Canada’s Counter-Insurgency Fighter Jet

When Canadians think about the Canadair CL-41 Tutor, if they think about it all, it’s as the airplane of choice for the Royal Canadian Air Force aerobatics team, the Snowbirds. The Tutor was designed in the late 1950s by Canadair as a basic jet trainer with side-by-side seating for better instruction, a role in which it served the RCAF until the year 2000. However, the plane is almost certainly better known as the mount for Canadian aerobatics teams since the 1967 Golden Centennaires (the Snowbird name dates to 1971, the team’s status as official armed forces demonstration team to 1977).

The CL-41 in Snowbirds colours. Wikimedia Commons; Bzuk (photographer)

The CL-41 in Snowbirds colours.
Wikimedia Commons; Bzuk (photographer)

If Canadair and the Canadian goverment had gotten its wish, the Tutor would also have had a wider and probably more sinister reputation as a strike aircraft in small wars. Taking advantage of the fact the CL-41 was agile and easy to fly – Flight magazine declared that it had “delectable virtues as a flying machine” – Canadair offered an export variant designated the CL-41G with an uprated engine and underwing hardpoints for carrying bombs, napalm, or rockets. A nimble, relatively simple, easy-to-fly attack plane, the CL-41G was well-suited to counterinsurgency operations by a country with the appetite to fly jets but a limited budget.

This was a niche that several aircraft were vying to fill. In the United States, the Cessna T-37 “Tweet” jet trainer was being evaluated for a similar combat mission; examples would be sent to Vietnam for testing in 1967 and the plane would be flown by the US Air Force, the South Vietnamese, and several Latin American nations. From the UK, the BAC Jet Provost was being armed and sold to Sri Lanka, Kuwait, Sudan, Iraq, South Yemen and Venezuela. Italy’s Aeromacchi MB.326 was offered in a similar way. And so Canadair went out into the world to find buyers for their new combat airplane and secure their slice of the market.

Canada’s military exports overseas were intermeshed with Canada’s policy of offering military assistance to states around the world. The Other Cold War: Canada’s Military Assistance to the Developing World 1945–1975 (available here) lays out the history of the Canadian missions, the most substantial of which were to the former British colonies of Ghana (1961–68) and Tanzania (1965–70). As Christopher R. Kilford’s history explains, military training missions in the developing world were part of Canada’s contribution to the Anglo-American alliance. Unlike Great Britain, Canada could offer assistance to newly independent Commonwealth nations as a fraternal equal rather than a former imperial overlord, keeping out Soviet or Chinese Communist military advisors in the process.

Sales of military material on generous terms were an easy complement to direct military assistance, though they did require permits from the Department of Trade and Commerce, which generally entailed getting approval from the cabinet. Airplane sales were a substantial segment of the market, with Harvard and Chipmunk trailers going to Israel and Egypt, Canadair Sabres to Columbia, and Dakota, Otter, and Caribou transports to India.

In the end, the only overseas buyer of the CL-41 was the Royal Malaysian Air Force, which acquired twenty CL-41Gs (which they named the Tebuan, or ‘Wasp’) in late 1960s. The purchase was a classic example of combining military training, financial assistance, and export sales in a potent strategic package. The Tebuan purchase came close on the heels of a $4 million Canadian military assistance package to Malaysia that included four Caribou aircraft, air and ground crew training, and 250 light motorcycles. That was provided in 1964–65, while Malayisa was in the midst of a “confrontation,” or undeclared low-intensity war, with Indonesia in northern Borneo. The Tebuan would have been a logical airplane for airstrikes and close air support during the war, but by the time the sale of the aircraft, unarmed, was finalized in March 1966, a final settlement between the two countries was only five months away. Instead, the Tebuan saw service inside Malaya itself, flying airstrikes against Communist base camps near the Thai border during the Second Malayan Emergency.

What Canada barely avoided was having the Canadair CL-41 getting caught up in apartheid South Africa’s wars. In 1963, the South Africans were as very interested in the CL-41G, and the cabinet seems to have come close to approving the sale of fifty aircraft. Though the 1963 Security Council arms embargo on South Africa scuttled the deal,  Canada still approved the sale of radar equipment and spare parts for Canadair Sabres to the apartheid regime. In retrospect, Canada dodged a bullet. The cabinet was willing to allow the sale to South Africa because they believed that the aircraft was inappropriate for internal security and therefore not intended for the suppression of the apartheid regime’s opponents. But, in a little over a decade, the South African Air Force was involved in a border war against the ANC, SWAPO, FAPLA, and Cubans in Angola and South-West Africa. Rather than the CL-41G, the SAAF ended up flying license-built copies of the MB.326. The Impala, as the South Africans named it, ended up flying airstrikes and close air support in a war that lasted more than twenty years.

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