DND photo GN00-2016-1156-015 by Captain Greg Juurlink

Canadian Army soldiers disembark a CH-147F Chinook helicopter during Exercise Common Ground II 2016 at 5th Canadian Division Support Base Gagetown, New Brunswick, 25 November 2016.

A Renaissance for the RCAF?

by Martin Shadwick

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In 28 November 2016 testimony before the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, the Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Lieutenant-General Michael Hood, posited that the RCAF “is going through a time of great renewal.” He noted that the CH-147F Chinook medium transport helicopter had achieved full operational capability and that the CC-130J Hercules had recently completed a significant software and hardware upgrade, adding that “our fifth [CC-177] Globemaster is proving to be a tremendous addition to our readiness posture.” On a decidedly different operational front, Lieutenant-General Hood observed that “our anti-submarine warfare platform, the Aurora, has evolved into a long-range patrol aircraft capable of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance [ISR] over land as well as water. Fourteen Auroras are undergoing major upgrades that will keep them at the forefront of these capabilities into the 2030 timeframe.” The “Aurora is a huge Canadian success story, with world-leading capabilities—Canadian capabilities researched, designed and built in Canada, developed by Defence Research and Development working alongside our Canadian industry. The question now, and my priority, is how to move that capability” into an eventual successor platform. “I would like to see a Canadian-built platform such as the [Q400] or a [C Series] when the Aurora’s flying time is done.”

DND photo CK02-2016-0510-013 by Corporal Ian Thompson

An RCAF CC-177 Globemaster III flies over the runway on approach for landing at CFB Cold Lake during Exercise Maple Flag, 31 May 2016.

Moreover, by April 2018, “…we expect to have two helicopter air detachments of Cyclone helicopters deployed at sea, with further detachments to follow as we transition from the Sea King fleet, which will retire in December 2018.” He also anticipated that “…the defence policy review will shape our current unmanned aerial vehicles programme [i.e., JUSTAS]. Information from industry is being assessed, and notional delivery timelines are between 2021 and 2023, with final delivery in 2025.” The renaissance theme was reinforced a few days after his testimony by the announcement that Ottawa had selected the Airbus C295W to replace the long-serving CC-115 Buffalo and legacy CC-130 Hercules in the fixed-wing search and rescue role.

©Airbus Defence & Space

As part of the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) program, the RCAF will purchase 16 Airbus C295Ws modified for search and rescue.

Earlier in his testimony, Lieutenant-General Hood noted that “because of [the RCAF’s] roles and missions, we have the highest percentage of personnel on high readiness” of the three services. “In this context…the Government of Canada has just announced that it is investing in the [RCAF] and that we will grow to meet their policy direction regarding the availability of our fighter capability. The government has now directed that we be ready to meet our daily NATO and NORAD commitments simultaneously. The government is committed to delivering those resources, in part through an open and transparent competition to replace the fighter fleet. Meanwhile, they will enter into discussion with the U.S. government and Boeing to augment our present CF-18 fleet. We will also be provided the additional resources required to continue to fly the CF-18, and a potential interim fleet, through to transition to the ultimate replacement aircraft.”

Although it is readily apparent that Canada’s air force continues to confront a sobering and multifaceted array of challenges and dilemmas, one could indeed posit that recent developments—however lengthy their gestation periods—do signal, if not a full-scope renaissance, then at least a future that arguably approximates a renaissance more than a requiem. Indeed, some analysts may posit that the country (and its armed forces) could experience a 21st Century variation of the type of trade-security interface that influenced the 1974-75 Defence Structure Review conducted by the government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Prompted in part by entreaties from Canada’s European allies—their influence noticeably enhanced by Canada’s quest for a trade-diversifying ‘contractual link’ with Europe—the Defence Structure Review rescued DND from the financial wilderness and bequeathed to Canada’s armed forces everything from CF-18s and CP-140 Auroras to Halifax-class patrol frigates and Leopard C1 main battle tanks. Playing the increased defence spending card in return for trade access and trade stability in the age of President Donald Trump may or may not prove advantageous or even viable, but, in a potential echo of the mid-1970s, it could bring at least some additional financial and other resources to DND. If increased Canadian defence spending favoured areas of concern to the new administration in Washington, such as home defence and North American defence, then multiple areas of air force endeavour—from its fighter, air-to-air refuelling and maritime patrol/ISR capabilities, to the eventual successor(s) to the aging North Warning System—could conceivably benefit. If such investments simultaneously advanced Canadian sovereignty and security interests in the Arctic, so much the better.

A thoughtful contemporary overview of the challenges facing civilian and military decision-makers was provided by Alan Stephenson in The RCAF and the Role of Airpower: Considering Canada’s Future Contributions. In the July 2016 essay, one of a series commissioned by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, Stephenson observes that “however remote major conflict may seem in the current geopolitical environment, the possibility that the RCAF will be called upon to participate in combat operations in the future cannot be ruled out”—adding, quite correctly, that “combat-capable platforms can be used for non-combat missions whereas the reverse is not true.” While acknowledging that the “economy is under duress,” he urged Ottawa “to approach the Defence Policy Review as the preservation of Canadian values rather than as a defence against identified threats. The government has a ‘Responsibility to Protect’ Canada and Canadians, neighbours in North America, friends and alliance partners, and the international system and society—in that priority. These imperatives demand a balanced RCAF in terms of the breadth of capability needed to meet national security and defence requirements in both domestic and deployed operations.”

The specific recommendations advanced by the Stephenson essay argue that: (a) “the Defence Policy Review should focus on maintaining core airpower capabilities, roles and missions, then incorporate emerging capabilities as increases in defence budgets permit;” (b) “operational deployments of long duration should be minimized to maximize funding for capital projects;” and (c), that “the RCAF should invest in life extension programs to maximize fleet life expectancy.” The latter point is worth repeating, although it should be noted that not all life extension programs are cost-effective and that some may unintentionally extend a type’s service life beyond the production life of a desirable new-production replacement aircraft. The essay also recommends that: (d) “the RCAF must be capable of participation in both control of the air and air attack combat operations at home and abroad. Canada should maintain the capability to deploy and sustain six multi-role fighter aircraft with air-to-air refuelling to support NATO- or UN-sanctioned operations in addition to defence of Canada commitments;” (e) “mobility support to the CAF and alliance partners should remain the basis for assigned mobility roles and missions. The government should consider increasing airlift contributions to complex peace support and traditional peacekeeping missions as well as humanitarian assistance operations.” In that regard, one cannot resist the temptation to suggest asking Airbus to quote on a modest number of transport-configured C295Ws. “Given recent recapitalization of organic helicopter capabilities as well as life extension projects to the CP-140 and CH-146,” the essay further recommends that “RCAF roles and missions in support of the RCN, and SOFCOM [Canadian Army] should remain at current levels pending available funding for increased UAV ISR capabilities,” that “search and rescue should remain a required RCAF role” (a recommendation most heartily endorsed by this analyst, although one that is undermined by the increased outsourcing of base-level maintenance, as in the case of the forthcoming SAR C295Ws), and that “the recapitalization of the North Warning System with the United States should be approached from a holistic perspective to maximize Canadian sovereignty and national interests through ISR integration with national capabilities.” The essay also posits that “replacement of the CF-18 is required by 2025. As the CF-18 has proven to be flexible and resilient during changing political and threat environments, the Future Fighter Aircraft must be multi-role and capable of integration into the technologically evolving IAMD [integrated air and missile defence] system construct. Cost-effectiveness requires that analysis of all four dimensions of airpower be considered in the options analysis.”

DND photo CK02-2016-0510-107 by Corporal Ian Thompson

An RCAF CP-140 Aurora takes off from the inner runway during Exercise Maple Flag at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta, 7 June 2016.

The upgraded Aurora clearly constitutes an integral element of any RCAF renaissance, but Canada now faces two choices—one very short-term and related to the modernization and life extension of more than the fourteen aircraft currently programmed, and one longer-term and related to an ultimate successor to the Aurora. Given the demonstrated versatility of the Aurora and the lack of funding for a short-to-medium term replacement initiative, a credible case can be made for modernizing and life-extending at least some additional Auroras. A recent study by the Maritime Air Veterans Association, for example, urges that “RCAF manpower and funding be increased to restore the Aurora fleet to its original 18 aircraft capability.” Similarly, an Air Force Association of Canada position paper recommends that Ottawa upgrade “…as many Aurora aircraft as possible (up to 18).” The industrial window of opportunity for additional conversions is fast closing, however, thereby necessitating a prompt decision. The question of a successor to the Aurora is more complicated. As this column has in the past observed, it is difficult to see how a modified twin turboprop or business jet could provide the long-range and endurance, the space and capacity for a comprehensive mission avionics suite, the armament, the quantity of droppable stores, and the growth potential required of a multi-purpose maritime patrol/ISR aircraft. An adaptation of the C Series is admittedly an enticing prospect on several levels, but one that would incur substantial non-recurring expenses and could pose logistical and other challenges if the RCAF proved the only customer for a maritime variant. If would-be replacement candidates, such as the Boeing P-8 Poseidon, the Kawasaki P-1, or a suitable adaptation of an Airbus commercial aircraft go out of production or fail to materialize, Canada, and the RCAF, could be caught in a most awkward situation. The Aurora’s maritime stablemate, the CH-148 Cyclone, constitutes another element of an RCAF renaissance although, given repeated, well-publicized and frankly disconcerting delays in its development and operational deployment, it may for the moment be prudent to deem it an ‘element-in-waiting’ of an air force renaissance. Still, the type holds genuine potential across a broad spectrum of military, quasi-military and non-military roles in both the domestic and overseas environments, and should, in due course, prove even more versatile than the legendary Sea King.

DND photo HS28-2016-0001-001 by Ordinary Seaman Raymond Kwan

One of Canada’s newly-acquired CH-148 Cyclone helicopters practicing landing procedures on HMCS Halifax off the coast of Nova Scotia, 27 January 2016.

The SAR element of a renaissance is anchored by the recent decision to acquire 16 Airbus C295W aircraft (i.e., two ‘maintenance floaters,’ three aircraft each for CFBs Winnipeg, Trenton, and Greenwood, and five aircraft for CFB Comox). The latter will also provide operational training, as it does for the CH-149 Cormorant SAR helicopter. As such, CFB Comox will truly become the centre of excellence for Canadian SAR, and the home to almost one-third of Canada’s fixed-and rotary-wing primary SAR aircraft. The C295W, the sensor suite and mission management system of which bear no comparison to the austerely-equipped Buffaloes and Hercules, should provide an operationally effective and cost-effective alternative to the current fixed-wing types. Base-level maintenance by the RCAF will, however, be reduced to the first-line level. The C295W does represent some loss of speed and endurance from the Hercules, but it is intriguing that this issue—and Arctic SAR, which arguably benefits more indirectly than directly from the change of aircraft—attracted almost no parliamentary, public or media attention. The newer Hercules (i.e., the CC-130J) will remain relevant as a secondary SAR resource (i.e., for the deployment of major air disaster [MAJAID] elements), but some analysts will no doubt favour a somewhat more active but still secondary SAR role, perhaps facilitated by removable sensor packages. The SAR element of any broader RCAF renaissance, however, will remain incomplete until the now-veteran Cormorant helicopter fleet is modernized and life-extended and augmented in size—partly to cover for aircraft removed from service to undergo updating, and partly to reintroduce the Cormorant to CFB Trenton. Fleet expansion could entail any of several options, including the activation of American VH-71s acquired by Canada as a source of spares for the Cormorant.

DND photo PA01-2016-0139-40 by Sergeant Jean-François Lauzé

Soldiers from 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, load equipment aboard a CC-130J Hercules in the Wainwright Garrison training area during Exercise Maple Resolve, 25 May 2016.

On other fronts—all of which will need addressing if the RCAF is to experience a thoroughgoing renaissance—Canada will in the not-too-distant future require a multi-role replacement for the Airbus CC-150 tanker-transports. If Canada acquires four-or preferably-five replacement aircraft, the entire fleet—unlike the current CC-150 quintet—should be capable of performing both transport and air-to-air refuelling duties. For this procurement—which represents a vital enabler, regardless of which fighter or fighters Canada ultimately acquires—the procurement options include, but are not confined to, such types as the Airbus A330 MRTT. Mixed public-private initiatives, such as that adopted by the Royal Air Force, are worth examining but are not necessarily appropriate or desirable in a Canadian context. In other transport or transport-related realms, some observers also seek a slight increase in the number of CC-130Js, while more than a few analysts favour deploying something beyond ‘re-winged,’ 50-year old Twin Otters in the Arctic. A decision to upgrade or replace the now twenty-year old CH-146 Griffon helicopter—which has gradually morphed into something more than a stock utility transport helicopter—would also constitute an important element of an RCAF renaissance. At the very least, a limited upgrade will be required to cope with obsolescence and airspace access issues. Supplementing the Griffon or its successor with a light or heavy attack helicopter (i.e., Apache, Tiger) has its devotees, but raises a host of doctrinal and financial issues. The medium transport helicopter side is well taken care of by the Chinook, the Canadian version of which is particularly well-equipped. Other areas in due course requiring attention are the successors to the current flying training and related programs, including but not confined to the NATO Flying Training in Canada (NFTC) operation. A partial RCAF return to the NATO AWACS operation—which was unceremoniously and imprudently jettisoned during the Harper era—could also constitute a useful element of a renaissance. The Snowbirds will require attention as well, if Ottawa sanctions the acquisition by lease or purchase of a successor to the ‘seemingly evergreen’ Tutor. This decision could generate political angst on several levels, thereby prompting one to recall that equipping air demonstration teams was considerably easier in earlier decades (but not necessarily budget-proof in operating terms) when one could transfer surplus Crown-owned fighters or trainers to such a role.

DND photo CX-2010-0144-27 by Sergeant Robert Bottrill

The Canadian Armed Forces Snowbirds in their Big Arrow formation over the Strait of Georgia on Canada’s west coast.

At the end of the day, the renaissance gold standard for most air forces is the potency and effectiveness, both qualitatively and quantitatively, of their fighter aircraft and fighter squadrons. The Canadian journey to replace the CF-18 has taken an intriguing number of twists and turns, ranging from the Harper government’s 2010 decision to pursue the acquisition of the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter—and its subsequent pausing of that intention—to the 22 November 2016 decision of the Justin Trudeau government to pursue a two-phase approach embracing “…within its current mandate, an open and transparent competition to replace the legacy fleet of CF-18 fighter aircraft” while also exploring on an immediate basis “…the acquisition of 18 new [Boeing F/A-18] Super Hornet aircraft to supplement the CF-18s until the permanent replacement arrives.” Discussions with the U.S. Government and Boeing would “…determine if Boeing can provide the interim solution at a cost, time, and level of capability that are acceptable to Canada.” The decision to pursue an interim solution reflected a perceived “capability gap” wherein Canada lacked sufficient mission-ready fighter aircraft to simultaneously meet obligations to both NORAD and NATO. The government also stated that “Canada will continue participation in the Joint Strike Fighter [program] until at least a contract award for the permanent fleet. This will allow Canada to maximize benefits of the partnership and gives Canada the option to buy the aircraft through the program, should the F-35 be successful in the competitive process for the permanent fleet.”

© Boeing/Image B14187

A Boeing F/A-18F Advanced Super Hornet.

The quickest, least expensive, and most straightforward path to an interim Super Hornet fleet would presumably entail essentially stock, minimally-modified, USN-pattern F/A-18Es (single-seaters), and a small number of two-seat F/A-18Fs for operational training, combined with the training in the United States and perhaps Australia of an initial cadre of RCAF aircrew and maintainers. Indeed, some observers have broached an all-F/A-18E option, combined with out-of-Canada operational training. More ambitious scenarios have been advanced or broached in various quarters, including respected international aerospace journals. One of the latter, for example, speculated on an all-F/A-18F fleet with the necessary wiring to facilitate later conversion, if Canada so wished, to the EA-18G Growler configuration. Other options mooted in various quarters have included an all-F/A-18F fleet sans wiring for later electronic warfare conversion, while still others have embraced a largely F/A-18E fleet incorporating at least some features of what was once designated by Boeing as the Advanced Super Hornet. Fiscal, doctrinal, and lead-time considerations would appear to leave such options as non-starters, although such “future proofing” of the Canadian interim Super Hornet fleet does hold a certain appeal and could look prudent if a member of the Super Hornet family prevailed in Canada’s forthcoming fighter competition. The latter should prove a most intriguing affair, pitting the Super Hornet or advanced versions of the Super Hornet (which appear likely to secure further orders from the USN, although not necessarily in the numbers mooted by some in the Trump administration) against a matured F-35A benefiting financially from increased economies of scale and formidable stealth and sensor capabilities. Non-American contenders, for a variety of reasons, would appear to be far less likely choices. Precisely which longer-term fighter path Canada will select remains unknowable at this time, but will in its own way contribute to an RCAF renaissance—albeit in a more circuitous and contentious manner than most would have predicted a decade ago.

© Lockheed Martin/Darin Russell

A Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II.

Martin Shadwick has taught Canadian defence policy at York University in Toronto for many years. He is a former editor of Canadian Defence Quarterly, and he is the resident Defence Commentator for the Canadian Military Journal.