It is either a good time or a bad time to be an aspiring fighter pilot in Canada. On the upside, there are vacancies: a recent report by the auditor-general, Michael Ferguson, endorsed a previous estimate by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) that they were perhaps 275 pilots short. On the downside, new pilots will find that they are flying antiques: Canada’s ageing McDonnell Douglas CF-18 Hornets have been in service since 1982 and plans to replace them have floundered to the extent that the government now intends to shore them up with 25 secondhand F-18s bought from Australia.
“The government doesn’t see votes in defence issues,” says Alan Stephenson, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and a former RCAF CF-18 pilot. “Canada isn’t like other countries. There’s a hockey expression, ‘ragging the puck’: playing in your own end to run out the clock. That’s what they’ve been doing with the decision on new aircraft. The decision won’t be made until after the next election and the aircraft won’t be delivered until the election after that.”
Canada launched a competition for bids to replace the CF-18 fleet in late 2017, soliciting tenders to supply 88 jets for as much as ca$19bn (€12bn). Five firms were approved by Canada’s government; that is now down to four, France’s Dassault having withdrawn its Rafale fighter from consideration, citing concerns about interoperability. Remaining contenders are the Lockheed Martin F-35 and Boeing F/18 Super Hornet from the US, the Eurofighter Typhoon from Europe and the Saab Gripen from Sweden.
“I have a hard time understanding why many companies would bother,” says Stephenson. “Given Canada’s need to be compatible with Norad [North American Aerospace Defense Command] there are major downsides to buying a non-American fighter. [If we did] we would have to go through the US departments of State, Commerce and Defense to fit a single electronic device.” A good time to be Boeing, then.
The antipodean nations are ramping up maritime patrol efforts when it comes to North Korea. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) dispatched a second Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft – one of the most sophisticated maritime patrol aircraft in the world – to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa late last year in order to prevent Pyongyang’s attempts to evade sanctions via the East China Sea. Shortly before that, New Zealand dispatched a P-3K2 Orion maritime patrol aircraft to the same base. Both Australia’s and New Zealand’s defence forces are waiting on orders of more P-8As to be delivered, suggesting these sorts of patrols are set to continue.
A backlog of US armed services recruits will finally be lacing up their boots. After a court order, the Pentagon will reallow green-card holders to start training while their background check is underway. It reverses a 2017 Trump policy that required non-citizen applicants to wait until checks had been completed. The reversal is good news for the army, which missed recruitment targets in 2018 due to the checks, higher-paying private-sector jobs and tighter admissions.
In 2014, Sweden’s navy spent a week hunting fruitlessly for a Russian submarine believed to be prowling its waters. This farcical reminder of Sweden’s threadbare capacity in this regard is now being addressed: Sweden’s navy is to restore the ASW-600 Elma anti-submarine grenade-launcher to its Koster-class mine-countermeasure ships.
“Sweden’s strategic intersection with Russia is naval,” says Elisabeth Braw, leader of the modern deterrence project at Rusi. “But Sweden dismantled its forces significantly after the Cold War and left the navy with almost no sub-hunting capability. They can no longer afford to have a navy that isn’t properly equipped.”