CDA Institute guest contributor Matthew Ritchie, an MA student from University of Ottawa, examines the dangers of comparing Canadian defence requirements to Australia’s.
2016 witnessed a wide-ranging public debate on Canadian defence policy at a level not seen in decades. Inspired by the new government’s Defence Policy Review, changes in Canada’s participation in NATO reassurance missions, the fight against ISIS, and continued uncertainty surrounding the replacements for Canada’s 1980’s vintage Hornet fighters, defence experts and members of the public are making their opinions known.
It is unsurprising that many commentators have used examples from our international allies to frame their understanding. Whether discussing the defence review itself, military spending, or specific capabilities, like the F-35 fighter, international comparisons can provide important insights. They must, however, be used with caution. Not every aspect of an experience used elsewhere will be immediately applicable to Canada. The closer the circumstances of the comparison appear, however, the more tempting it is to ignore the key differences.
Take Australia, for example. The country is a perennial favourite for international comparisons with Canada. One need only look at discussions on defence industrial policy, their “grown up” political consensus on defence, or most recently, their past decision to purchase an “interim” Super Hornet fleet. On the surface, these comparisons are very attractive. Canada and Australia are both ‘middle powers,’ operating mostly in conjunction with US support. Both have similar population sizes, a shared history, and Westminister-style political institutions. Canadian and Australian militaries also operate in similar roles and often comparable (or indeed identical) equipment. The sheer number of similarities, however, helps to conceal other significant differences that inevitably lead to substantial variations in policy.
Here, I will look at just one of these comparisons: the Australian decision to purchase 36 F-18 Super Hornet fighter aircraft as an “interim” solution before the arrival of the F-35. This decision has frequently been raised since June when reports that Canada was considering making a similar purchase were leaked to the public. Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan has since adjusted these plans, announcing instead further consultations with industry and allies on possible replacements for Canada’s fleet of F-18 Hornets. These consultations reinforce the limitations of a facile comparison to Australian decision making.
There are three primary reasons as to why the Australian purchase makes sense, while a similar Canadian purchase would not. The first is geopolitical; Australia lives in a significantly more dangerous area of the world than Canada. The rise of China and instability in the South China Sea is of great concern to the Australian defence establishment. Reacting to the recently released 2016 White Paper, one commentator noted that there is “more at stake here for both sides than rocks and reefs in the South China Sea. The world’s two strongest states are competing for the strategic leadership of the world’s richest region.” By comparison, Russia’s movement in the Arctic notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine a safer neighbourhood than Canada’s.
Complicating the geopolitical issue is Australia’s own complex debate on defence engagement with the United States. Stung by the memory of a similar alliance with the United Kingdom failing before the Second World War, there has been longstanding debate on the usefulness of Australia’s alliance with the United States. In contrast, Canada benefits from being relatively isolated from the world’s conflict zones in North America, with two oceans on each side and an intimate strategic relationship with its own neighbour, the United States. Australia’s geopolitical situation and uncertainty over the strength of the US alliance makes a strong, independent military necessary in an existential fashion with no parallel in Canada.
The second reason is the role each country’s aircraft needs to fill. Part and parcel with the Australian purchase was the retirement of the RAAF’s venerable fleet of F-111 fighter-bombers, in service since the 1970s. The connection between the Super Hornet purchase and the F-111 retirement is explicitly outlined in 2007 by then-Minister of Defence Dr. Brendan Nelson. A major consideration in the Australian purchase was the maintenance of a long-range strike capability, with added air-to-air combat capabilities as a bonus. While the ‘classic’ Hornet is capable of air-to-ground strike missions, the Super Hornet’s larger payload capacity, longer range, and increased number of weapons pylons make it a more effective successor to the F-111. Most importantly, the Super Hornet is capable of bringing greater firepower to bear over longer distances, a vital concern when operating in the Pacific..
In addition to long-range strike missions, the RAAF has also used the Super Hornet purchase to expand their capabilities in other areas. In 2012, the Australian government announced that 12 of the original 24 Super Hornets would be wired for a future upgrade to the EA-18G “Growler” Electronic Warfare package. In 2013, Australia further expanded on this to purchase 12 Growler aircraft outright. This gives Australia the capability for independent electronic warfare, something very few Western militaries possess. These features enhance Australia’s strike capability while lessening the RAAF’s reliance on the United States for assistance.
Both of these roles, long-range strike bombing and electronic warfare, are missions the RCAF has operated without for decades. The reason for this ties, once again, to geopolitics. As long as Australia is uncertain whether American assistance will be available when needed, they will be willing to support independent capabilities even at a high cost. In Canada, however, it is virtually impossible to imagine a situation where these roles could not be readily filled by allied aircraft.
This leads to the third reason as to why Australia’s Super Hornet example must be regarded with caution: the financial costs. Purchasing and operating multiple types of aircraft is not cheap. The up-front purchase cost of 24 Australian Super Hornets is estimated at C$2.4 billion, with a total cost of C$6 billion. The up-front costs alone would consume 12 percent of the entire Canadian defence budget for 2016. Calling a Super Hornet purchase “interim” would be something of a misnomer. With a usable life, before upgrades, measured in decades, Super Hornets will certainly be flying side-by-side with the F-35 when or if they are purchased. This will require separate logistics, maintenance and training programs, effectively doubling upkeep costs compared to a single-type fleet.
Australia is demonstrably better equipped and more willing to bear these added costs. With a population 1/3 smaller than Canada’s, Australia spent 1/3 more on defence in 2015. They also have a long history fielding multiple types of frontline fighter aircraft. The F-111 flew alongside the ‘classic’ Hornet before being replaced with the Super Hornet and a proposed F-35 fleet will be replacing the ‘classic’ Hornets in the future. Comparatively, Canada has had a single-type fleet built on the Hornet since the retirement of the CF-5 in 1995, necessitating even greater investments to regain the ability to support multiple frontline aircraft types.
The use of international comparisons can be beneficial in discussions on defence policy. It is however, important to understand the limitations of using these comparisons as one-size-fits-all recipes for success. At first glance, Australia is a very attractive model for Canadian defence policy. Digging deeper, however, exposes the fundamental differences driving the variations in policy between the two countries, variations which simply cannot be ignored.
Matthew Ritchie is a MA Student at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. His research interests include Russian history, Canadian defence and foreign policy, and the use of air power.