After reading my column about how to rearm the Royal Canadian Air Force, a Wexit supporter asked me how I’d build an affordable and modern air force for an independent Alberta. It was an irresistible thought experiment for an aerospace junky like yours truly.
Although Alberta’s population – at 4.4 million – is smaller than the Czech Republic’s (10.7 million) or Finland’s (5.5 million), all three have similar sized economies of around $260 billion USD. Supporting a small fleet of fighter jets requires far more tax dollars than physical manpower.
Like Canada, the Fins fly upgraded versions of the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet and have a competition currently underway to pick their next fighter jet. The Czech Republic operates a more affordable Air Force than Finland consisting of fourteen Saab Gripen-C/D fighters that they lease from Sweden and twenty-four domestically made Aero L-159 light attack jets.
Let’s assume that Alberta becomes independent, and Ottawa removes everything that isn’t tied down from CFB Cold Lake. Alberta would be left with the runways, buildings, and little else. Building a new military from scratch quickly and affordably demands a middle ground between the Czech Republic and Finland.
Multirole Fighter Jets: Thirty-six Gripen-E & twelve Gripen-F
The new Saab Gripen E/F is by far the most affordable fighter jet available that offers all the latest technology needed to ensure years of combat effectiveness. It is also the only jet that offers full technology transfer with support for domestic manufacturing. The majority of Brazil’s Gripens will be assembled in Brazil by Embraer. Should Canada select the Gripen to replace the CF-18 – the bids were due this summer and a winner should be announced in 2021 or 2022 – then Canadian Gripens would be assembled in Halifax by IMP.
Longview Aviation Capital Corp owns Viking Air and currently manufactures Viking Twin Otter aircraft in Calgary. In an interview with the Western Standard, Viking’s PR representative outlined Viking’s commitment to Canadian manufacturing and providing ongoing customer support for the “legendary Canadian aircraft” it builds in Victoria and Calgary. While emphasizing that Viking is proud to support its government operators around the world, Viking “is not in the arms and munitions business.” When I emphasized that this was just a fun hypothetical thought experiment; the PR spokesperson laughed, played along, and said that “While Viking would be the most capable candidate [to assemble fighter jets in Calgary], it’s not likely we would.”
The Gripen-F is the two-seat version of the single-seat Gripen-E. The first Gripen-F is currently under construction for Brazil. Its large colour touch screen display and integrated electronic warfare system makes it versatile enough for both the fighter trainer and Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) role.
While a fleet of forty-eight fighters seems like a lot compared to the fourteen Gripens leased by the Czech Republic and Hungary, it’s fewer aircraft than Finland is considering. Saab’s bid to Finland includes fifty-two Gripen-Es, twelve Gripen-Fs, and two Saab/Bombardier GlobalEye airborne radar jets.
Even the most expensive and capable fighter can only be in one place at a time. A fleet of forty-eight jets would provide Alberta the ability to defend itself, pull its weight in NORAD, and contribute to NATO. In fact, it would be a greater NORAD/NATO contribution than Canada currently makes proportionate to population.
Cargo: Two C-130J Super Hercules
The American C-130 Hercules has been the standard for western tactical airlifters (turboprop cargo planes) since the 1950s. The latest C-130J Super Hercules remains the standard and lists over 20 nations as military customers.
A pair of C-130J aircraft should be sufficient to deploy a squadron of Gripens on a NORAD mission in the Canadian Territories or on a training mission in the United States. If the people of Alberta decide to regularly participate in NATO missions in Europe, then the RAAF might consider purchasing a few more C-130J cargo aircraft and a pair of KC-130J tankers – the aerial refueling version.
Special Missions: Four Viking Air Series 400 Twin Otters
When it comes to versatile and rugged utility aircraft, the Canadian Viking Twin Otter has been the global standard since the 1960s. The latest Series 400 version is flying special missions in 12 different countries. Incredibly versatile, the Twin Otter can quickly switch between passenger, cargo, search and rescue, and air ambulance roles. Used by the US Army parachute team and able to land and take off from short unpaved runways, it’s an obvious choice to support search and rescue operations in rural Alberta.
Water Bombers: Eight Viking Canadair CL-515 “Super Scoopers”
In Canada, water bombing is a provincial responsibility; one that previous PC and NDP Governments did not take seriously enough in the years prior to the 2016 Fort McMurray fire. The day after the Government of Alberta declared that state of emergency, four Viking Canadair CL-415 water bombers owned by the Government of Quebec were on the way to fight the fire in Alberta.
Viking’s sister company Longview Aviation Services upgrades old CL-215 water bombers to the new CL-415EAF standard in Calgary. The Croatian, Greek, and Spanish Air Forces all fly the CL-415, while Italian and French CL-415s are flown by their respective Federal Civil Defence agencies. The latest version of the iconic Canadian “Super Scooper” is the Viking Canadair 515 and could be made in Calgary.
Force Multiplier: Two Saab/Bombardier GlobalEye Airborne Radar Jets
The Saab/Bombardier GlobalEye is a based on the Toronto-made Bombardier Global 6000. It offers a state-of-the-art radar designed to track stealth fighters, drones, and air launched cruise missiles up to 450 km away at low level and 550 km at high altitudes. The GlobalEye sensors can also be networked with Gripen fighters to increase their situational awareness and lethality.
Albertans have always prided themselves on pulling their weight in alliances. Two per cent of GDP spent on a military could easily support a modern air force.
Alex McColl is the National Defence Columnist with the Western Standard and a Canadian military analyst