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by Martin Shadwick

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If there is one common denominator in the continuing barrage of defence-related editorials, studies and reports from Parliamentary committees, academic and public policy research institutes, media commentators and the Department of National Defence, it is the perceived requirement for the Canadian Forces to become more rapidly, and globally, deployable. As Defence Minister John McCallum has noted in testimony before the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs (SCONDVA), “acquiring strategic airlift is a high priority.” In a similar vein, the 2002-2003 annual report of the Chief of the Defence Staff observed that strategic airlift is “a key enabler of future mobility and reaction times.”

Nevertheless, as the Minister told the February 2003 annual general meeting of the Conference of Defence Associations, “the Canadian Forces will not be unilaterally purchasing large transport planes.” In SCONDVA testimony on 27 November 2002 and 9 April 2003, the Minister took note of the substantial financial cost of strategic airlifters (e.g., the Boeing C-17A), expressed concern over the apparent paucity of gainful employment for such aircraft in normal day-to-day (i.e., non-surge) operating conditions and noted that “of all the NATO countries,” only “the biggest two” – the United States and the United Kingdom – possessed their own strategic airlift fleets. Moreover, added the 2002-2003 annual report of the Chief of the Defence Staff, “it has been determined by Government that the unilateral purchase of strategic airlift assets by Canada is not achievable in a climate where a wide range of new and improved capabilities are required to support transformation.”

Ottawa’s decision to eschew the unilateral purchase of strategic airlifters has come as a profound disappointment to those who advocated such a course – and who saw it as a natural corollary of the government’s own declarations on broader defence renewal and Canada’s role in world affairs – but it is not particularly surprising given DND’s highly stressed fiscal environment. The eye-watering performance of a C-17A comes, inevitably, at an eye-watering price. That said, the existing Lockheed Martin CC-130 Hercules is increasingly “vintage” (the oldest CC-130Es will hit 40 years of age in late 2004), is encountering worrisome availability and serviceability challenges and, as a medium-range tactical (or, at best, ‘stratactical’) transport, is unable to haul the outsize cargo which is required to support Canada’s diverse and far-flung commitments.

In the absence of a “unilateral” strategic airlift fleet, Ottawa will continue “to explore the possibility of pooling with other NATO nations to satisfy the strategic airlift requirement.” Some form of NATO strategic airlift pool could well prove attractive if the arrangements are both robust and responsive to Canada’s needs. In practical terms, as the Minister and the then-Chief of the Air Staff, Lieutenant-General Lloyd Campbell, noted in SCONDVA testimony, this would mean the stationing of some of the pooled aircraft in Canada, guaranteed Canadian access to such aircraft, and the ability to detach aircraft from the pool “in order to be able to use them for national purposes” (e.g., disaster relief) or “to participate in a coalition operation that may not be sanctioned or under the umbrella of NATO.” Such a pool, particularly if built around the C-17A, could generate important capabilities in a comparatively timely fashion at an affordable price, and allow the thinning out of some of the more fatigued members of the hard-worked Hercules fleet. A pool of this type could also open up some interesting new diplomatic, military and other linkages between Canada and Europe.

The robustness and responsiveness of the projected “interim strategic airlift capability” – which was the subject of a letter of intent signed by eleven NATO members, including Canada, on 13 June 2002 – remains to be seen. Under this arrangement, in essence a more formal variant of the existing procedures for the chartering of Ukrainian and Russian civilian aircraft, the signatories “intend to implement a multi-nationally coordinated capability, consisting of Antonov [An-124] aircraft chartered under the terms of assured availability as a core capability by 2005, which may be complemented by Boeing C-17 and other suitable aircraft, subject to affordability and parliamentary approval.” This initiative is welcome, but in addition to robustness and responsiveness – issues which involve far more than access and basing – there is a question of timeframe. For those signatories scheduled to receive the much delayed Airbus A400M, the June initiative is essentially a gap-filler, but for Canada, and the other non-participants in the A400M programme, further work on the strategic airlift roadmap will be required.

If a robust multinational pool or other arrangement capable of addressing Canada’s needs proves elusive, then Ottawa must move expeditiously to implement other solutions. This process must be holistic, given the need to address strategic airlift, tactical airlift and fixed-wing search and rescue (SAR) requirements, given the poten-tial impact on existing fleets, and given the plethora of funding and equipment scenarios. Conventional wisdom suggests that there are few options – and, in terms of outsize airlift, this is essentially correct – but the overall airlift/SAR picture includes many candidates and fleet mix permutations, embracing not only the C-17A and A400M, but also the C-130J, the rebuilding (or disposal) of various quantities of older CC-130s, and several twin-turboprop contenders to replace the SAR CC-130Es and CC-115 Buffaloes.

One of Canada’s real strengths in post-Second World War humanitarian relief, peacekeeping, peace support and combat operations has been its military air transport capability. If this capability is allowed to atrophy to the point where Canada, nationally or in a robust pool, cannot match the outsize airlift capability of A400M-equipped Belgium and Luxembourg, then yet another element of our ability to play a meaningful role on the world stage will have disappeared.

Martin Shadwick teaches Canadian defence policy at York University. He is a former editor of Canadian Defence Quarterly.