Lessons from the Air: Jet Interceptors and Canadian Security

As tensions between Russia and Ukraine continue in the Crimea region, news dropped recently that Canadian fighter jets intercepted two Russian Tupolev Tu-95 long-range bombers. The intercept took place about 75 kilometres off Canada’s Arctic coastline, according to command headquarters at North American Aerospace Defence (NORAD). Major Beth Smith, spokeswoman for NORAD, confirmed that the Russian bombers flew a course in “the western reaches” of Canada’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the Beaufort Sea. Canada’s sovereign airspace is defined at 22 kilometres from each coast, but the ADIZ extends well beyond to a range of 320 kilometres.

Although the Russian bombers never entered Canada’s sovereign airspace, the intercept did occur within 75 kilometres of Canada’s mainland and only one day after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko thanked Canada in a parliamentary speech for its ongoing support during his country’s fight against pro-Russian separatist rebels. So while Russian intentions remain unclear, it seems certain that the regime of Vladimir Putin feels the need to display its military strength beyond the Crimea and Ukraine. Consider as well that roughly six hours before Canada’s CF-18s intercepted the Russian “Bear” bombers, American F-22 jets took to flight from Alaska to intercept a group of Russian aircraft which included two MiG-31 fighters, two long-range bombers, and two refueling tankers. In both cases, all Russian aircraft retreated shortly after NORAD fighters made contact.

In an interesting comment made during an interview with the CBC, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of National Defence and a Conservative MP from Manitoba James Bezan harkened back to the Cold War by referring to the incident as a “disturbing” reminder of the past, and “of Russian bombers challenging Canadian airspace.” Prior to 1955 and the onset of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), nuclear-carrying long-range bombers posed the primary threat to North American airspace. At this time Canadian security policy was predicated on three underlying principles: 1) that the military threat to Canada and the United States was indivisible as the continent is a single geo-strategic entity; 2) that the United States would actively support Canada in the case of military aggression against Canadian territory; and 3) that the only direct and major threat to North America was the prospect of strategic nuclear war between the superpowers, known then as the Soviet Union (Russia) and the United States.

For these reasons, Canadian security policy during and after the Second World War was defined almost entirely by its bilateral relations with the United States. Officially, coordination of North American defences began in 1940 with the Declaration of Ogdensburg that marked the creation of the Permanent Joint Board of Defence (PJBD), which provided a link between Ottawa and Washington for political and military coordination. The PJBD permitted the creation and implementation of joint defence plans, the construction of infrastructures necessary for their implementation (bases, routes, weather stations), and the formulation of guidelines for combined military operations. 

The concept for NORAD was first discussed by a secret group of North American defence analysts known as “Project Lincoln” in summer, 1952. Shortly after, the Liberals under Louis St. Laurent agreed to allow the Pentagon to invest $500 million in materials and manpower to build early warning radar stations across Canada’s Arctic. These lines were built as a part of a larger militarization of the Arctic, intended to create the technological readiness to detect, intercept and potentially destroy Soviet long-range bombers. Central to defence of North American airspace was the jet interceptor, so the Canadian government contracted A.V. Roe Canada Limited to produce the now infamous Avro Arrow.

The Canadian CF-105 Avro Arrow was an all-weather, supersonic missile-armed jet interceptor. Designed as a large delta winged aerodynamic aircraft, it stood 14 feet high, 77 feet long, and at its widest it was 50 feet – these dimensions made the Arrow nearly twice as large as today’s most-advanced F-series jets. The Arrow’s delta wing technology helped reduce drag at high altitudes by cutting through the sky and easing air flow over the top of the wings. With precision design to reduce the pressure of air pushing towards the aircraft at high altitudes and a powerful twin engine system, the Arrow thrust past its competition and become a bench-mark in aeronautics design and technology. In full flight it achieved revolutionary speeds exceeding Mach 2, more than twice the speed of sound. But the Arrow program grew costly, and the government of John Diefenbaker decided to cancel its production on 20 February 1959, a day that has since been known to Canadian history as “Black Friday.” Shortly thereafter A.V. Roe folded and thousands of Canadians lost jobs at the main plant as well as subsidiary divisions nation-wide.

In theory jet interceptors were becoming obsolete, or so Diefenbaker was led to believe. In place of an interceptor program, his government agreed to purchase the American BOMARC surface-to-air missile defence system and its Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) control network. In the short span of a few months, North American air defence underwent significant change and the trajectory of Canadian defence policy was set for the foreseeable future.

NORAD is today an elaborate and integrated system that combines land, sea, air, and space technology to defend the North American continent. It’s been over 50 years since the Arrow’s cancellation, but jet interceptor technology remains paramount to Canadian security. We no longer produce our own protective technologies at the rate we once did, so we’re left to find security through international defence arrangements and procurement of military technology. As a result Canadian security seems ever more reliant on alliance partnerships, but those partnerships have recently called for an increase in defence expenditure. Canadian security seems up in the air – no pun intended – and we might not be prepared, militarily or economically.