Saturday, October 4, 2014

Canada's Comparative Advantage

Justin Trudeau argued that Canada should focus on its comparative advantage--that it can do the non-combat stuff really well.  Not sure other folks would think that they are worse at the non-combat stuff, but Trudeau has a point.  It just doesn't support his argument.

In the skies over Libya, Canada had some key advantages compared to its allies.
  1. It turns out that the Aurora aircraft, designed for maritime security, serve very nicely to help identity and communicate targets on the ground.  One could imagine that Canada contributes only these planes, but this would still be a combat role since the planes facilitate air support.
  2. Canada has refueling aircraft, which many countries lack, so Canada along with the US refueled the planes of over a dozen countries in the skies over and near Libya without incident (and this stuff is not easy).
  3. Most significantly, not everyone that flies drops bombs.  And not everyone that drops bombs do so in the same way.  In Libya, several countries just participated in the No Fly Zone, which was not entirely risk-free but pretty close since Libya was no longer flying anything.  Among the countries willing to conduct air strikes, several were only willing to hit fixed targets that were cleared/vetted before the planes left the ground--a.k.a. deliberate targeting.  Only a few were willing/able to fly to a spot in the space of Libya and then be directed to targets by Auroras, JSTARs (similar to Auroras but designed for this purpose), and perhaps the British/France Special Operators on the ground--dynamic targeting.  These targets of opportunity were still vetted by lawyers to make sure that everything is above board.  And the pilots still retain the authority to not strike if they assess the situation as being too dangerous for themselves, too risky for civilians nearby, etc.  Given the nature of this campaign, dynamic targeting is going to be key. 
So, Canada's comparative advantage is ... combat.  Its pilots have experience in doing this kind of thing for eight months only a couple of years ago.  Despite being old, the CF-18s are quite suitable for this endeavor, with upgrades that allow them to work well with the Americans, Australians (who fly advanced versions of the F-18), and the rest of the countries flying American and European planes.

Thus, Trudeau is smart about pointing at a key question: what does Canada bring to the table?  Alas, the answer is not what he is looking for (mostly for domestic political purposes).

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