Unfortunately for Canada, good value does not always translate into a good purchase decision.  The CF-5 just simply did not fit into the RCAF.  It was too short-legged to work as an interceptor.  It was too lightweight to carry a useful bomb load.  When the CF-18 entered service, it was rendered completely redundant.  For a small nation with a developing economy, the F-5 was just the thing.  Unfortunately, Canada does not fit that profile.  There's a bit of irony in the fact that Canadian built CF-5s were far more suited to their export customers than their nation of manufacture.  

The CF-104 was an amazing aircraft.  Unfortunately, it was pressed into a role completely unsuitable for the airframe.  Tasked with the nuclear strike role, the CF-104 fulfilled a niche that Canada arguably should not have had in the first place.  

The Voodoo was...  Fine.  Unfortunately, it was quickly overshadowed by better fighters.  Despite this, Canada stuck with an increasingly obsolete design for WAY too long.  This becomes increasingly galling when considering the Voodoo's Canadian-sourced alternative.  Looking back, the CF-101's selection over the Avro Arrow symbolizes a turning point in Canada's aerospace industry.  It is the time when Canada decided to give up on the fighter business at the behest of our American neighbors.  In the post Avro Arrow days, Canada would simply point at the USAF or USN and say: "We'll have what they're having."

What works:

Canada's best fighters have always been simple, versatile, and rugged.  They need to be.  Tasked with operating in all weather conditions from the arctic to the tropics, the RCAF has no use for "hangar queens".  

Upgradability has also played an important part in Canada's best fighters.  Were it not for a dedicated upgrade path, the CF-18 would have been rendered over-the-hill years ago.  Rest assured however, modern-day CF-18s are still a force to be reckoned with.  Similarly, Canada's ability to build its own Sabres resulted in a truly special aircraft that exceeded expectations.  

Often overlooked at the time of purchase is operating cost.  Canada's military is one of limited financial means.  As tempting as it is to simply buy "the best of the best", that can be a hard sell to the Canadian taxpayer picking up the cheque.  

What doesn't:

Political pressure, both internal and external, is inevitable.  It is also detrimental.  

The US military industrial complex is a powerful force, but it is important to remember that they do not have Canada's best interests at heart.  American lawmakers ultimately answer to their taxpayers.  American-based defense contractors answer to their shareholders.  Together, their ultimate goal is to prioritize American jobs while reducing costs and maximizing profits.  Export sales are a key strategy to this, especially when domestic sales are not meeting expectations.  This is the story behind both the Voodoo and the Starfighter, neither of which endeared itself the USAF.  

It is also not enough to simply buy a fighter to "pad the numbers".  Sure, "quantity has a quality of its own" but the point of diminishing returns approaches quickly when the fighter is not up to par.  Numbers do indeed matter, but so do capabilities.  There is little point to having plenty of fighters when those fighters are not up to the task we need them to do.  

The role dictates the fighter, not the other way around.  Just because you can turn short range interceptor into a long range bomber (or vice versa), does not mean you should.  A long, hard look needs to be taken at what Canada requires its fighter to do (sovereignty missions, coalition deployments, etc) and choose based on that criteria.  The alternative is to select a fighter first, then face the challenge of hammering a square peg into a round hole as we modify the aircraft and/or procedures after-the-fact. 

In short, Canada needs to select the fighter that works best for Canada.  A simple concept in theory, but as history teaches us...  Not so easy in execution.  


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