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Air Force Vision


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Apair of CH-146 Griffon helicopters caught by the camera during a mountain exercise.

Transforming Canada’s Air Force: Vectors for the Future

by Lieutenant-General Ken Pennie

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Transforming Canada’s air force is about building the right air force for the Canada of the future and for the world of tomorrow – an air force that can effectively contribute to the security of Canada and of which Canadians can be proud. The air force is at a critical time in its evolution, somewhat fragile after having been incrementally reduced by half since the end of the Cold War. In fact, as we have halved our strength, we have only reduced our infrastructure by 20 percent, leaving a stretched force struggling with a ‘sustainability gap.’ Yet, notwithstanding today’s stresses, there is a determination to address the tough choices that must be made to meet the challenges of the future international security environment. The air force is poised to move forward on its recently released vision: to transform itself into a 21st Century aerospace force that is relevant in domestic and global operations. That vision and the path towards the future are described in two documents entitled Strategic Vectors and the Aerospace Capability Framework. This article explains this vision, examining some of the key concepts and assumptions that underlie it, as well as the vectors by which we hope to achieve that vision.


The air force has used strategic visioning as a tool since the 1980s. Air Command’s future trends analysis Project 2010 – A Flight Plan for the Future, published in June 1985, and the ambitious Project 2020 – A Flight Plan for Change are examples of this visioning. The latter was a long-term futures study of the needs and capabilities for air power over the course of the next 25 years. It was divided into three phases to be completed over three years; the third phase would in essence have been a transformation document. The study was, however, superseded by the 1994 White Paper and the consequent series of budget cuts that have led us to our fragile state today. No similar strategic level guidance was produced until the publication of Strategy 2020 in 1999 prompted the Directorate of Air Strategic Plans (DASP) to produce a discussion paper entitled Vectors 2020: An Air Force Strategic Assessment. Its purpose was to provide ‘a series of signposts about air operations in 2020 so as to assist us in developing the air force of the future.’1 Draft strategic papers followed in 2002 and 2003: Strategic Vectors, the strategic vision and transformation strategy, and the Aerospace Capability Framework, the strategic plan. An historical overview entitled Canada’s Air Force – A Vital National Security Institution will soon be published.

Strategic visioning is not unique to Canada’s air force. From the mid-1990s, the USAF has been committed to long-range visioning and planning, which were influenced by both transitions in leadership and doubts raised by these processes regarding the USAF’s definition of itself and its core activities.2 The USAF’s initial visioning processes defined the future in terms of end states – some forty-two – to be achieved within the time frame of the 2000-25 planning horizon. Since then, the USAF vision has changed, and continues to evolve, but the process itself is well-enshrined.

At its root, strategic visioning is a means to an end, and that end is to provide the best possible air force to the Canadian Forces (CF). To do this requires transformation. In 2004, is there any service in any country that does not claim it is transforming? Transformation has become au courant as the latest paradigm to adapt armed forces to the post-Cold War world. What does it mean? The Department of National Defence (DND) defines transformation as a ‘process of strategic re-orientation in response to anticipated or tangible change to the security environment, designed to shape a nation’s armed forces to ensure their continued effectiveness and relevance.’3 The Department has set limits to this definition by stating that ‘transformation does not, however, seek the complete restructuring or re-equipping of Canada’s military forces, but instead will blend existing structures and systems with emerging ones to create significantly enhanced capabilities relevant to future missions, roles and tasks.’ This definition guides air force transformation. The ultimate goal of our transformation, and that of our allies, is to create significantly enhanced capabilities that contribute effectively to the ‘joint fight.’4


DND photo TNC91-897-12

Two CC-130 Hercules at work in a low-level tactical environment.

Strategic Vision

The air force’s strategic path to transformation is laid out in two documents. Canada’s Air Force: A Vital National Security Institution describes the air force of today, an organization halved by post-Cold War budget cuts, but with double the personnel involved in operations. Strategic Vectors outlines the vision of, and the strategy for, the long term transformation of Canada’s air force in congruence with the vision articulated in the Department of National Defence’s strategic framework document, Defence Strategy 2020. This document maps out a strategic framework for the CF to guide defence planning for the years ahead. The aim is to provide Canada with modern, task-tailored and globally deployable combat-capable forces that can respond quickly to crises at home and abroad, in joint or combined operations. This strategy acknowledges that building operationally effective forces is a long-term activity, and states that the development of military capabilities requires lead times of up to two decades.5 Strategic Vectors is built upon this foundation.

Strategic Vectors assesses the current security environment, describes Canada’s current aerospace capabilities, and articulates the guiding vision, mission and attributes of the future aerospace force. The intent is to transform the air force from a primarily static platform-focused organization into an expeditionary, network-enabled, capability-based and results focused Aerospace Force. Its mission is the control and exploitation of the aerospace environment wherever needed to contribute to Canadian security and national objectives. The Aerospace Capability Framework provides the first short to medium-term blueprint to achieve that vision of a future aerospace force. It will be updated on a regular basis. The next iteration will follow the release of the Defence Policy Review.

What is an aerospace force? The term aerospace means air and space, an extension of the ‘third dimension’ of warfare brought on by technological advances. It is used to define the environment that surrounds the Earth and extends vertically into space from the Earth’s surface. The term has been in doctrinal use for at least two decades, but we use it deliberately to underscore the increasingly important role that space will play in future operations. It also emphasizes the indivisibility of air and space, considering them, as other writers have noted, as a ‘single region’ in that the space capabilities will primarily support air operations.6 By using the term aerospace, we do not envisage or suggest the weaponization of space, but rather the exploitation of potential for improving communications, navigation, surveillance and warning, environmental monitoring, intelligence and reconnaissance activities. While there are differences between the physical environments of space and air, they will be treated as one dimension.7 The definition of aerospace power flows from this definition of an aerospace force – it involves the full range of a nation’s aerospace capability – military and civilian – in peace as well as war.8 While the definitions and theories of aerospace power are sensitive to technological change, and the wide range of operations for which aerospace forces are used, almost all theorists have noted that a definition of aerospace power ‘must include more than just machines.’9


The Mission

Canada’s aerospace force of the future will be built on the characteristics that have allowed the air force to effectively discharge its responsibilities for many decades. That is, it will remain: A force based on excellence and professionalism, equipped, trained and ready to prevail in combat, with the reach and power to contribute effectively to national and international security. While transforming our air force, we believe that our mission also needs to be transformed to better reflect what we deliver to the CF and to the people of Canada. We believe that our new mission statement does so: To control and exploit the aerospace environment for military purposes that contribute to Canadians’ security and national objectives.

The attributes of the future aerospace force flow from that mission statement. This force will be built on the assumption that our mission comes first, but we recognize that people are our foundation and future. This notion of ‘service before self’ comes from our military ethos, described in the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute’s publication Duty with Honour as the foundation upon which the legitimacy, effectiveness and honour of the CF depend.10 The first mission theme is to be combat-capable for future operations. The fundamental and most demanding role for the air force is to generate, apply and sustain aerospace power in combat operations – domestically in defence of the nation, or abroad alongside allies or coalition partners. While aircraft and equipment acquired for combat can generally be used to execute peacetime roles, aircraft and equipment acquired for purely peacetime roles often have little if any value in combat. Combat-capability, therefore, should form the basis of other capabilities. The second mission theme is to be relevant for future operations through the acquisition of meaningful and sustainable forces capable of being employed across a spectrum of operations and conflict. The third mission theme is to be responsive, building on the strengths of air forces, such as readiness and speed. This speed confers an advantage since many targets will need to be attacked more quickly in future operations. The fourth mission theme is to become expeditionary. This means having sustainable reach and power appropriate to national and global responsibilities.

The fifth mission theme is to be interoperable and networked to enable greater effectiveness in operations. To contribute effectively to the security of Canada and its people requires that we continue to enhance our interoperability with our allies, sister services and security partners. Continental security has been considered ‘indivisible’ since the Ogdensburg Agreement of 1940. In a post-9/11 environment, the need for a robust security and defence posture is more apparent then ever. As a partner in the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), our air force will remain interoperable with the United States Air Force (USAF). Domestically, joint and inter-agency operations will become increasingly necessary to ensure the security of Canada and its people. Abroad, we will need to be interoperable with our NATO allies and coalition forces. Equipment, doctrine and planning must take into account interoperability requirements with the United States and those of other allied partners.

None of the preceding mission themes can be prosecuted without our people. They are our foundation and future. The air force team comprises Regular and Reserve personnel of the CF and the air force, and civilian members of DND. The air force family also includes spouses, families and other support agencies. The core characteristics of the air force are: competent, effective and ethical leadership; professionalism at all levels; and the pursuit and achievement of operational excellence. Air force personnel must be morally, physically and intellectually fit for combat operations, disciplined and committed to the primacy of operations.


DND photo TNC93-1081-1

ACC-150 Polaris cruising at altitude on a United Nations mission tasking.

Strategic Vectors

The general courses (vectors) that the air force will take, at a strategic level, to transform are:

  • Results-Focused Operational Capability
  • Responsive Expeditionary Capability
  • Transparent Interoperability
  • Transforming Aerospace Capabilities
  • Transformation-Enabling Leadership
  • Multi-Skilled and Well Educated People
  • Expanded Strategic Partnerships
  • Improved Resource Stewardship

These eight guiding strategic vectors describe the areas in which the air force will focus its efforts to move towards its transformational goals. Vectors One through Three emphasize the acquisition of an aerospace force focused on a results-based operational capability, with combat capability as the basis for other capabilities, with expeditionary reach and power, responsiveness in operations and the interoperability to work with our allies, sister services and other security partners on this continent and abroad.

Results-based operational capability means acquiring the capabilities needed to keep Canadians secure and to protect national interests abroad. At home, this entails the defence of Canadians as well as Canada’s sovereignty and national resources. We will emphasize results through domestic missions that protect sovereignty, protect Canadians, protect Canadian resources and defend Canada. Abroad, these results-based capabilities must enable the air force to protect, and, when necessary, defend national interests.

To achieve these results, we will continue to acquire and improve the aerospace surveillance capabilities needed to monitor, detect, and identify unauthorized and unwanted activity in, and approaching, Canada’s airspace and maritime areas. We will also pursue the acquisition and improvement of active control capabilities agile enough to respond effectively to a broad range of potential and emerging threats, including cruise missiles. We will explore new relationships with our navy, aimed at adopting a more holistic approach to aerospace and maritime surveillance and control. We will engage with the army and navy on aerospace power capabilities that could meet their requirements more effectively and efficiently. We will identify and apply lessons from the recent use of aerospace power worldwide to guide the acquisition of future precise targeting and weapons systems, the objective of which is to help achieve decisive effects while minimizing casualties and collateral damage. Recent operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, suggest both the promise and level of expectations that accompany the technological strides and improvements in aerospace intelligence gathering tools.11

We must keep pace with these developments to effectively contribute to coalition operations. We will also apply lessons that have confirmed the need to move to increasingly network-enabled and effects-based operations, especially for time-sensitive targeting to significantly improve our effectiveness in all our operations. Operations in Iraq demonstrated that the increasing accuracy and lethality of precision weapons systems is dependent upon the full use of information processing technology for real-time intelligence. We will continue to contribute to the operations of other government departments for such things as emergency and disaster relief, environmental monitoring and humanitarian assistance. We will explore more effective ways of conducting air mobility operations and domestic search and rescue, and the best means of acquiring these capabilities.

Becoming expeditionary is one of the keys to providing security to Canadians, both at home and abroad. Expeditionary capabilities are relevant to the security and assertion of sovereignty in a country the size of Canada, and are important for deployments abroad.12 By expeditionary we mean being able to respond swiftly and effectively to challenges at home and abroad by being globally deployable, supportable and sustainable. This is a concept that is evolving in most air forces as they transform to meet the needs of the new security environment.13 Canada’s air force will create tactical self-sufficient units of aerospace capability, called Air Expeditionary Units (AEUs). These units will be designed with integral military air maintenance, command, control and support elements. Our air force support capability will be re-designed so that it becomes aligned to this revised operational force structure. The air force will be able to operate and sustain forces from deployed locations within Canada and around the globe, including unprepared locations. The air force will continue to require access to inter-theatre and intra-theatre lift, as well as an air-to-air refuelling capability. Specifically, two CC 150 Polaris aircraft are being reconfigured to restore our strategic air-to-air refuelling capability. Studies are currently underway to determine how best to meet the future airlift requirements for the CF.

Operational interoperability will be achieved through the pursuit of specific measures to ensure that we acquire the capabilities to operate effectively with the armed forces of the United States, alliance and coalition partners, our army and navy, as well as other government departments and agencies. We will improve interoperability with the US military through participation in bi-national exercises and war games, personnel exchange and training programs, cross border squadron deployments, and Distributed Mission Operations (DMOs), in which simulators and training devices are linked from different locations. In addition, to achieve operational interoperability we must be able to communicate securely and with some degree of assurance, to share information and awareness by data link to avoid fratricide and, in the case of offensive platforms, to be capable of precisely delivering munitions from the air. To enable this interoperability, the air force will acquire systems such as the Link 16 data link systems, used by many allied air and naval forces to share data, enhance situational awareness and assist in the designation of targets and the delivery of weapons. We will also need to acquire combat identification systems that effectively distinguish between friendly and adversary forces. In addition to improving interoperability, these systems are necessary to contribute effectively in network-enabled joint operations.

Interoperability extends beyond the need to work with other environments and coalition partners. The demands of the new security environment and the National Security Policy make it imperative that equipment, doctrine and planning take into account requirements to work with other government departments and agencies, international aid agencies and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).14 We will also explore new training opportunities with the army and the navy, including synthetic environment training, to ensure our command, control, and communications systems are interoperable, and to improve our ability to operate jointly.

Vectors Four through Six focus on the acquisition and integration of transformational technologies, as well as the education and development of forward- thinking leadership and personnel who can exploit this technology in order to enhance the conduct of current operations and plan for the future. The transformation of aerospace power capabilities will require changes in concepts of operations, capabilities, training and doctrine. How do we intend to do this? A Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre (CFAWC) is being formed to explore future joint aerospace power concepts and guide experimentation activities to contribute to transformation. This centre will become the focal point and ‘brain trust’ of aerospace operations excellence in areas such as the rehearsal of synthetic missions, the identification and application of lessons learned from actual operations, the development of and experimentation with various concepts, and the development of tactics, countermeasures and doctrine.


DND photo BNC94-7799-50

Groundcrew servicing a CF-18 Hornet.

To transform capabilities, the air force will continuously exploit new technology to realize significant capability enhancements. The Aerospace Capability Framework contains a list of science and technology priorities that will be updated on a regular basis. For example, the Uninhabited Air Vehicle (UAV) is a technological area that is currently being assessed for the contributions it can make to aerospace power capabilities. Recent experiments on the west and east coasts have demonstrated both operational advantages and practical limitations. Further analytical work is being undertaken to build on the experience gained through these experiments.

To transform training, the air force will create a distributed synthetic environment for flying training and the rehearsal of operational missions. This environment will be used for experimentation, concept development, requirements definition, acquisition, and operational test and evaluation. The capability will not replace first-hand spatial and temporal experiences, such as flying, but will complement existing capabilities so that overall effectiveness and efficiency are enhanced. The air force will also create, in conjunction with broader CF efforts, a distance and ‘e-learning’ environment to facilitate the professional development of air force personnel who are unable to attend centralized training and educational programmes.

The air force will also promulgate new aerospace doctrine to replace its earlier publication, Out of the Sun, while continuing to promote aerospace power theory and operational experience as the cornerstones. This new doctrine will contain transformational concepts on the generation and employment of aerospace power.15 To improve production of, and control over, such doctrine, the air force has designated an Aerospace Doctrine Authority (ADA), supported by an Aerospace Doctrine Committee (ADC). To facilitate doctrine development, the air force will establish Capability Advisory Groups (CAGs) to replace the Community Advisory Groups that currently provide advice on the fighter, maritime air, tactical aviation, air mobility, training, air reserve and aerospace control ‘communities’ of the air force.

Preparing for the future is an important responsibility of the air force. Its leadership has embraced this stewardship responsibility and will increase the level of effort with which it is discharged. We are committed to the long-term goals as described above and to ensuring that the air force remains capable of effectively contributing to the security of Canadians. To achieve this, we intend to enable leadership to take full advantage of new technologies: we will nurture competent, effective, and ethical leadership to effectively conduct operations now and to take us into the future. As one recent study suggested:

The militaries that meet with the greatest success in future armed conflict will be those that can undertake rapid organizational and conceptual adaptation. Successful state militaries must institutionalize procedures for what might be called ‘strategic entrepreneurship’ – the ability to rapidly identify and understand significant changes in the strategic environment and form appropriate organizations and concepts.16

To acquire the breadth and depth of knowledge required to develop and employ aerospace power effectively across a spectrum of activity and conflict, air force leaders need to be provided with a range of experiences and professional development over the course of their careers. The leaders who acquire this complete understanding of aerospace power will become the thinkers, leaders and visionaries that the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) has described as the foundation that will give the CF future operational advantage.17

Leadership is only one part of the equation. Transformation will rely heavily on well-educated, informed and ethical personnel at all rank levels, skilled in exploiting new aerospace capabilities. To discharge their responsibilities effectively, air force personnel must understand aerospace power in all its forms: what an air force generally does and why it does it; the role of Canada’s air force; how and why our air force has evolved as it has done; and how aerospace power can be used to best effect, now and in the future. This understanding will be achieved in part through instruction, but the emphasis will be on the in-depth understanding gained through first-hand operational experience and professional development. To this end, the air force will expose a greater number of personnel to operations through its expeditionary focus and increase its emphasis on an aerospace power education for all of its personnel. This builds on the goals initiated over the last decade of having multi-skilled professionals in order to provide personnel flexibility in a contemporary, professional air force, where it makes sense. To facilitate further efficiencies and synergy, air force professional development and non-flying training units should be consolidated geographically, to the greatest extent possible.

Vectors Seven and Eight will guide the management of expectations and resources, engaging Canadians through better communication and effective resource stewardship. The air force does not exist in a vacuum. The Department’s strategy identifies engaging Canadians as a critical activity of the future CF.18 The air force needs to publicize the wide range of activities it undertakes for Canadians. The documents described in this article are examples of how the air force intends to actively engage citizens, business leaders and politicians in understanding how the formation contributes to Canada’s security and objectives.


DND photo IS2004-2011a by Sergeant Frank Hudec

Canadian Forces Hercules pilot, Captain Emmanual Belanger, checks his approach prior to landing at Touissant L’Ouvertur Airport in Port-au-Prince, Haïti in February 2004.

An important component of this engagement is the recognition that the air force has been entrusted with national resources and will continue to find increasingly efficient ways to manage those resources. Transformation takes time, and requires resources and trade-offs. The costs and benefits of the investments need to be clearly prioritized, explained and understood. To that end, we will create and incorporate a results-based resource allocation and strategic planning framework that will link defence policy, defence tasks, and air force activity, outputs and outcomes. This framework will be introduced concomitant with a new performance management framework, of which performance measurement is a part.


The need to transform into a relevant 21st Century aerospace force is at the core of the air force strategic vision. While clearly the present sustainability issue must be addressed before we can completely transform – and we are working hard on this – there is also much that we can do with the resources that we currently have. In spite of the ‘sustainability gap’ challenge, we are actively pursuing a number of initiatives that will ultimately result in a transformed air force. We will continue to be a force based on excellence and professionalism, equipped, trained and ready to prevail in combat, with the reach and power to contribute effectively to national and international security. The successful implementation of this strategic intent will result in an aerospace force capable of effectively contributing to homeland security, and one that is transformed in its ability to apply capabilities throughout the world in support of national objectives. This aerospace force will be a vital national security institution, instrument of national policy, and element of national power, which – in conjunction with the army and the navy – will be capable of contributing effectively to the security of Canadians and the protection of Canadian security interests, well into the 21st Century.

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Lieutenant-General Ken Pennie is Chief of the Air Staff.


  1. Vectors 2020: An Air Force Strategic Assessment (Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 2000), p. 1.
  2. A 2003 Brookings Institute study analyzes the growth and evolution of the process with the United States Air Force (USAF). For further information see Michael Barzelay and Colin Campbell, Preparing for the Future: Strategic Planning in the U.S. Air Force (Washington: The Brookings Institution, 2003).
  3. As approved by the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Deputy Minister at the Joint Capabilities Review Board 05/03, 14 April 2003.
  4. United States Air Force, The Edge – Air Force Transformation (Washington: US Government Printing Office, 30 May 2003).
  5. Shaping the Future of Canadian Defence: A Strategy for 2020. Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 1999, pp. 1, 6.
  6. See, for example, LCol Brian Wheeler et al., “Aerospace Doctrine,” in David Rudd, ed., Air Power at the Turn of the Millennium (Toronto: The Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, 1999), pp.141-45.
  7. For debate in the US on this issue, see Barzelay and Campbell, pp. 182-89.
  8. David MacIssac suggests this is the logical, if rarely used, definition of air power. “Voices from the Central Blue: The Air Power Theorists,” in Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), Note 6.
  9. David Gates, Sky Wars: A History of Military Aerospace Power (London: Reaction Books, 2003), pp.152-3, and Phillip S. Meilinger, Airwar: Theory and Practice (London: Frank Cass, 2003), p.217.
  10. Canadian Defence Academy-Canadian Forces Leadership Institute, Duty with Honour: The Profession of Arms in Canada (Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 2003), p. 26.
  11. See Robert A. Pape, “The True Worth of Air Power,” for a more critical view of the promise and expectations that accompany the growth of precision-effects weaponry. Foreign Affairs, March/April 2004, pp. 116-30.
  12. Thierry Gongora, “The Meaning of Expeditionary Operations from an Air Force Perspective,” Allan D. English, ed., Canadian Expeditionary Air Forces. (Winnipeg: Centre for Defence and Security Studies, 2002), pp.21, 30.
  13. See, for example, Colonel John Dobbins, “Airpower 101: An Expeditionary Air Base Model,” Air and Space Power Journal, Fall 2004.
  14. Securing an Open Society: Canada’s National Security Policy, April 2004.
  15. Out of the Sun distinguishes between the national policy level imperatives of strategic doctrine and operational level doctrine. Out of the Sun: Aerospace Doctrine for the Canadian Forces. (Winnipeg: Craig Kelman, 2000), pp. 2-5.
  16. Steven Metz, Armed Conflict in the 21st Century: The Information Revolution and Postmodern Warfare (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Strategic Studies Institute, 2000), p.13.
  17. A Time for Transformation: Annual Report of the Chief of Staff 2002-2003, (Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 2003), p.iii.
  18. Shaping the Future of Canadian Defence: A Strategy for 2020 (Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 1999), p.6.