RCAF Priorities Outlined to Montreal Industry

In an address to Montreal aerospace industry representatives on Wednesday, Lt. Gen. Yvan Blondin, Commander of the RCAF, outlined the future procurement priorities of the Air Force, which go well beyond fighter replacement. The general touched on a variety of subjects, ranging from the effects of the delays in procuring CH-148 Cyclone helicopters to the force’s expanded presence in the Arctic. His message for Canadian industry was clear: find ways for the Air Force to save money.

One avenue for saving money prominent in the talk was the improvement and expanded use of flight simulators. This accords with some of Blondin’s previous comments that reducing maintenance costs and prolonging the service life of the current fighter fleet might involve less flying time.

Future capital acquisitions mentioned included an unspecified number of drones- from the context, it was clear that these were to be more than the reconnaissance drones Canada already uses- search and rescue transport aircraft (a role separate from the CH-149 recently acquired), and a number of disposable stores acquisitions, including new sonobuoys and torpedoes. The search and rescue and anti-submarine equipment particularly fill definite gaps. Canada is notorious for its poor search and rescue coverage given its territory, and transport and rescue squadrons field some fairly old airframes. Likewise, Canada still uses the Cold War-vintage Mk.46 torpedo.

It was difficult to get a sense of Gen. Blondin’s direction for the force from the talk. While he did indicate that a major reassessment of Air Force doctrine was underway internally, little that was really new seemed to enter into the priorities he presented. Gen. Blondin has been a supporter of the F-35 program, albeit hedging his bets a little more than his predecessor.

What was most interesting about the evening was the attitude among the industry representatives. They seem to recognise that this government’s procurement plans are likely to face re-evaluation, particularly the F-35 purchase. Several of these companies manufacture components for the F-35, but they seem fairly well aware of that program’s cost problems, and are unfazed by the prospect of having to reorient. One company which manufactures F-35 components, for example, also has contracts for the Super Hornet, the C-130 and a number of Sikorsky helicopters, as well as a civil aviation business line. The Canadian aerospace industry tends to specialise in discrete components, such as landing gear and avionics, and so generally have a wide pool of programs and clients in both military and civil aviation to balance out problems with any particular program.

The Future of Canada’s C4ISR Capabilities

CP-140 Aurora

CP-140 Aurora

AFAC, the Air Force Association of Canada, an air power advocacy group which includes many retired RCAF personnel, has published a position paper highlighting the need to replace Canada’s manned C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) aircraft. If you’re from somewhere other than Canada, or like me have studied defence from a global rather than Canadian perspective, you may scan the list of active RCAF aircraft and conclude with some confusion that Canada has no such aircraft. Of course, what they are really talking about are Canada’s maritime patrol aircraft, the CP-140 Auroras (that’s a P-3 Orion that started with S-3 Viking ASW equipment, for those not current with Canadian nomenclature), which anywhere else would be considered an anti-submarine, not command and control, asset, hence the confusion. Canadian defence discourse has always lived in a world of its own.

Nevertheless, AFAC makes some good points. With upgrades, the Aurora is a flexible multi-mission platform, and its capabilities allow it to take on command and control missions for which it was never designed. Not all of the fleet has been upgraded, and without upgrades, the fleet will wear out long before a replacement comes along. Crucially, this mission set has been ignored by the Harper government’s big-spending defence procurement plans, following a trend set by many previous governments. The mission set of the CP-140s is an extremely useful one, ranging from Search and Rescue (another area in which Canada could stand to have more assets given its vast territory) to Arctic sovereignty patrols to fishery protection to law enforcement assistance functions to command and control to… well, their original purpose. They are also a useful deployable asset for expeditionary functions, as AFAC points out.

P-8 Poseidon (foreground) with P-3 Viking

P-8 Poseidon (foreground) with P-3 Orion

But why not go one step further? The obvious Aurora successor is the P-8 Poseidon. While the P-8 would be a significant capability boost, Canada may not be able to replace the Aurora on a one-for-one basis. The US and Australia, facing the same problem, are looking at drone-based solutions, whereby a P-8 might control a number of drones. The continuing issue will be patrol coverage. Canada has never had the ability to adequately patrol its vast coastal and northern territories. So why not replace, say, four of those perspective P-8s with a purpose-built C4ISR platform which has the equipment to scan a much larger area? The US Navy will soon purchase its next-generation fleet of E-2 Hawkeyes, with a similar unit cost to the P-8 (based on available figures). These platforms would also be a force-multiplier for Canada’s fighter force, and given the cost inflation of the F-35, will likely cost not much more per unit. If Canada does drop the F-35 in favour of a cheaper platform, the savings would more than cover the purchase by themselves.

E-2D Hawkeyes

E-2D Hawkeyes

In the past, it could have been argued that the Hawkeye is designed to scan the air and not the ground, but this is no longer a valid argument. It is frequently used in search and rescue operations, and the E-2D will mount a new AESA radar capable of detailed ground mapping. Any mission the Aurora or P-8 could take on, short of anti-submarine warfare, the E-2 can do better over a wider area.