The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the Russian Federation Air Force conducted a cooperative air defense exercise from August 8-11 that focused on combating terrorism.
Vigilant Eagle was hailed as a milestone exercise between the Cold War era rivals. It included Russian, U.S., along with Canadian Air Force personnel operating from command centers inside Russia and the United States directing fighter jets, as well as civilian air traffic controllers. It took several years to stage the drill which centered around, "an international air terrorism scenario exercised over the Pacific Ocean consisting of forces from the U.S. and Russia responding to the simulated hijacking of a B-757 en route to the Far East." The joint exercise was, "designed to establish clear communication processes that would allow the two forces to work together during a real crisis." Russian Air Force Col. Alexander Vasilyev emphasized the importance of cooperation in combating the dangers of air terrorism. He stated, "Terrorism is something that affects all our countries. So it is very important that we work together to develop procedures and bring the relationship between our countries closer together to unite our countries in the fight against terrorism."
The recent NORAD-Russian air drill was preceded by an incident where Canadian fighter jets repelled two long-range Russian bombers off the coast of Labrador near the Arctic. Russia contends the flight was simply a training mission and deny trying to enter Canadian airspace. They maintain that the Canadian military was aware of the exercise contrary to Defense minister Peter MacKay who insists that they were not notified. NORAD fighters have intercepted between 12 and 18 bombers annually since 2007. In advance of President Obama's visit to Canada back in February of 2009, Canadian fighter jets were scrambled to head off Russian bombers approaching its airspace. Prime Minster Stephen Harper promised that Canada would defend its airspace and sovereignty by responding every time the Russians make any kind of intrusion into its Arctic territory. At times, Canada and Russia have both been guilty of a war of words in regards to Arctic sovereignty. The latest so-called Russian bomber incursion appears to be nothing more than an attempt by the Conservative government to capitalize on the event to further its political interests.
The Harper government is using the most recent confrontation between Canadian and Russian military planes to justify its plans to buy 65 new jet fighters and draw attention to its stance on Arctic sovereignty. In July, the Canadian government announced plans to acquire the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II which will replace its fleet of CF-18 Hornets. The first F-35's are expected to be delivered by 2016. Including maintenance of the fighter jets, the total price tag is expected to cost Canadian taxpayers over $16 billion. The government insists they are getting the best aircraft for the best value. Some have questioned the purchase considering Canada is running its largest deficit in history. The Liberal party has been critical of the deal and its lack of transparency. Not to mention that one of Canada's biggest military acquisitions was done without a single competing bid. The Conservatives argue that they exercised options and that the F-35 was the only next-generation fighter plane that meets the operational requirements of the Canadian Forces. They continue to defend their decision making a case that the new jets are part of its obligation to its allies and will protect Canada's sovereignty well into the future.
Controversy has surrounded Canadian Defense Department computers being used to alter online Wikipedia entries. This includes the removal of some information which was critical of the Harper government's decision to spend billions on the new F-35 stealth jet. The New Democrats are demanding answers. NDP MP Claude Gravelle stated, "At worst this type of manipulative behavior is indicative of the government's culture of information control." He went on to say, "Even if this apparent misuse of resources is the work of a lone DND staffer "freelancing,' it raises questions about oversight in that department." Defense Department computers were also used to insert insults on Wikipedia aimed at the Liberals who have questioned the jet aircraft purchase. Gravelle also added, "Some of the comments posted regarding Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and the media were particularly worrisome. We do not expect to see this type of big brother behavior in Canada. Unfortunately Canadians are starting to see a pattern in the desire to control the message." This illustrates how web based institutions such as Wikipedia can act as gatekeepers and be used to spread propaganda in an effort to guide public perception.
Whether or not the majority of Canadians support the government's decision to purchase the new F-35 jets, it does represent a continued commitment to NATO and NORAD. It is also closely tied to deeper U.S.-Canada military integration and a North American security perimeter.