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The Road to Mobility

by Martin Shadwick

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It has become de rigueur, in reviews and commentaries on the Harper government’s $17.1 billion initiative to transform the mobility and logistical capabilities of the Canadian Forces (CF), to observe that the Conservatives ‘liberated’ the procurement agenda of their Liberal predecessors. As the Edmonton Journal noted on 29 June 2006: “The Harper government has just laid claim to the Liberals playbook on defence.” In this there is more than a modicum of truth, since four of the five projects unveiled in late June (i.e., three multi-role Joint Support Ships, a minimum of 16 ‘medium-to-heavy-lift’ transport helicopters, 17 tactical transport aircraft, and 2300 medium logistics trucks) were initiated or approved, in one form or another, by the short-lived government of Paul Martin. Only the fifth project, a quartet of strategic airlifters (i.e., Boeing C-17A Globemasters), lacked strong Liberal roots. That said, the Liberals tended to move with glacial speed, even on supposedly fast-tracked procurements, and they never actually let the requisite contracts.

If the June package survives the vagaries of minority government and other would-be pitfalls, the Harper government will become the first since that of Lester Pearson to devote serious attention to issues of mobility and logistical support. Indeed, given that some of the acquisitions mooted during the Pearson era (1963-1968) never materialized (i.e., the Lockheed C-141A Starlifter), the June package (and potential additions, such as the legendary ‘big honking ship’) would provide Canada with political options and military capabilities of an entirely new order.

Potentially instructive, but also potentially misleading, was the relative dearth of public, media, and political antipathy to the procurement package. On cost alone, one would have anticipated more reaction. The three Joint Support Ships were costed at $2.1 billion, plus $800 million for 20 years of in-service support; the medium-to-heavy-lift helicopters at $2 billion – at that price point, these Chinooks are clearly not ‘plain vanilla’ CH-47Fs – plus $2.7 billion for 20 years of in-service support; the 17 tactical transport aircraft at $3.2 billion, plus $1.7 billion for 20 years of in-service support; the medium logistics trucks and associated equipment at $1.1 billion, with an additional $100 million for 20 years of in-service support; and the four C-17As at $1.8 billion, plus $1.6 billion for 20 years of in-service support. The modalities of the procurement process, in particular the utilization of Advance Contract Award Notices (ACANs) for the strategic airlift and transport helicopter projects, have drawn fire, as have the exclusion of both projects, on ‘national security’ grounds, from the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the World Trade Organization – Agreement on Government Procurement (WTO – AGP), and the Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT). However, other criticisms to date have proved decidedly muted.

In part, this reflects the sobering impact of 9/11 on public, media, and political opinion, and Canadians’ gradual realization that more than a decade of under-capitalization has seriously eroded the core capabilities of the CF, and, to some extent, have helped sour the broader, and pivotal, Canada-United States relationship. Moreover, as David Rudd, late of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, has noted: “Buying what is essentially a diverse set of transport equipments is unlikely to offend anyone with tender sensibilities since they are not configured to shoot at anyone.” Politically, the Liberals, having initiated most of these projects, had comparatively little room in which to manoeuvre.

Nevertheless, it would be unwise to assume clear sailing, such as the Mulroney government learned to its cost with the EH101 project. Squabbles over industrial and regional benefits can prove particularly divisive and uniquely incendiary. Problems of a very different nature could develop if Canadians in politically significant numbers conclude, for whatever reason, that the new acquisitions are primarily, or solely. intended to facilitate Canadian involvement in American military adventures on the world stage. One wonders, too, if some Canadians are labouring under the misguided impression that the June announcements, when coupled with some additional defence spending in the Martin era (i.e., the Sikorsky Cyclone maritime helicopter) and in the latter part of the Chrétien era, represent the concluding stages, and not the beginning, of Canadian military renewal. Has the public even remotely grasped the full financial ramifications of recapitalizing and expanding the Canadian Forces? For example, to the already lengthy shopping lists of the three services, one must add the cost of replacing equipment destroyed or worn out in Afghanistan.

On the technical and operational level, Ottawa appears to have fashioned a credible mobility and logistical package. The Joint Support Ship (JSS) project, which seeks to replace the two aging Protecteur-class Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment (AOR) ships with three multi-role vessels suitable for underway support to naval forces, sealift, in-theatre support to joint forces ashore, and other functions, represents a vital enabler, but it will clearly pose challenges for Canada’s virtually moribund shipbuilding sector. One wonders, too, how many Canadian surface combatants will be left to replenish when the Joint Support Ships enter service in the next decade. Nor will the JSS fully address Canada’s sealift and associated requirements. Arguably, more of an AOR+ than a true replenishment/sealift hybrid – a prudent move, given the awkward technical compromises inherent in a hybrid design – the JSS will require some form of supplement. That could be the notional ‘big honking ship,’ but does that mean something along the lines of the Dutch Rotterdam-class (a classic LPD), something similar to the much larger, through-deck French and Spanish LHDs currently competing for a two-ship Australian order, or some other option?

The acquisition of 2300 five-tonne logistics trucks (1500 standard military pattern, and 800 commercial vehicles adapted for military use), 1000 specially-equipped vehicle kits, and 300 armour protection systems should, in theory, prove comparatively straightforward, but previous Canadian experience in this arena has not always produced stellar results. The political lure of job-creating truck production – however ephemeral – has proved almost irresistible. Technical and related issues will include the ratio of standard military pattern to modified commercial pattern vehicles, and the ability of competing design philosophies (i.e., cab over engine versus conventional cab) to cope with increasingly dangerous operating environments.

In marked contrast to its Liberal predecessors, neither of which could generate much enthusiasm for a Canadian strategic airlift capability, the Harper government concluded that “today’s changing and uncertain global environment demands Canada’s military have its own reliable and independent access to strategic airlift to move heavy equipment quickly, over long distances and deliver it to where it is needed in Canada, in support of humanitarian relief, or to a theatre of operations.” Acquisition of the C-17A will not eliminate completely the need to charter or borrow foreign strategic airlifters, but it does represent a genuine sea change for the country’s military air transport system, and it will provide the type of frequently misunderstood ‘stratactical’ airlift flexibility that Canada required long before 9/11. Given uncertainties in the chartering of commercial aircraft, repeated delays in creating a truly robust and responsive NATO airlift pool, the pending closure of the C-17A production line (a disturbing reminder of the C-141A debacle), and other factors, the Harper government, arguably, had little real choice. Prompt delivery was an added bonus.

Rounding out the Harper government’s agenda for airlift renewal were 17 new tactical transport aircraft. The Liberal plan of November 2005 had envisaged “at least 16” such aircraft. The continuing meltdown of Canada’s hard-pressed Hercules fleet – three CC-130Es have already been taken out of service – places a particularly high premium on the earliest possible delivery of the new fleet. The contenders, as in the abortive Liberal competition, remain the Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 Hercules, and the Airbus A400M. Both types have strengths and weaknesses, but the Achilles’ heel of the yet-to-fly A400M remains the lack of timely certification, and availability in quantity. This is most unfortunate in that the A400M should ultimately materialize as a fine airlifter. Indeed, an aircraft capable of hauling outsize cargo and effectively slotting in between the C-130J-30 and the C-17A might have given Canada the advantages of a homogeneous airlift fleet.

In some respects, the most intriguing element of the mobility package was the decision – albeit one foreshadowed by the Liberal’s International Policy Statement of April 2005 – to re-enter the heavy-lift helicopter business with the acquisition of at least 16 Chinooks, based upon the CH-47F (thereby raising the prospect of weather radar, a forward-looking infrared system, a more extensive defensive avionics suite, increased fuel capacity, and other enhancements). The decision is extremely important, partly because of the attributes of the Chinook (foreign CH-47s have proved exceptionally useful in post-Cold War humanitarian relief and peacekeeping/peace support operations and have emerged, quite literally, as strategic level assets in Afghanistan), and partly because it indirectly casts renewed light on the flawed 1991 decision to phase out Canada’s existing fleet of seven CH-47C Chinooks. Therein rests a cautionary tale. Although it is true that the CH-47Cs constituted a small and geographically dispersed fleet, were comparatively expensive to operate, and required rebuilding to CH-47D standard, a more innovative approach – one that fully acknowledged the Chinook’s credentials as a unique national asset, one that put aside intra-service and inter-service wrangling, and one that looked elsewhere for financial savings – could have produced a far more satisfactory result. In light of subsequent events at home and abroad, the 1991 decision to eliminate the Chinook was, at best, shortsighted, and, at worst, tragic. In times of severe fiscal austerity, not all existing assets and capabilities can, or should, be saved, but one must tread very carefully indeed before abandoning such assets and capabilities.

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