Arrows of Misfortune

In the late-1940s, the Soviet Union developed jet-powered, long-range bombers capable of transporting nuclear weapons throughout Europe and across North America. As a counter-measure, Western nations began producing missile-armed interceptors. Research and design on Canada’s version – the Arrow – began in 1953. Avro Aircraft Ltd. was the Canadian company charged with building the delta-winged aircrafts.
Diefenbaker with Major General George Pearkes

Minister of National Defence, Major General George Pearkes initially remarked that the Arrow was a “…symbol of a new era for Canada in the air.” However, keeping ahead of rapidly emerging technology meant constant modifications to the jet’s design, which in turn necessitated increased staff and funding. By 1955, the project had grown so large that it employed over 41,000 people and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Bowing to Pressures

In 1957, bowing to pressures from the Americans, Diefenbaker’s government committed to a partnership with the U.S. in NORAD (North American Air Defense). In order to provide an early warning and defence system, NORAD combined Bomarc missile technology with SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment), an early computerized system for tracking and intercepting bombers.

Joining NORAD placed incredible financial burdens on Canada’s economy. Skyrocketing production costs combined with increasingly rapid international advancements in offensive nuclear technologies ultimately doomed the Arrow.

Grounded: The End of a Dream

Sputnik 1

On 4 October 1957, the first Arrow finally rolled off the production line. That same day the Soviet Union unveiled Sputnik1, the first satellite to enter earth’s orbit. Sputnik’s launch marked the beginning of the “Space race” and it challenged conventional thinking about what forms of military defenses were effective in the Cold War. The world was suddenly faced with space and missile technology that seemed to make the distance separating continents and countries irrelevant.  In this climate, purchasing the Bomarc missile seemed wiser than developing costly fighter jets.

On 20 February 1959, the Diefenbaker government cancelled the Arrow program. A total of $470 million had been spent on planes that never flew and 14, 528 Avro employees lost their jobs.

“We did not cancel the [Arrow] CF-105 because there was no bomber threat, but because there was a lesser threat and we got the Bomarc in lieu of more airplanes….”

(Minister of National Defense, Major General George Pearkes)

Pointing Arrows

“Shooting Arrows” by Adrian Raeside

Diefenbaker and his government faced ruthless condemnation following the scrapping of the Arrow. Many blamed Diefenbaker for having single-handedly destroyed the program. Some argued that the sophisticated Arrow would have contributed to the national development and international prestige of Canada.

In truth, the Liberal government had already considered discontinuing the Arrow program before losing the 1957 election to the Progressive Conservatives. Unfortunately, it was Diefenbaker who inherited the costly set-backs that had plagued the jet’s development.