Book Review No. 20 – Ricketts on Wakelam, Cold War Fighters – Canadian Aircraft Procurement, 1945-54

Randall Wakelam, Cold War Fighters – Canadian Aircraft Procurement, 1945-54 (Canadian Studies in Military History: UBC Press in association with the Canadian War Museum, 2011).

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As the current Canadian government travels the torturous path of replacing our current fleet of CF-18s, the seeming pit of despair of military shipbuilding, and even the improbable morass surrounding something as simple as purchasing trucks, it would be worth their time and effort to read Randall Wakelam’s Cold War Fighters: Canadian Aircraft Procurement, 1945 -54. The book chronicles the story behind the development and procurement, by Canada, of military aircraft between the end of the Second World War and the advent of the Avro Arrow.

During the 1945-1954 period, Canada was undergoing a sea change in its relationship with the military.  At the end of the war, Canada was seen as a middle power at best, but it also had a reputation for fighting above its weight class.  Additionally, the power structures of government were changing from the “old guard”. Prime Minister Mackenzie King, as Wakelam points out, had little regard for his war cabinet and was essentially a “one-man show”. His post-war successor, Louis St-Laurent, was the polar opposite. He trusted men like Lester Pearson in External Affairs, Brooke Claxton in Defence and C. D. Howe in just about everything else.

But it was not just the government that changed. So too had Canadians. The war had brought thousands of women into the workforce and many of them had no desire to “return to the kitchen”. Compound that with the number of military personnel who were returning from Europe and the Far East and the numbers made it clear that there could be no “Peace Dividend”. But who needed it? By 1947, just two years after Victory in Europe, Canada had almost full employment and a growing trade surplus with its trading partners in Europe. What gave the minister of finance cause for concern was the growing negative imbalance with the United States.  The surplus with cash-strapped Europe was in the form of loans made by the government, whereas the deficit with the U.S. was in cash.

Politically, the Canadian government had to make an effort to transform its war-footed military into a structure designed for 1) peacetime and 2) as an emergency force in case of renewed conflict around the world.  The goals were a proficient and professional force and a structure that would encourage the modernization of weapons and tactics to meet future needs.

To achieve these objectives, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) embarked on an ambitious plan of upgrading and updating. The days of the Spitfire were over. The jet engine was king.  The first major acquisition was the de Haviland-built Vampire, made in Britain and paid for by war credits.  The RCAF purchased 86 Vampires within a few years and it became the backbone of the defence of Canada.  It was a step forward for the RCAF but did little for the Canadian economy and represented little technological advancement by Canadian industry.  The RCAF slowly began to turn to Canadian industry to achieve its goals, the results of which was the CF-100, named the “Canuck” by some and the “Clunk” by others.

The CF-100, first designed in 1946, took until 1950 to make its first test flight and in 1953 entered into full production. Sadly, although considered by experts as the finest all-weather interceptor of its time, the aircraft did not achieve widespread operational acceptance by other counties. (The Belgian Air Force was the only foreign purchaser.)  The Canuck was the poster-boy of the RCAF up until the introduction of the F-86, the Sabre, the American-designed single-engine jet that dominated the skies over Korea in the 1950s.  But the one thing that the F-86 had, thanks to the CF-100 program, was the powerful Canadian-designed and built Orenda engine.

The overriding problem for Canada’s fledgling aerospace industry was, while the military liked its “toys”, the industry wanted to make money. The small size of Canada’s military demanded that industry seek out other clients … something that was not easy to achieve given that the platforms were designed to fit Canadian needs and not necessarily transferable to other countries’ requirements.

The lessons that the current Canadian government and the military can learn from the history described in Cold War Fighters is that poorly-planned procurement, fraught with change orders and time delays, is contrary to achieving the goal of a good platform, at a good price and within a reasonable time frame.  Wakelam also makes the point that the military and civilian sides must work in concert with common goals.  Finally, government must make available research and development funding based on the need; it must be considered a cost, not an investment.

Overall, Wakelam’s research on the subject is very impressive and the book is well-written. The only criticism would be the liberal use of acronyms, which had one leafing back and forth in an attempt to find their explanations. This reduced the enjoyment of the story, albeit not sufficiently enough to warrant putting the book down.

Cold War Fighters is a good book for anyone wishing to understand the deeper story of Canada’s aeronautics industry in the post-war era.  Randall Wakelam does a very good job in putting the story together in a logical progression. I wholeheartedly recommend it for some serious reading.

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Bruce Ricketts, Ottawa.

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