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Canadian jets still waiting for advanced missiles U.S. used to destroy flying objects

OTTAWA — Canadian fighter jets still have not been armed with the type of missiles used by the American military to bring down four airborne objects in recent weeks, more than two years after such missiles were ordered. The U.S.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to the media Sunday, February 12, 2023, in Ottawa before boarding a flight to the Yukon after ordering the take down of an unidentified object that violated Canadian airspace. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Patrick Doyle

OTTAWA — Canadian fighter jets still have not been armed with the type of missiles used by the American military to bring down four airborne objects in recent weeks, more than two years after such missiles were ordered.

The U.S. government first approved the sale of AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles and advanced radars to Canada in June 2020, as part of a package of new equipment to upgrade weaponry and combat systems and keep the CF-18s flying through 2032.

The upgrades were deemed necessary after the federal government delayed plans to replace the fleet with F-35s, and following a report from Canada's auditor general in 2018 that warned the CF-18s were outdated.

Yet while Canada has since ordered 36 of the missiles, Department of National Defence spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said Monday that none have been delivered, let alone mounted on the Royal Canadian Air Force's CF-18s.

In the meantime, the Pentagon says American fighter jets have used AIM-9Xs to shoot down four airborne objects since Feb. 4. That includes a still-unidentified object taken down over the northern coast of Alaska on Friday, one over central Yukon on Saturday and another over Lake Huron on Sunday.

While the government has said that Canadian jets were deployed to intercept and track the object over the Yukon, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau again defended the decision to have an American fighter jet shoot it down.

"There were Canadian and American fighter jets scrambled to intercept the object and to take it down," Trudeau said Monday during a news conference in Whitehorse, as search crews worked to recover wreckage from the object.

"It was a very much based on the context and the situation of who was there, who had the capacity to do it before we lost the object into darkness. … Our focus was not on which side gets credit for what. Our focus was on running the operation smoothly and successfully."

Trudeau also noted the binational characteristics of the North American Aerospace Defence Command, the joint U.S.-Canadian air surveillance and defence organization known as Norad, "which means we do things together over North America."

During a briefing late Sunday, the American commander of Norad described some of the challenges that fighter pilots faced tracking and shooting down the object over Lake Huron, which is believed to have crashed in Canadian waters.

"Maintaining a radar track on an object this small is very hard," U.S. Gen. Glen VanHerck told reporters. He added that while pilots considered using guns or radar-guided missiles to shoot the objects, they ultimately felt the heat-seeking AIM-9X was the best option.

"In each situation, the AIM-9X, a heat-seeking missile or infrared missile that sees contrast, has been the weapon of choice against the objects we've been seeing."

Maj.-Gen. Paul Prevost, director of staff for the Strategic Joint Staff, told reporters during a technical briefing that the CF-18 "can take care of some of those objects."

"And there are tools as well in the U.S. inventory to take care of those," Prevost said. "This is really dependent on the objects that we face. And there's always an ongoing analysis on what's the best tool to use for the situation we face."

He added: "At this time, we were not asked to use CF-18s on any of those objects just because of where they were and where our resources in Canada were at the time. But there are capabilities on the CF-18 that will be able to take care of some of those objects, depending on where they are and what they are."

Prevost later said CF-18s deployed from Cold Lake, Alta., on Saturday were "within minutes" of meeting up with the balloon over the Yukon when an American F-22 shot it down.

"I'm not going to reveal all the details about the sensors and the weapons that were on board," he said. "But they were set to continue the operation should the U.S. not be able to continue further as it transited through Canadian airspace." 

Retired Canadian general Tom Lawson, who flew CF-18s before serving as Norad deputy commander and then chief of the defence staff, said Canada's CF-18s currently use an older version of the AIM-9 Sidewinder.

"When I was flying CF-18s, I did not have a weapon that would shoot down something over 40,000 feet if it was moving too slowly," he said. "My radar wouldn't have locked onto it. My heat-seeking missile, my AIM-9, would not have locked onto this thing."

Officials have said that the first object, a suspected Chinese balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina last week, was flying at around 60,000 feet. The second and third objects, shot down on Friday and Saturday, were flying at about 40,000 feet. The fourth, on Sunday, was flying lower at about 20,000 feet.

The Opposition Conservatives have used the incident to criticize what they see as the Liberal government's failure to properly invest in and support the military and protect Canada’s national security.

"Over the last eight years this government has had ample warning from our intelligence agencies and our military," Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said in the House of Commons.

"And despite these warnings Canada is vulnerable, vulnerable because this government has failed to counter foreign interference, failed to stop funding of Beijing's military research, failed to upgrade (the) Norad early warning system and failed to acquire modern fighter jets."

The Conservatives were particularly critical of the delay in buying F-35s. The Liberals confirmed plans last month to buy 88 F-35s over the coming years, marking the end of a decade-long search for a new fighter jet that first started under Stephen Harper’s government in 2010.

The Harper government later backed off its plan after facing questions and criticism over the aircraft's cost and design problems, leading to years of delays and partisan bickering.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino dismissed the Conservatives' complaints and allegations, saying Canada and the U.S. are "working together seamlessly to ensure continental security."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 13, 2023.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press