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Commentary

The Labours of Hercules

by Martin Shadwick

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In his autobiography, Damn the Torpedoes, former defence minister Paul Hellyer recounts at some length his mid-1960s campaign to transform Canada’s military air transport capability. Concerned about press reports of “hairline cracks” in the existing Fairchild C-119 tactical transports and sceptical of RCAF assurances that the C-119 fleet would remain “serviceable for years to come,” Hellyer made an unannounced visit to the repair site in Toronto. Flabbergasted by what amounted to the remanufacturing of the aging C-119 and annoyed by the RCAF’s fighter-driven reluctance “to spend money on air transport,” Hellyer moved quickly.

In short order, the Pearson minority government jettisoned the C-119, traded in the three survivors of the four Lockheed CC-130Bs acquired (astutely) by the previous Diefenbaker government and placed multiple orders for the newest iteration of the Hercules, the C-130E. The net result, by 1968, was a modern and essentially homogenous fleet of 24 CC-130E Hercules aircraft. Arguably the most cost-effective acquisition in the history of Canadian defence procurement, the CC-130E for decades provided the indispensable core of Canada’s military air transport system.

Subsequent governments, including those of Pierre Trudeau (five early CC-130H), Brian Mulroney (two new-build CC-130H, although the decision to acquire these aircraft was announced during John Turner’s ill-fated 1984 election campaign, two second-hand CC-130H and five CC-130H tanker-transports) and Jean Chretien (two stretched CC-130H-30), added to the fleet, but even today, the CC-130E fleet constitutes almost two-thirds of the 32 surviving Hercules (that is, nineteen CC-130E, four CC-130H-73, two CC-130H-84, five CC-130H-90 and two CC-130H-30). Indeed, one of the primary causes of the pending meltdown of the hard-pressed CC-130E fleet – one aircraft has already been withdrawn from active service – was the failure of successive Canadian governments to acquire additional C-130Hs in the 1980s and early-to-mid-1990s. Another was the much earlier failure to conclude a tentative deal for the Lockheed C-141 strategic airlifter.

The need to replace the CC-130E in an expeditious manner cannot be overstated. As a DND backgrounder notes, the CC-130E “has reached the point where it is no longer economically viable to continue to maintain, modernize and/or refurbish the aircraft.” With characteristic candour, General Rick Hillier, the Chief of the Defence Staff, observed in late 2005 “our Hercules fleet right now is rapidly going downhill. We know that three years and a little bit more than that, the fleet starts to become almost completely non-operational and we will have to stop supporting operations or else not be able to start them.”

From a broader Canadian defence and defence procurement perspective, it was unfortunate, but hardly surprising, that the ambitious plan to fast-track an omnibus package comprising new tactical transport aircraft, heavy-lift helicopters and fixed-wing search and rescue (SAR) aircraft imploded on the eve of the election. Given the cost, the political optics (more to the point, the pre-election political optics) and intense lobbying by industry, its demise was virtually inevitable. A relief, therefore, was the 22 November 2005 decision to detach the tactical transport component and proceed with the acquisition of “at least 16” new aircraft valued at between four and five billion dollars, including a 20-year in-service support contract. The end state should be a tactical airlift inventory of approximately 25 aircraft (i.e., 16 new aircraft and the 9 newest CC-130Hs). The new fixed-wing SAR aircraft will replace the balance of the existing Hercules fleet.

Current planning for the new tactical transport envisages contract award no later than Spring 2007, first delivery by Spring 2010 and final delivery by Spring 2012 – a positively frenetic pace by prevailing Canadian procurement standards – but defence minister Bill Graham acknowledged the desirability of a more aggressive schedule. Indeed, “our object is to go and see if we can get a few aircraft even earlier” than spring 2010. This may well prove achievable, although it could conceivably require separating the purchase of the actual aircraft from the complex and arguably even more contentious question of the 20-year in-service support component.

Momentarily putting aside Boeing’s C-17A, which is a strategic airlifter with some very impressive tactical capabilities, there are only two tactical transport options, the Lockheed C-130J-30 Hercules and the Airbus A400M. The C-130J-30 shares the basic configuration of its predecessors, but little else. Featuring new powerplants, a two-person flight station, an enhanced cargo handling system and a host of other refinements, the in-production C-130J-30 offers major performance, productivity and maintainability advances over earlier C-130s. Launched by seven European states in 2003, the Airbus A400M is scheduled to achieve first flight in 2008 and first delivery in 2009. Designed from the outset to meet the post-Cold War airlift environment, the A400M seeks to offer extended reach, an outsize and heavy load capability, high cruise speed, autonomous ground handling and rapid role change capability, and high standards of reliability and maintainability.

Both types possess strengths and weaknesses. The C-130J-30 would offer an affordable quantum leap over the CC-130E and useful commonality with the C-27J Spartan on offer for the SAR requirement, would be easier to integrate into the Canadian fleet (which, in any event, will still contain CC-130Hs) and have no difficulty meeting – and improving upon – Canada’s delivery schedule. On the other hand, the C-130J-30 is still living down its early software teething problems and cannot match the outsize cargo capability of the A400M. The length of its production run is also something of a question mark. The A400M should ultimately materialize as a fine airlifter – indeed, an aircraft slotted between the C-130J-30 and the C-17A could conceivably offer customers the best of both worlds – but its Achilles’ Heel in a Canadian context (apart from snubbing Pratt & Whitney Canada on the powerplant selection) is the lack of timely certification and availability. Even if the A400M meets all of its major milestones and performs flawlessly “right out of the box,” Airbus faces undeniable hurdles in Canada – at least in the short term. Then things could get really interesting.

If one assumes that the C-130J-30 will inevitably prevail in the current competition, it would provide Canada with a first-class tactical airlifter. Indeed, the improvements in range and speed will in some respects help to blur the distinction between “tactical” and “strategic.” That said, it is not a true strategic airlifter and cannot handle outsize cargo. One strategic airlift option would be to continue our reliance upon allies and private contractors, but is this – even in an enhanced, more robust form – adequate to meet Canada’s needs? Some, alternatively, might point to the potential creation of a NATO strategic airlift pool based on the AWACS model. This, in theory, is intriguing, but the modalities and realities of strategic airlift differ dramatically from those of airborne warning and control. In any event, what is the motivation for NATO European countries, many of them A400M customers, to create a NATO pool?

If operational analysis and political will ultimately permit the acquisition of a Canadian strategic airlift capability, one option would be to supplement a C-130J-30 fleet with a modest number of Boeing C-17As. This assumes, of course, that sticker shock could be overcome and that the C-17A would remain in production long enough for a Canadian order (or lease) to materialize. Given the uncertainty over future USAF orders for the C-17A (or C-17A+), the potential for a replay of Canada’s C-141 affair is quite real. Another option would be to supplement the C-130J-30s with a modest number of A400Ms. The latter, admittedly, is no C-17A, but it can accommodate outsize cargo. In any event, at some point down the road we will have to decide whether to replace the newer CC-130Hs with additional C-130J-30s or acquire a larger type as a strategic lift supplement. Given our track record, most would probably wager that we will fly the CC-130Hs to exhaustion and then not replace them with anything.

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

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