Tuesday, Defence Minister Bill Graham, flanked by Chief of the Defence Staff General Rick Hillier and Public Works Minister Scott Brison, announced an accelerated program to replace the oldest of our C-130 Hercules fleet. It’s about bloody time!
Mr. Graham seemed to express frustration at being forced into this scenario by the threat of an election. Is that what it takes – the threat of losing his job to make him and his colleagues do the right thing? If so, then good on the Opposition parties for making something happen.
The truth is that there was nothing stopping the Government from going ahead, other than political gamesmanship and chronic defence underfunding. They're not sure whether they are afraid of being criticized for foolishly committing money with an election in the air; or whether they want to try to look like belated heroes to a Canadian Forces that they have shamefully neglected for decades.
As an airman who is deeply concerned about the critical degradation of the CF's capabilities over the decades, I am glad that something has been done. Most of the C-130 fleet is on its butt and that is severely restricting the Air Force from fulfilling its operational commitments.
The Air Force needs new aircraft right now. They have expressed their preferred solution for the tactical airlift part of the equation through General Hillier. That is an important step, but we still have to address our continuing shortfall of strategic airlift. Canada has never had strategic airlift capability; that is, the ability to carry a significant amount of personnel and equipment over a significant distance. The Canadair Yukon, Boeing 707 and now the Airbus CC150 did a pretty good job of moving personnel over a long distance, but couldn't carry much in the way of equipment.
Some are questioning the projected high cost of the new aircraft, but that is somewhat misunderstood. I'm basing my comments on being intimately familiar with the New Fighter Aircraft Program (CF-18). Program cost includes life cycle costs; which comprises many things. These may include operations and maintenance, spares, support equipment, test equipment, documentation (in both official languages), training (flying, simulators, technicians, logistics), and infrastructure.
It also includes things like GST and revenue dependency for PWGSC to administer the program. With the CF-18, we had to pay GST on every aircraft that was delivered to Canada and was not re-deployed to Germany. In those days, PWGSC was Supply and Services Canada and, as I recall, we paid them 1.5% of the program cost to administer it. So, if numbers are similar today, take about 8.5% right off the top of program money. Your security and defence is just another source of over-taxation in Government eyes.
The CF-18 program was about CAD 5 billion for 138 aircraft. The contract cost of each individual aircraft was just over USD 16 million in January 1978 dollars. Simply dividing the total program cost by the number of aircraft is misleading. I'm not sure whether we are or are not paying a fair price for the proposed new aircraft, but people should understand all aspects before they criticize.
The other issue is the urgency of signing a contract. The Liberal Government has brought this urgency upon themselves (and, regrettably, upon members of the Air Force and those they serve), by many years of deliberate penny pinching on defence.
The current plan will amount to an essentially sole-source contract. If the answer is obvious and the need is urgent, that is acceptable. Such decisions should be more about defence and security requirements and less about politics. Within the constraints of budgets and due process, the lead should be given to military staffs. The personnel flying and supporting our current C-130s under increasingly difficult circumstances deserve that, and the other military units that they support desperately need that.
We still need a strategic fixed wing airlift capability and a heavy lift rotary wing capability. There are capable aircraft available for both those roles and their manufacturer has been very pro-active in proposing cost effective acquisition programs. MND John McCallum quietly cancelled the strategic airlift program some years back, apparently at the urging of a misguided Chief of Staff.
The realities of Canada's commitments to peace making and peace enforcement (read war fighting), as well as to natural disasters, such as tsunamis and earthquakes, require on-demand strategic airlift. That means that we need to own it. We will never be able to react in less than about two weeks, if we have to line up at the local Budget Rent-an-Antonov every time something happens. A DART without feathers doesn't fly very straight, very far, or very fast.
I've also seen the airplanes and elections movie before with the New Fighter Aircraft Program. In late 1979, when Joe Clark lost count of his fingers and toes and, consequently, his government, we had the CF-18 contract completely ready for final blessing the next day. We had endured many years of false starts, extensive evaluation, delays, difficult negotiations, funding envelope changes, and many other challenges. Program Manager, Brigadier-General Paul Manson (later CDS) and his senior staff stayed up all night trying to convince the falling government to approve the program. They wouldn't and we had to do it all over again for Trudeau's Liberals. It was a black day, but we did eventually buy the CF-18 and it has performed magnificently. In reality, the delay didn't have much impact on the long-term program.
The difference between then and now is that, in 1979, we didn't have units in an active combat environment without the support they should have. Today, we do, and we need to pull out all stops to redress that situation. If we take a quick, hard look at costs, that's okay; but let's not forget what's going on out there in the real world of Afghanistan and other garden spots, where Canadian men and women are risking everything. We owe them the best and we owe it to them yesterday.