Leaving The Air Force Up In The Air

March 1, 2003 by Legion Magazine

by David J. Bercuson

The Royal Canadian Air Force first obtained its Hercules aircraft in the 1960s and has continued to upgrade them to meet new requirements such as air-to-air refuelling of CF-18 fighters on long flights.

Towards the end of 2002 it became clear that no public review of either defence or foreign policy would be forthcoming for at least another year. No doubt those reviews will take place only after the next prime minister settles into office in early 2004, the consequence being that there will be no new defence white paper until late 2004 at the earliest.

The hold-up will have two contradictory effects on the air force. In the short run, the air force’s future is probably more certain than that of the army and the navy and thus the delay will have only a slight impact on air force projects and plans over the next decade. In the long run the air force’s search to define itself beyond 2015 or 2020 may be considerably hindered by the postponement.

With the end of the Cold War, pressure on western military forces to move constantly to the next generation of technological development, whatever it was, greatly diminished. That was true of all the traditional service arms of all the advanced industrialized countries. In the case of the United States, to cite the best example, virtually all the major weapons systems the U.S. forces deploy today, from Abrams tanks to F-117 Stealth Fighters are “legacy” systems–rooted in 1980s or even 1970s technology. Even the venerable B-52 bomber of the early 1950s is still flying operationally in the United States Air Force while the much-touted F-22 Raptor bomber, which has recently been transformed by the USAF into the F/A-22 air-superiority and ground-attack fighter, is only now being deployed, more than a decade after initial roll-out and in far fewer numbers than originally envisaged.

The 15-year hiatus gave governments a long window of opportunity to prepare for the inevitable next round. As is their wont, the Americans used that chance to leap far ahead of everybody else in virtually all areas of weapons development. In the air it meant conjuring up a Joint Strike Fighter that would serve the needs of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force with variations on a single air frame–the recently selected Lockheed Martin F-35.

As is Canada’s wont, Ottawa used most of the hiatus to cut an even larger peace dividend cheque than the ones it had started to cut well before the Cold War ended. For almost a decade, the air force languished. More recently the air force has been given funds for major upgrades on its CF-18 fighters and CP-140 Aurora long-range patrol aircraft, and more modest avionics improvements to the Hercules transport fleet. In the case of the CF-18, the improvements will enable a smaller fleet of 80 aircraft–as opposed to the 122 at the start of 2001–to continue front-line operations until about 2015. That ought to be sufficient since most modern air forces will continue to fly upgraded late-Cold War aircraft until then.

But what then?

The recent adoption by the Canadian Forces of capability-based planning has the potential to be more severe on the air force than on the army or the navy. The new planning concept is based on the twin notions of planning for, and building in, integration throughout the CF and on basing future development on core capabilities. It is relatively easy to define the core capabilities of the army and the navy. The army’s core capability is to take and hold ground. The navy’s core capabilities are to protect Canada’s shorelines and to project force abroad. But the air force performs a large variety of important missions, any of which might be considered core.

From now until roughly 2015 after current upgrades are completed, Canada’s air force will be able to perform missions in strategic and maritime reconnaissance, limited long-range and more extensive short-range lift, strategic and tactical strike, air superiority, search and rescue, maritime support, air-to-air refuelling, and limited ground support with lightly armed Griffon helicopters.

Beyond 2015 the air force would like to be in the fighter game and in long-range strategic lift. It has put $100 million into securing a seat at the design and development table for the X-35 short-takeoff fighter and a project office is currently sifting through a number of purchasing and lease options for C-17 Globemaster cargo aircraft. But it won’t be up to the air force to decide what its future is, and that’s where the problem lies.

The new capability-based planning initiative will inevitably shrink the air force’s current task list. That list may already be too long for an air force as small as Canada’s. In Australia, for example, the army was recently tasked with providing its own helicopter support, resulting in the creation of army aviation regiments which took over the job of operating army-support helicopters from the Royal Australian Air Force. In the restructured Canadian Forces which could emerge from the next white-paper proposals, it isn’t inconceivable that virtually all current helicopter operations could devolve to the army, to the navy, or even to the Canadian Coast Guard in the case of search and rescue.

Although it is highly unlikely that air superiority, strategic and tactical strike missions, or long-range lift would ever devolve to anyone else, it is entirely possible that the future Canadian air force may not embrace even this limited capability list. Perhaps the core mission of the future will be ground support, with pilotless aircraft, in a truly joint Canadian Forces with a structure like that of the U.S. Marines. Or perhaps army aviation may swallow not only army-support helicopter operations, but even short-range transport requirements.

The point is that although the current upgrade program ensures the future of the current air force, with most or all of its mission list intact, no one can tell for sure what the air force will be doing beyond 2015, even though almost everyone can tell what basic tasks the army and the navy will be performing.

The year 2015 is a long way away in the affairs of humankind. That is especially true in the world of politics where it is sometimes said that a week is a long time. But in the world of military force planning and weapons development–and particularly in procurement as we have seen for the replacement of the Sea King helicopters–12 years is just a wink of an eye.

The clock is ticking.

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