By Joe Fernandez
Much has been said about Boeing pressuring the U.S. Commerce Department to slam extraordinary tariffs on Bombardier’s C-Series aircraft and the Canadian government’s subsequent decision to purchase used Royal Australian Air Force F-18 Hornets instead of paying Boeing for new Super Hornets. None of this legion of jeremiads has noticed the unique opportunity this crisis affords the Canadian Armed Forces and Canada as a whole.
The January 2017 Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine article “Return of the Light Brigade: To meet the demands of 21st century warfare, militaries are reaching for a Vietnam-era weapon” by Tim Wright reports how the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy are looking at crop dusters converted into Combat Air Support (CAS) planes. The rationale behind these tests is that crop dusters converted to CAS are less expensive to build and maintain than are A-10 Warthogs or F/A-18 Hornets. The programme is called OA-X (Observation, Attack-Experimental).
There have been several entrants to the OA-X programme, including the Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine and the Textron Scorpion. The progress of the OA-X programme has been reported on by The National Interest in a number of articles. As well, the October-November edition of the French journal RAIDS Aviation has an article on the OA-X programme, “Antiguérilla : Programme OA-X Quel futur avion d’attaque léger pour l’USAF?” (“Anti-guerilla: The OA-X Programme Which future light attack plane for the USAF?”) by Jean-Pascal Héraut, who notes that several companies had entrants that did not make the cut of the OA-X programme. One of the failed entrants was none other than Boeing’s OV-10X Super Bronco.
One successful entrant whose name comes up in Wright’s and Héraut’s respective articles, as well as in the National Interest articles, is the A-29 Super Tucano. This entrant is of interest because it is manufactured by Bombardier’s most direct weight class rival, Embraer of Brazil. The A-29 Super Tucano is already in use by the Royal Air Force and the USAF, and Wright’s article indicates that Lebanon, Nigeria and Mali are also purchasing the Super Tucano.
If Embraer can develop a CAS plane from a crop duster, why can’t Bombardier do the same? It is too late for Bombardier to develop its equivalent of the Super Tucano as an entrant for the US OA-X programme. Nevertheless, a Bombardier Super Tucano equivalent still offers an opportunity for the Canadian Armed Forces and Canada as a whole.
Were Bombardier to develop and produce its own Super Tucano equivalent, each Canadian Army infantry-armour mechanized brigade group could have its own integral RCAF CAS squadron composed of Bombardier-manufactured Super Tucano equivalents, under the control of CFB Gagetown-trained Royal Canadian Artillery Joint Terminal Attack Controllers. This would increase the independence of Canada’s mechanized brigades, in contrast to the situation described in U.S. Special Forces Major Rusty Bradley’s book Lions of Kandahar, wherein Canadian troops in Afghanistan had to rely on the Royal Netherlands Air Force for air support. Institutionally, this would strengthen the bonds between the Canadian Army and the RCAF to the extent that each service would be more inclined to regard the other service as an ally rather than a rival. For instance, the Rhodesian Air Force worked hand in hand with the Rhodesian Light Infantry and SAS to successfully pull off 1977’s Operation DINGO, which destroyed a ZANLA base in Mozambique, as described in Ian Pringle’s Dingo Firestorm.
A Bombardier-manufactured Super Tucano equivalent would also allow Canada to help its allies at a minimal human cost. Third World countries allied to the West, such as the constituent nations of the African Union Mission fighting Al-Shabab in Somalia (AMISOM), cannot afford A-10 Warthogs. A Super Tucano is less expensive to purchase and to maintain than is a Warthog. A Bombardier-manufactured Super Tucano equivalent could allow Canada to create a 21st century version of one of its most successful contributions to the Allied cause in the Second World War, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, with the RCAF training allied Third World pilots in Canadian-manufactured planes purchased by the pilots’ home nations. This would simultaneously free the F-18s for NORAD use.
Bombardier’s Class A shareholders render the board immune to common stockholder pressure. Bombardier has also received $372 million from Canadian taxpayers who can encourage the board in ways its common stockholders cannot.