Air Power Writ Canadian (RCAF Journal - SUMMER 2015 - Volume 4, Issue 3)

Randall Wakelam

Reprint from Sic Itur Ad Astra: Canadian Aerospace Power Studies Volume 3 - Combat if Necessary, but not Necessarily Combat 2011

This paper is based on a lecture given by Dr. Allan English to the Joint Command and Staff Programme (the Staff College course) at the Canadian Forces College in 2008. I used his slides as the basis of my own version of the lecture in 2009, and subsequently as the basis of the talk from which this paper was derived. Dr. English’s presentation had an intentional link to doctrine; I have taken the approach of speculating about what major trends Canadian air power has developed or internalized over the past century. For the period up to 1945, the details to which I refer are well discussed in the three volumes of the official history of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Regrettably, there is no post-war official history, although one is talked about. In lieu of this, several authors have offered popular histories of some of the events from the first decades of the cold war, but for the major trends in this period I have drawn from my own research. In a similar vein, regarding the decisions and events post-1975, I have made use of my own memory and experience. As a result, what follows is to some extent an opinion/editorial approach, making mention of a number of events and persons but not citing particular sources.

As air forces approach their centenaries we are often wont to conclude that air services were designed from the outset to be war-fighting services, whether as arms of the older armies and navies of their nations, or as the concepts and capabilities of air power matured, independent services in their own right. Perhaps some of that thinking is shaped by our tendency to interchange terms like air force, air service, air power, and air warfare. While the armies and navies of the world can rely on a fair degree of longevity in how they are viewed and in how they view themselves conceptually, air power thinkers are still sorting out the lexicon and what it means. We are not even sure what to call ourselves: are we air men and air women, aircrew and ground crew, or something else? While anyone in an army uniform, from the infanteer to the postal clerk to the dentist is a soldier, and anyone serving in a ship regardless of duties is deemed a sailor, those of us in uniform who work around air power are not always sure what we can safely call ourselves. For the purposes of this paper, I’ll use the term aviator.

If, then, we are talking about air power and aviators in Canada, what can we say about these men and women and how they shaped the concepts, doctrines, and capability of a Canadian air force? Perhaps as importantly, were there external factors which caused them to move in certain directions, to adopt unique perspectives on air power, and ultimately to shape a Canadian air power culture? My thinking is that there were such national drivers, and that while not necessarily vastly different from other nations’ air power interpretations, there is an identifiable Canadian slant.

The paper that follows looks at what could be seen as a number of seminal events, and myths, too, in the evolution of a national air power paradigm. Some are of short duration, but lasting impact, while others describe relatively long and stable periods where the aviation culture of the nation, and usually of the air service, was fairly firmly moulded.

The first of the seminal events was the Great War. For Canadian aviators this was a brief period during which national heroes were made, when a myth was born. Bishop, Barker, and Collishaw were well-known names; and, of course, who could forget Roy Brown, who was thought to have brought down the Red Baron? Whether he did or did not, he was simply one of a number of aces whose exploits, when taken together, were sufficient to show the Canadian people that while their army might have forged a national identity at Vimy Ridge, actions in the air were evidence of an important air spirit. At the same time, however, it was not insignificant that while the units of the Canadian Militia (as it was then termed) served together in a strong and powerful Canadian Corps, aviators were absorbed on an individual basis into the Royal Naval Air Service, the Royal Flying Corps, and, ultimately, after its establishment on 1 April 1918, the Royal Air Force (RAF).

Indeed, while Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia in 1914, had created a Canadian Aviation Corps (of one airplane and three aviators), this organization had not lasted longer than the time needed to ship the aircraft to Britain, and in so doing, damage it beyond repair. A second attempt to form a national air force had had to wait over four years, and when two squadrons were established in late 1918, this effort served only as a denouement as the war ended and massive demobilization followed. There was a bit of a subtext in these valiant but vain attempts to establish a Canadian military aviation capacity: in both 1914 and 1918, the aircraft to be used would be acquired from foreign nations despite the fact that it was the Canadian designed and built Silver Dart which was the first aircraft to fly in the British Empire in 1909, and that by the end of the war there was a manufacturing capability in the heart of the Dominion.

That particular capability was not, however, for the production of combat aircraft but rather for the fabrication of trainers, aircraft used in Canada by the British air services for the training of imperial aviators. In this it has been argued that Canada made a significant contribution to the war effort not unlike the manufacture of munitions, ships and other war materiel, and the production of foodstuffs needed by Britain to sustain its population.

The domestic contributions to air power—training and aircraft manufacture—would, in the long run, not be forgotten. Nor would be the brave accomplishments of the aviators. These air power activities were to persist.

But even with these themes established, they would not necessarily advance with equal force and importance through the following decades. With the world at peace, but the major air power themes clearly related to the military necessities of the previous years, it was hard to see just where an air service was needed in peacetime Canada; even during the war there had been little need for a Canadian-based combat capability with the exception of some patrols along the East Coast to keep watch for submarines and other German raiders. What now would be the utility of aviation?

The answer was to come from two unlikely gentlemen. They were unlikely only in the sense that they were not themselves aviators by training or employment, but they most certainly understood why and how a nation, and particularly its parliamentarians, might view the issues. The two were Major-General Willoughby Gwatkin, formerly the Chief of the General Staff, and Mr. John Wilson, late of the Naval Board. Both could see that the best and perhaps only way to maintain some form of air capability for the national government was to present to Canadians not the warfighting capabilities—which, if the hopes of the citizenry were to be fulfilled, the Treaty of Versailles and the nascent League of Nations would render superfluous—but rather as a national capability which could provide services which no other technology or agency could even attempt. A cross-country adventure to demonstrate that aircraft could traverse the Dominion rapidly and efficiently was soon mounted, and within a few years the Canadian Air Force, though small in numbers, did at least exist and was providing a range of support that would not have been possible otherwise: forestry patrols, anti-drug interdiction, et cetera.

How this service would be provided was somewhat uncertain. Could it be done by a civilian authority—an Air Board—or would it be best delivered by a military service? After some debate and false starts, a Canadian Air Force and ultimately a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was formed, the latter being established on 1 April 1924, largely to provide support to other government departments. Organizationally, the RCAF was to be a subordinate element within the Ministry of Militia until 1937.

There was in reality no need for a combat-oriented air arm and so buying and operating combat aircraft was not a priority. Instead, the RCAF took on much of the “bush flying” that came with opening the North, providing medical evacuations, conducting forestry and forest fire patrols and the like. The strength of the RCAF never exceeded a few hundred aviators. The implications for the purchase and operation of combat aircraft, let alone large numbers of aircraft of any sort, were self-evident. The Air Force would buy a few utility aircraft with whatever money could be scraped together towards the end of each fiscal year. For manufacturers, this was better than the situation immediately after the war when there had been a virtual freeze on aircraft acquisition; the option in 1919 to use surplus war stocks was both cheap and logical. By the mid-1920s, there seemed to be enough sales to support small but viable operations both in Montreal at Hawker Siddley and in Toronto at de Havilland. Moreover, while not large by the standards of some other nations, Canada was also seeing research and development initiatives leading to, among other things, a variable pitch propeller.

Certainly, during the 1920s, decisions and actions in Canada seemed, for the purposes of defining its air power requirements, that in the glow of peace even a prosperous and growing dominion could make do with a civil-oriented form of air power. While officially there was an air “force,” its functions were virtually all non- or a-military. The situation was not to change appreciably in the first years of the 1930s when arguably there were much more important problems for Canada and the world to solve. What the situation might have been had proponents of air power pushed for a military service is impossible to know. In some other nations, and notably in the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US), a third service had been created and championed, either as an independent air force or as a strong air service, but whether this would have been appropriate for Canada seems doubtful. In both of the former cases, those services found work in colonial actions the like of which were not part of the Canadian experience. Gwatkin and Wilson had apparently found the appropriate approach for Canada.

By the latter part of the 1930s, the possibility of another major European war seemed likely, and this concern provided the catalyst for politicians and service leaders to begin thinking about reforming and expanding military capability. While after 1937 the RCAF had become a fully separate service with its own Chief of the Air Staff, there was little capability that it could offer. After two decades of what was effectively civilian flying, and with an industry that was not deemed capable of producing the complex combat aircraft of the period, there was little that the RCAF had to offer, compared to British and French air arms, when Canada declared war on 10 September 1939.

At the same time, however, the Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, had, during the debates around defence build-ups, begun to push for a major role for an air force. This was not because King was a strong proponent of air power, but rather because it would allow Canada to make a significant contribution to the war effort less costly in lives than a large army contingent caught in the attrition land warfare. In King’s view, he could send aircraft and aviators to Europe, and these, recreating the accomplishments of the Billy Bishops of the Great War, would satisfy the electorate that Canada was pulling its weight. This strategy was foremost in King’s thinking during Imperial Defence conferences in the period before the war. But a related opportunity also played out brilliantly, from King’s perspective, when the British sought to re-establish a training system in Canada. The Empire Air Training Plan, more commonly known in Canada as the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), would allow Canada to help win the war without putting the many Canadians employed by the BCATP, both in and out of uniform, at risk. Moreover, Canada was quite capable of manufacturing the small and relatively straightforward training aircraft that would be needed, and this production would mean jobs and profits for Canadians.

This training stratagem might have been the ideal scenario for Prime Minister King, but young Canadians did remember the heroism of the aviators and did themselves want to fly for the nation in the defence of their freedoms and values, and so there was a buildup of the RCAF. New units and commands were established in Canada, with Eastern Air Command playing an important role in anti-submarine warfare throughout Atlantic Canada and even as far afield as Iceland. But it was in England that the bulk of the wartime RCAF would serve. Unlike the experience of the Great War, where Canadians served as individuals within the British air services, now there was a concerted effort to have as many Canadians as possible assigned to UK-based RCAF squadrons. This was not something that the RAF was particularly keen on, any more than the British Army had sought a Canadian Army which served in combination with the British service, but the tradition and mythology of the Canadian Corps of 1914–1918 was very much in the thinking of the Canadian government and people.

By the end of the war, aviators were to be found in Canadian units as well as throughout the RAF, in Canada as well as in the UK, the Mediterranean and the Far East, with squadrons in all operational commands. In addition, there were Canadian groups in Bomber Command and (in fact if not in name) Fighter Command, the latter as part of the expeditionary air forces established for the invasion of Europe in 1944. Over and above this effort, Canada had established and run the BCATP. At the strategic level, the RCAF was thus operating a vastly more complex organization than had been the case even in 1939. At the tactical level, commanders and aviators generally were proving their mettle on a daily basis; indeed, by the end of the war, No. 6 Group in Bomber Command had outstripped most of its sister organizations despite a number of teething problems and limitations, including second-string aircraft, resulting from its late inception in 1943.

Aircraft production to support Canadian aviators was an issue throughout the war. While the training types needed for the BCATP came off the production lines with great success, operational aircraft for units in both Canada and the overseas squadrons were assigned by the Allied Munitions Advisory Board, which decided the priorities of all national materiel. Thus, RCAF squadrons in need of fighters in 1942 could not take delivery of licence-built Hawker Hurricane fighters being produced in Fort William, Ontario. There were problems, too, when manufacturers attempted to convert British technical requirements to North American standards and products. But this being said, by the end of the war more than 1,000 Lancaster bombers had been built from blueprint in Canada. A total of some 16,000 aircraft came off Canadian production lines, but oddly, no engines were built in the Dominion.

If one were to take a still photo of Canadian air power in the summer of 1945, it would look very military indeed. Supported by a unique training organization and indirectly by a considerable production capability, the RCAF had grown into a multi-dimensional air force, the fourth largest among the allies. But would that picture be accurate in the peace that followed?

Certainly, the RCAF peacetime structure approved by the end of 1945 was, on the face of it, highly different from what had been an air power empire just six months earlier. The government of Mackenzie King had allowed an air force of just eight regular squadrons plus a handful of reserve units. As in 1919, surplus wartime aircraft were to be the norm, and only a few of those in most cases. The total strength of the RCAF would be just 15,000. This was not the civilian aviation formula of the 1920s, but it was an air force in not much more than name, or so it seemed.

In fact, a number of things were different. First, the air marshals had learned from the experience of the past 25 years that having a national manufacturing capability was essential, but not just any aircraft should be coming off the line. While in discussions during 1944–45, the government had pushed for a transport type that could be used in the North and for trans-Canada movements, both military and civilian. In the end, there had been agreement to continue with the development of an indigenous fighter design. Not only was the groundwork laid for the design and development of the AVRO CF100, but also for a Canadian designed and built jet engine, the AVRO Orenda. While neither of these was approved for mass production in the years immediately after the war, both of them would be available as the cold war evolved into a very unpleasant warmness with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.

By that time, another new entry into the aircraft sector, Canadair Limited of Montreal had cornered the world market on DC3 Dakota refurbishment, while also introducing a line of DC4 (C54) transports under the name North Star. These aircraft would be used by the RCAF as part of the air bridge to the Far East. AVRO, too, had started in the commercial sector by repurposing wartime aircraft but had quickly moved on to a jet transport, the AVRO Jetliner, which flew only weeks after the world’s first jet transport the deHavilland Comet. The prospects for the Jetliner looked good, except that AVRO did not have the capacity to advance all of its projects in parallel, and as the international situation worsened, and Canada needed all its aircraft and engine production for military needs, the Jetliner disappeared from view.

By 1950, the RCAF had redesigned its force structure a number of times. There was a need not just to expand capabilities for a possible European war, but also to coordinate with the US Air Force for the defence of North America. The staffs at Air Force headquarters (AFHQ) developed a complex plan which would see an air division of 12 squadrons in Europe, equipped initially with Canadair licence-built F86 Sabres (and powered by Canadian Orenda engines), and, subsequently, with all-weather CF100s. These same CF100s, with their long-range, twin-engine performance, and all-weather capability, would also be the fighter of choice for North American air defence. At the same time, it was apparent that Canada’s training expertise would once again be needed to assist in the training of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) aviators. By 1954, the RCAF was spending half of the defence budget.

A number of themes had thus come together to give Canada a unique air power capability: a solid domestic production capability of world class aircraft; an effective civil aviation sector; an air force that had the institutional experience for running complicated and demanding programmes; the tactical proficiency to operate at a level on par with its allies; and, the vision to get ahead of or at least keep up with complex and ambiguous world circumstances.

But these circumstances were not fixed and by the end of the 1950s the air force and air power in Canada had experienced correction; in effect, the throttles had been pulled back. The threat situation had evolved, as had technology, and the government had changed. The follow-on aircraft to the CF100, the fabled CF105 Arrow, was neither needed nor affordable in the fiscal and defence climate of the time, particularly when the threat was now from intercontinental missiles rather than bombers, which the Arrow was designed to protect against. These changed circumstances and policies affected all three services, but the Air Force had the farthest to fall, as it were. As the 1960s became the 1970s, the need for major forces in Europe waned and the Air Division slowly atrophied into an air group of three under-strength squadrons. Air defence at home continued to be a necessity, but there, as in Europe, the aircraft were not top of the line. While the fighters of both roles were replaced with the then new CF18 in the early 1980s, the dominant roles and character of air power in Canada were set for another change.

With the end of the cold war, a situation not unlike that of 1919 and 1945 seemed about to unfold, with what is now called a peace dividend ready to be cashed not only by Canada, but also by NATO governments generally. And indeed, in terms of the need to maintain standing forces ready to deal with political opponents, the circumstances were just so. However, the relative stability of the cold war was quickly replaced with the relative instability of the post-cold war period. Air power now took on other forms, and capabilities previously embedded within the Army in the case of tactical helicopters and strategic and tactical transport now became the most often used forms of air power outside the country, and in their capacities for search and rescue these same air communities did yeoman work inside Canada’s boundaries as well. This new prominence was actually nothing new for the air transport function, which, thanks to a number of Canadian designed and produced short take-off and landing (STOL) aircraft, had been involved in United Nations operations since the 1960s. In the case of the land aviation squadron, their involvement in humanitarian, peace keeping, and peace support missions began in earnest in 1985 with the attachment of a Rotary Wing Aviation Unit to the Multinational Force in the Sinai. Significantly, these aircraft, too, with the introduction of the Bell 412 Griffon in the mid-1990s, were Canadian built.

While these two aviation communities have been in the forefront, this should not lead one to conclude that there was no activity in fighter or maritime functions. Both have transformed to the times, using foresight and intellect to adapt technology and practices to current security needs.

As Canada prepares to celebrate 100 years of military aviation, we thus have to ask ourselves what sort of military aviation we will be needing. While there is a clear warfighting heritage and culture, there is also apparently much more. The RCAF was born of a campaign to show Canadians that an air service is not only a warfighting service, but one which could serve other security-related needs in the broadest sense, whether supporting other government departments, as has been the case since the first counter-drug operations in the 1920s, or conducting contemporary humanitarian and peace support operations in Canada and around the globe. This ability to undertake such a broad range of activities could easily be explained by the notion of airpower’s flexibility, but that arguably refers to tactical activities. The kind of flexibility that the Canadian air services have exhibited, both from the perspective of the leaders and the adaptability of the organization and the vision of the leaders, speaks to a much more important flexibility of the mind. In Canada, then, air power really does seem to be writ large.

But if there is a Canadian conception of air power, then we might want to ask, in the army fashion: so what? As suggested immediately above, Canadian aviators have demonstrated that they are able to adapt to a range of static imperatives and tactical necessities. While these concerns might have been adequate for the 20th century, they have been arguably less important in the complexity and ambiguity of the early years of the current century. There is little question that aviators need to recognize that they come from a cultural history where individual aviators and squadrons have excelled in combat and on operations, but they must equally recognize the necessity of continuing to think beyond purely tactical and technical matters in the contemporary security climate. In short, we have developed a particular conception of air power; we need to know how that conception came to be, and why it is important to maintain and develop the institutional nimbleness that has helped Canadian air power to survive and evolve.

Is this a finite task? Have we reached a stable conception? Clearly not. On top of everything else, the air forces of Canada have demonstrated, perhaps implicitly or even unintentionally, that they have been and need to be learning organizations. Aviation is too young a profession to be able to fall back on centuries of culture and custom. As we make our own way we must think hard about the decisions that have been made along the way and if and how those decisions and their outcomes will help us through our second century.

Dr. Randall Wakelam flew helicopters for the army, commanding 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron from 1991 until 1993. Subsequently, as a military educator he served at the Canadian Forces College. In 2009, he joined the History faculty of Royal Military College (RMC) as a civilian. He holds a PhD from Wilfrid Laurier. He has written extensively on military command and decision making as well as military education, with a particular focus on the air force. His first book, The Science of Bombing: Operational Research in RAF Bomber Command, was published by University of Toronto Press in 2009.

BCATP―British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
NATO―North Atlantic Treaty Organization
RAF―Royal Air Force
RCAF―Royal Canadian Air Force
UK―United Kingdom
US―United States

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