Fairly big and really big planes

June 29th, 2006
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Yesterday’s long post on the Conservative government’s daily stream of defence procurement announcements included discussion of the Canadian Forces’ air transport requirements and options.

Today’s announcement (click here, here and here to read the various backgrounders) concerning the budget and contracting process for new military transports was expected. But the government’s apparent previous indecision over whether to go for a medium-lift transport like the C-130J Hercules (latest model) or a heavy-lift “strategic” jet like the C-17 Globemaster lent greater suspense to today’s event than the previous ones.

See yesterday’s post (scroll down or click here) for links to the previous announcements and to information on each aircraft.

Ending a half-century of skimping

The government’s decision to go for both types of aircraft is a tremendous move for the armed forces. The models are still to be determined and suppliers named, but the Hercules and Globemaster are the obvious favourites.

This had to be the first Canadian defence procurement in my lifetime that bucked the previously guaranteed practice of handing the forces fewer, smaller, weaker or lower-quality kit than requested, and needed. Hence, Leopard I tanks instead of Leopard IIs, F-18s instead of F-15s, Bell 412s instead of Sikorsky Blackhawks, and on and on.

Yet even this debilitating policy showed a curious inability to avoid bizarre cost-inflation or over-runs. The absurd Iltis (jeep) saga was a case in point, a satirical tin can on wheels built at astounding cost by good old Bombardier.

Instead, this time our armed forces will be provided with both a long-range strategic transport capable of ferrying armoured vehicles or companies of troops around the world non-stop (with aerial refuelling), and a tough tactical transport that can carry out the dozens of smaller, more localized mission types that such a plane is suited for. Until now (and for the next year or two), Canada’s fleet of superannuated, overworked Hercules were burdened with the impossible job of doing everything, and were falling increasingly behind.

Bogus argument

The decision suggests that the previous alleged dispute between defence minister Gordon O’Connor and Gen. Rick Hillier, chief of the defence staff, was a gentlemen’s disagreement in which, as we wrote yesterday, both men were correct. Or the dispute was itself a news media concoction. Or possibly, a political contrivance designed to focus attention on the need for both aircraft and thereby lessen the impact of the admittedly massive cost.

No matter. This is great news for Canada’s soldiers, and for Canadians such as ourselves who want our country to play a substantial role on the world stage (as opposed to emitting an endless stream of empty statements of intent).

The long logistics tail

On a more detailed level, it demonstrates the astoundingly long logistics “tail” required to support an expeditionary force in hostile terrain half-way around the world.

Canada recently purchased a couple of dozen modern field howitzers, a few of which are now seeing service in Afghanistan. Cost: a few million dollars. Our mechanized infantry roams Afghanistan in a few dozen light armoured vehicles (LAV III). Cost: a few tens of millions of dollars.

The Canadian force in Afghanistan (and future missions elsewhere) will be transported, supplied, supported, exchanged and brought home using brand-new fleets of heavy-lift helicopters, medium-duty trucks, medium- and heavy-lift transport aircraft, and new naval support ships. Cost: at least $15 billion. Wow.

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