Bombardier: The Montreal aerospace manufacturer refocuses on military-sector exports

November 24, 2022

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 43 Issue 4 Winter 2022

Twenty years ago, Montreal’s Bombardier was a powerhouse in the global aerospace market. Today, after a drastic and very public downsizing, the company has focused almost completely on its line of versatile corporate aircraft. This concentration on marketing flexible and multi-purpose aerospace goods places a greater emphasis on military-related exports.


After making first snowmobiles and then rolling stock and rail transport, Bombardier expanded into aerospace, the field for which it is best known today. Bombardier initially purchased Canadair in the mid-1980s and then De Havilland Canada in 1992. During this period of booming growth, Bombardier not only saw major commercial success, but made inroads into military aircraft markets.

Bombardier’s sales began drying up in the late 2000s. Then the company’s exports were subjected to stiff tariffs from the U.S. Department of Commerce in response to a petition from rival Boeing. Although these protectionist measures were eventually overturned, the financial damage was significant. Bombardier eventually divested itself of its commercial airline portfolio, concentrating instead on corporate jets.


Bombardier has further refined this focus, concentrating on the Challenger and Global lines of aircraft, small business jets that offer comfortable and flexible transportation options for corporate clients. This flexibility also makes them suitable for non-corporate applications.

Every year, Bombardier manufactures aircraft that will then be converted into “special mission aircraft” for military end-use and sold to foreign governments. These aircraft can support missions ranging from surveillance to electronic warfare.


To the more than 500 Bombardier-made special mission aircraft already in government and military service around the world, Bombardier adds from “three to six specialized aircraft” each year. The manufacturing process for such an aircraft typically begins in Canada but is completed by foreign suppliers.

Bombardier’s Challenger series is assembled in Quebec, while the Global line is assembled outside of Toronto in Ontario. Aircraft that are going to military end-users are then shipped to other facilities, most outside of Canada, that work to meet military specifications, including fitting the aircraft with advanced intelligence, surveillance, airborne early warning and control (AEW&C), communications, or electronic warfare equipment.

One such facility is Bombardier Defense, Bombardier’s newly rebranded subsidiary in Kansas, which provides special engineering support to modify the aircraft for special mission purposes. For example, it supports the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node system on the Global 6000 for the United States Air Force.

In other instances, Bombardier ships its aircraft overseas. Global 6000 aircraft used in the GlobalEye AEW&C platform are sent to Saab in Sweden, where they are retrofitted with a large “Erieye” radar system along the spine of the airframe. Saab then delivers the aircraft to the customer.


Since 2020, the total market value of deliveries and orders of Bombardier aircraft for military end-users has exceeded half a billion dollars. Because the aircraft are retrofitted for military use after they leave Canadian soil, Canada’s export control regime doesn’t consider them military goods, even though the end-use is clearly understood by both customer and manufacturer. The result is that they are exempted from Canadian regulations on military exports, including assessments on the potential human rights ramifications of their transfer. They are also not counted in Canada’s annual reporting of such exports.

As an example, in 2015, India’s external intelligence agency received two heavily modified Global 5000 aircraft that were fitted with reconnaissance and surveillance systems by Israeli supplier Elta Systems in Tel Aviv. Each unmodified, civilian version of this aircraft costs tens of millions of dollars. However, for 2015, Canada reported the total value of exports of military aircraft and associated components to India at only $4,186. Thus, it appears that the aircraft were transferred as commercial rather than military goods.

Bombardier isn’t the only Canadian aerospace company that ships goods for eventual military end-use that are free from arms controls. The lack of regulation of aerospace components is a longstanding weakness of the export control regimes of Canada and other jurisdictions.


Since 2012, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has ordered several Bombardier aircraft through third parties for military end-use. The total market value is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

According to aerospace publication Flight Global, the initial UAE order included two Global 6000 aircraft for use in a “secretive programme … for an unspecified special-mission role.” Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group in the United Kingdom fitted the aircraft with electronic and signals intelligence hardware and began deliveries to the UAE no earlier than 2018.

In 2015, the UAE became the flagship customer for the Saab-modified GlobalEye platform when it ordered two of the aircraft. It subsequently ordered three more. It also ordered a Challenger 650, which was to be modified by Aquila Aerospace in Abu Dhabi in 2019 for “a variety of missions.”

Because of its involvement in the war in Yemen, the UAE’s ability to import arms has been restricted by some governments, which viewed as too high the risk that exports would be used in international humanitarian law violations in that conflict. According to Insider, Saab lobbied Swedish officials to exempt from this export freeze the transfer of the modified Bombardier aircraft. In 2019, Swedish officials released the export licences, and the jets were shipped to the UAE.

It is noteworthy that, in 2018, Canadian officials denied the export of unidentified aerospace goods to the UAE for reasons of “foreign and defence policy,” making the UAE the only party to the conflict in Yemen so denied. This action was almost certainly based on the UAE’s conduct in the war, particularly related to airstrikes, which led to a judgement that there was a significant risk that the goods would be used in the violation of human rights. However, because unmodified Bombardier aircraft are not considered military goods by the Canadian government, their continued export to the UAE has not been placed under any such restrictions.


Bombardier’s intense restructuring in recent years has forced it to focus on what it sees as safe markets. Clearly the market for special mission aircraft for military use is viewed in this light. The company is currently producing aircraft for several military customers and has orders for a number of years in advance.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Bombardier’s chief executive officer stated that the company intended to focus even more on the defence market, in response to signals from the world’s militaries of their intentions to boost military expenditures in an increasingly insecure world.

Photo: Montreal’s Bombardier was once a powerhouse in the global aerospace market. “Bombardier aéronautique” by Jeangagnon is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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