The Canada Forces Today: Part 3 of 4 – An Air Force In Transition

March 1, 1999 by Legion Magazine



by Ray Dick

In Part 1 of this series on the Canadian Forces Today we explained how the Department of National Defence is addressing the challenge of maintaining a combat-ready force while cutting costs. In Part 2, we took a look at the army and the various challenges it faces. This time around, we focus on the air force and explain how it is coping with shrinking budgets.

Despite successive budget cuts, downsizing and some serious hits to morale, Canada’s air force is heading into the new millennium as a leaner, but strong air arm of the Canadian Forces. “In the last 10 years we have lost 45 per cent of our strength (personnel) and 30 per cent of our budget,” says Major-General Peter Gartenburg, assistant chief of air staff. “We’re still struggling with downsizing, still trying to pay our bills at the end of the month” and there still are some cuts to come.

While some observers thought that the downsizing targets and budget cuts laid out in the 1994 government white paper would amount to a “mission impossible,” Gartenburg says the mission is being accomplished through massive re-engineering, reductions and renewal.

In fact, the air force budget has dropped from $2 billion in 1994 to approximately $1.4 billion today. The number of air force personnel–not including some 1,800 air reservists–has been chopped from approximately 20,000 in 1994 to roughly 13,000 in early 1999. “I see a future for the air force that is much more flexible,” says Gartenburg. “There will be better educated, multi-skilled workers–fewer people, but more will be expected of them.”

One of the air force’s first major initiatives was the dramatic reduction of headquarters personnel and the streamlining of the air force’s command and control structure. In the summer of 1997, Air Command headquarters and the four air groups were replaced by a single operational staff in Winnipeg and an air staff headquarters in Ottawa. This has led to a significant cost saving.

Money has also been saved by contracting out some service and maintenance work to the private sector. Known in government jargon as “alternative service delivery,” the contracting out covers a variety of services, including flight training for North Atlantic Treaty Organization personnel, CF-18 support and food supply. Many other projects aimed at cutting costs have also been completed or implemented since 1994. “We have made some startling gains,” says Gartenburg. “What we have accomplished is phenomenal.”

The air force currently has 13 wings located across Canada. From east to west, they are: 9 Wing at Gander, Nfld.; 5 Wing, Goose Bay, Labrador; 12 Wing, Shearwater, N.S.; 14 Wing, Greenwood, N.S.; 3 Wing, Bagotville, Que.; 22 Wing, North Bay, Ont.; 1 Wing, Kingston, Ont.; 8 Wing, Trenton, Ont.; 16 Wing, Borden, Ont.; 17 Wing, Winnipeg; 15 Wing, Moose Jaw, Sask.; 4 Wing, Cold Lake, Alta.; 19 Wing, Comox, B.C. The wing at Canadian Forces Base North Bay is not a home base for any Forces aircraft, and the wing at CFB Borden has a training role.

Canadian Forces Base Gander is headquarters for a search and rescue squadron. Aircrews there use the Labrador helicopter, but the squadron is expected to get the new Cormorant chopper. This was decided last year when the government announced it would be purchasing 15 Cormorants, the first of which is expected to be delivered to the Canadian Forces in January 2001. The remaining choppers are expected to be received by the Forces by the fall of 2002, says the Department of National Defence.

Canadian Forces Base Goose Bay is headquarters for a combat support squadron. The flying unit there is the Griffon helicopter. At CFB Shearwater, the air force uses the Sea King helicopter for maritime operational training and anti-submarine patrols. The wing at CFB Greenwood has a maritime patrol and training squadron, maritime patrol squadron, a maritime proving and evaluation unit, transport and rescue squadron and combat support squadron. A variety of aircraft is used, including the Aurora, Hercules and Challenger.

At CFB Bagotville, 3 Wing operates two tactical fighter squadrons and a combat support squadron. The fighter squadrons use the CF-18 Hornet, while the combat support squadron has the Griffon and the Silver Star. At CFB Kingston, 1 Wing is the headquarters for a helicopter operational training squadron and five tactical helicopter squadrons. All of these squadrons use the Griffon.

Canadian Forces Base Trenton, meanwhile, is the headquarters for a transport and rescue squadron, transport training squadron and three transport squadrons. The aircraft include the Labrador, Hercules, Polaris and Challenger.

In Winnipeg, 17 Wing includes a transport squadron and a central flying school. The aircraft include the Dash-8, Hercules and Tutor. Canadian Forces Base Moose Jaw, meanwhile, has the Canadian Forces Flying Training School, a flying instructors school and the air demonstration squadron, otherwise known as the Snowbirds.

At CFB Cold Lake, 4 Wing is the headquarters for a tactical fighter operational training squadron, two tactical fighter squadrons, a combat support squadron and a transport and rescue squadron. On the West Coast at CFB Comox, B.C., 19 Wing is the headquarters for a maritime patrol squadron, an electronic warfare squadron and a transport and rescue squadron. A variety of aircraft is used, including the Aurora, Buffalo and Labrador. It too is expected to get a number of Cormorants.

For the last couple of years, the Canadian public has heard that the critical need for the air force is for replacement helicopters, especially for the Labradors which are used in search and rescue and the Sea King maritime aircraft. While a decision has been taken to replace the Labradors, there was still no word as of January on a replacement program for the Sea Kings. “It is costing us a fortune for spare parts for the old helicopters,” explains Colonel Joe Sharpe, director of air force strategic policy at NDHQ. “Many (of the parts) are just not available and so they have to be homemade. It takes hours of maintenance.”

Air Command now has 30 Sea Kings in service with 12 Wing at CFB Shearwater. “We had a lot more, but some of them fell out of the sky,” adds Sharpe.

Lieutenant-General David Kinsman noted late last year that the air force is very much in a state of transition. The chief of the air staff has said that there can be no denying that recent years have been difficult for the Canadian Forces. However, he believes the air force has performed well during some pretty challenging times. He has described the air force’s contributions to operations world wide as first class in every respect.

A major focus for the air chief is quality of life issues for forces personnel, primarily what the government’s response will be to the more than 80 recommendations made last year by the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs (A Critical Time For The Military, January/February). Among others, the committee recommended better housing and a pay raise of 10 per cent.

Gartenburg listed quality of life as one of five focus points in his vision of the air force of the future. “We have to pay these people properly, train them properly and buy them the best equipment we can afford,” he says, adding that is the only way they can be offered meaningful careers in the Armed Forces. “These are sound recommendations and we have started to react to many of them already.”

Sharpe says air force personnel were earning approximately $4.50 an hour at the current rates of pay during the 1997 Manitoba flood crisis. “Our people worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week for six weeks without a break. Everyone worked hard, willingly and happily. There were no complaints.”

He uses the Manitoba flood experience as an indication that morale in the air force “is not as good or as bad as it could be.” With 30 years in the Armed Forces, he has seen the ups and downs. “Morale was a lot worse after unification of the Forces in 1968.”

However, Sharpe says it was not only rates of pay that caused a high turnover of pilots, navigators and air technicians after expensive and extensive training with the Forces. “They leave for a lot of reasons. With downsizing, the people we have left are working a lot harder and their chances of promotion are restricted.”

Sharpe uses his own rank of colonel as an example. The number of colonels has decreased by 60 per cent in the last 10 years. There is also the fact of working conditions. The air force is not a nine-to-five, weekends-off job. Servicemen spend a lot of time away from their families, which doesn’t help morale.

Back on the subject of aircraft and equipment, Gartenburg says the air force currently has 122 CF-18s. He says these jets, which are almost 15 years old, need to be upgraded. Canada originally acquired 138 of them at a cost of $5.2 billion, but accidents have taken a toll on aircraft and pilots. Gartenburg says that upgrading the fighter’s capabilities with modern computers, software and communications technology would be costly, but it would also prolong the life of the fighters for up to 20 years. He says the same need applies to the even older propeller-driven Aurora long-range patrol aircraft.

The second focus point for Gartenburg has to do with air force safety. “Flying is a dangerous business,” he explains, adding that “God allowed us to fly because we could develop the equipment to do so…. We cannot afford to lose one human life.”

Gartenburg also believes that the air force could be made more relevant to Canadians. Observers say one way to accomplish this would be to provide more opportunities for the public to see what the air force does. The public could easily identify with the daring and sometimes spectacular search and rescue missions conducted by the Labrador and Sea King crews.

They could also identify with the flying skills of the air transport groups who continually set their planes down on rough airstrips, sometimes under the threat of hostile fire, carrying famine relief supplies or peacekeeping troops to remote places around the world. “There was one airstrip in Rwanda where only the Canadians would fly in,” says Lt.-Col. Steve Wills, an air staff public affairs officer at NDHQ. However, many of the exploits of aircrews have gone unnoticed by the public in the past.

Another of Gartenburg’s focus points for the air force has to do with “interoperability”. This, he says, is absolutely critical if the Canadian air force is to participate fully and effectively on the international scene. “We have to be able to work with our allies. The Americans are coming out with new weapons systems all the time. We can’t afford to do that, but we must know where the technology is going, where the allies are heading and we must keep compatible with the command and control systems.”

Sharpe says the lack of interoperability was brought home in the early stages of the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. He notes that with the differences in technology and command and control systems, the air force “was limited in our flying operations with the British, French and Americans.”

He says the deficiencies are being corrected, but the problems early in the war underlined the need to keep up with the allies in technology and command and control systems. This has been the air force’s major challenge for the last few years as it tries to maintain operational capability with a lot less money.

Gartenburg is quite confident the air force will continue to do a great job with limited resources. “We will meet our targets. The air force has always done things well. I don’t know anyone who has trained people better. The difference is we don’t have the resources.”

Overall, renewal in the air force today and in the years to come will involve the careful balancing of available funds and resources with operational demands at home and abroad. It must also take into account the importance of quality of life for those who serve. “These cost reductions are significant and say much about the professionalism and ethics of our air force,” states Colonel Roy Mould in the July 1997 issue of Defence 2000 News. “It has taken great courage for our leadership–at all levels–to set the example and make the unpopular and difficult decisions necessary to meet our professional obligations. Nonetheless, the obligations are being met and innovative planning will result in the best air force capability our shrinking budget can afford.”

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