Does that Canadian flag seem to fly larger these days?

June 28th, 2006
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There’s been surprisingly little commentary in the blogosphere on the Stephen Harper government’s ongoing series of defence spending announcements. (See here, here and here.)

The flurry continued today with a 1 p.m. MDT announcement confirming the long-awaited purchase of medium- to heavy-lift helicopters. Yet Google’s blog search revealed only five items (as of 1:30 p.m. MDT), and there was nothing on the Shotgun or Blogging Tories.

We see these as very important steps that further distinguish the Conservative government from its predecessor. In this case, they’re putting meat on the bones of the prime minister’s goal to restore Canada to its position as a fundamentally serious country.

The new defence procurement moves us right along. Not because they’re big, which they are, nor for their glitz – none of the four or five big items to be purchased even involves weaponry.

It’s the strategic element that impresses Dr. J. and me. The new kit, as a traditional Canadian soldier might put it, will help move the Canadian forces, well-equipped and in substantial numbers, to designated trouble spots almost anywhere in the world. And, once there, help to sustain them effectively.

This is exactly what’s needed. Canada can’t aspire to matching the U.S., or even Great Britain, for numbers and firepower. But our defence capabilities were rusting out so badly that we were in serious danger of being unable even to deploy and sustain our meagre contributions going forward. That would be a national travesty, especially given the superb work our Canadian force has been doing in Afghanistan.

Today’s announcement noted that the helicopter program will include choosing a model. Military history trivia buffs will note the irony if Canada ends up with the American-made CH-47 Chinook. Canada operated Chinooks in the 70s and early 80s, until selling them to the Dutch as a cost-cutting measure during the Forces’ long, sad, politically imposed decline. Of course, brand-new Chinooks, with uprated engines, longer range and vastly improved avionics, will be far superior.

Big planes or really, really big planes – a false dichotomy

There’s been considerable commentary on the apparent disagreement between defence minister Gordon O’Connor and Gen. Rick Hillier, chief of the defence staff, over what type of transport aircraft the Forces most urgently need. That announcement is expected tomorrow.

Hillier has spoken in favour of acquiring possibly 16 of the Lockheed Hercules transports, of the latest model, the C-130J. O’Connor favours the C-17 Globemaster. Commentators have focused on O’Connor’s lobbyist background, claimed military ignorance, etc. We think it’s both a false dichotomy and a bogus dispute, and that both planes are needed.

The Hercules, often (falsely) described as “giant” by breathless journos, is a turboprop-driven, relatively slow, relatively short-takeoff, medium-lift transport with capacity of about 16 tonnes. It’s a tough, reliable, excellent plane, perhaps aviation’s best-ever transport aircraft – for what it does.

The 100-watt bulbs out there will already be making the correct deductions. The Hercules is crucial for resupply, mobility and support “in-theater”, i.e., in the regional areas in which Canadian Forces contingents operate. However, using it to transport 2,300 Canadians and all their gear from Canada half-way around the world would be like moving your entire household with all your belongings from Calgary to Toronto in a minivan.

That’s where the Globemaster comes in. The Globemaster is a genuinely giant plane, jet-propelled, fast, long-range, with capacity of about 70 tonnes, smaller than only one other American and one Russian transport model. Special design makes it able to operate on shorter runways than other heavy-lift aircraft.

O’Connor and Hillier are both right

It’s not a case of who’s right. Hillier’s position is perfectly understandable from the standpoint of a general who’s deeply concerned for the welfare of the men under his command, and for the tactical success of the mission he’s charged with carrying out.

O’Connor is thinking strategically. Our troops can’t win any victories if they can’t make it to the field to begin with, or are starved of supplies once there.

Russian planes aren’t good enough

Canada has relied on rented Russian Antonov transports (which appear to be reverse-engineered or largely copied from the American C-5 Galaxy). Some say we should continue doing so rather than spending billions on new transport planes.

We disagree. First off, touching ex-Soviet-era hardware is creepy on its face. Russian planes tend to crash.

Second, it’s unseemly for a serious country to rely on a non-allied third party for a key – indeed a strategic – military manoeuvre.

Symbolism aside, Russia’s interests are not necessarily, and frankly not often, Canada’s interests. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is happy to play the heavyweight when it deems its interests require doing so – ask any of the neighbouring countries that have had their natural gas supplies abruptly cut off.

Canada simply can’t count on Russia for something as important as deploying and supporting its military forces abroad.

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