Monday, September 27, 2010


With the new session of Parliament now underway, an interesting little debate has emerged regarding the purchase of a new fighter aircraft for the Canadian Forces. The aircraft under consideration is the F 35 Lightning 11 fighter being designed by Lockheed Martin. Price of the project is to be around $9 billion for approximately 65 aircraft.

There has been some concern expressed in pages of Maclean's and other publications about the process of deciding which jet to buy and how transparent the process actually has been. Clearly, the government has not been totally forthcoming with the Canadian people on this project, since very few of us even knew the government was considering spending this money on a replacement for the now ageing F 18 Hornets. When pressed by the media to explain why we need a new fifth-generation stealth fighter, Defence Minister Peter McKay could not provide a rational answer as to the role and purpose of the fighter. The debate continues.

What is more at the core of this discussion is the attitude of Canadians towards their military generally. We have expressed pride and support when it has been needed, as in Afghanistan where our troops have been subjected to some of the heaviest fighting in the war. But, on the whole, our military has been subjected to yawning indifference. Rick Hillier described this attitude very well in his book "A Soldier First". Canadians would prefer to ignore its military until it is needed, and would prefer not to spend large sums of money to acquire the equipment it needs to do its difficult job. We seem content to ask them to risk their safety in antiquated equipment and keep them understaffed, even in times of severe need.

Maybe we don't even need a military at all, some would argue. After all, we're a huge country, we can't be invaded by anyone except the Americans or the Russians. The Americans would never invade us, and would never permit the Russians to do so.

What is often forgotten by supporters of this line of thought is that, if a nation does not take the steps to defend itself, or to assert its sovereignty, that nation is seriously in danger of losing it and being subjected to the wishes and whims of other nations.

Consider Iceland. This small northern nation has no permanent military. It maintains a national police force that includes a counter-terrorism unit, called the Viking squad, and has a coast guard of about 4 small patrol vessels to offer search and rescue and fishery supervision. Other than that, they are not interested in creating a military force. They are, on the surface, a peaceful people living in a peaceable land.

But Iceland has never attained its ultimate wish of being truly neutral, of being left alone. It has been under the control of Denmark and Norway early in its history. It was occupied in World War Two by the British and then the Americans. Both of these "allied" nations occupied Iceland due to fears of Nazi Germany occupying the small island. The Icelanders did not invite the British and Americans to defend them. Indeed, there were small riots in Reykjavik protesting the occupation. The Americans returned in the 1950's during the Cold War, and forced Iceland into joining NATO, again due to fears that Iceland would be occupied by the new enemy, the Soviets. The Americans stayed until 2006.

In another example of foreign bullying, Iceland and Great Britain were involved in three so-called "cod wars", which were actual confrontations between vessels of the Icelandic coast guard and British fishing trawlers and then warships of the Royal Navy. Several incidents of ships ramming each other, and actual live ammunition fire took place. The British refused to recognize Iceland's intention of maintaining a 200 mile zone of control over its fishery: Britain maintains, to this day, that the zone is international and wants to enter it to mine the fishery for its own purposes. An uneasy agreement is in place today, quite possibly because the Icelanders finally decided to fight and shoot back : because of this action, Britain recognizes the zone... for now.

The lesson in the Icelandic experience is that if a nation demonstrates an unwillingness to defend itself with real equipment and trained personnel, other nations will take care of that for it. Some may argue that Iceland has benefitted from the rather benign occupation and interaction with British and US forces. But our recent trip to Iceland convinced us that Icelanders have a quiet but no less real distrust of foreigners. They are in NATO officially, but really would rather not be there. To be sure, Iceland has a puny population of only 300,000 people: could they really muster much of a military? Probably not, but if they tried, perhaps the occupations of the past, and the cod wars would not have happened.

Canada must continue to maintain a sound military. We are not a nation that will go throwing its military weight around conquering others and forcing them to submit to our tyrrany. It's not in our nature. But, if we are to be taken seriously as a nation, if we are to exert our own sovereignty and decision making on our own future, if we are to safeguard and guarantee our land and citizens, and if we are to participate in legitimate military activities around the globe ( coalitions against aggressors, peacekeeping, humanitarian activities ) we must have the necessary equipment. Is the F35 the best new fighter for our air force? Probably. Do we need it ? Yes. Why? Because you never know what lies ahead in this complex and often violent world. We must grow up and not have debates on the need for fighter aircraft. It is needed for the same reason cities need police and other security services. Some people refuse to act in civilized and respectable ways and impinge on our desire to do so. If the world was perfect, we'd have no wars: we'd also have no crime, accidents, fires, and criminals either. Let's live in the real world. Buy the planes, and keep upgrading our armed forces. Act like a real country.