Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Program Name/Specialization

Canadian History


Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

Roger Sarty

Advisor Role

Roger Sarty


This thesis examines the expansion of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) under the St. Laurent government with the concept of the Big Air Force that emerged from the defence re-armament programme announced on 5 February 1951. During this critical Cold War period, the RCAF became Canada’s first line of defence, making an essential contribution to the collective defence of Western Europe through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Concurrently, the RCAF underwent tremendous expansion in Canada contributing to North American defence, along with significant increases in its training, maritime and transport capabilities. The RCAF developed into the largest military service with the biggest portion of the defence budget. The notion of “airmindedness” that permeated all aspects of Canadian society enabled the development and implementation of the Big Air Force concept. Underlying the Big Air Force concept were two conflicting visions of air power, derived from leading theorists of the 1920s. The first was an independent role for aviation, “Douhet with nukes,” a Cold War reference to the ideas of Italian General Giulio Douhet. The second approach was American General William Mitchell’s “anything that flies” construct that embraced missions under the control of the army and navy and support to other agencies in such undertakings as air transport. By the late 1950s, the Big Air Force could not be sustained, thus marking its decline under the Diefenbaker and Pearson governments that was complete by the late 1960s. Despite some modernization in the late 1970s, successive governments adhered to the notion of a “minimalist air force” after 1969 until the end of the Cold War. This thesis considers the expansion and decline of the air force from the perspective of three inter-related thematic pillars – politics and economics, military strategy and technology. The predominance of air power represented the Canadian “way of war” during this time, and this legacy still resonates today with the ongoing debate regarding the F-35 aircraft for the RCAF’s Next Generation Fighter Capability programme.

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Convocation Season