Air Force Blues

by Ralph Annis

From top left: Capt. John Gelinas prepares his CC-130 Hercules for a 2003 flight to Afghanistan; Cpl. Chris Buglar washes an Aurora during a 2003 mission; with his canopy open, a CF-18 pilot awaits clearance to taxi onto the runway at Aviano, Italy, during a 1999 deployment; Cormorant helicopters cross the coastal range of the Rocky Mountains during a 2001 trip; acoustic navigator Capt. Bernie Vos peers out of an Aurora during a 2002 flight over the Arabian Sea.

Canada’s air force has fallen dangerously close to being unable to fight and win for Canada. Through years of neglect and underfunding, the air force has been forced “to do more with less” against a shameful backdrop of outdated defence and foreign affairs policies. It is imperative that this situation be investigated and rectified because air power is crucial to Canada’s national welfare.

Recently, an old warrior friend reminded me that air power means control of the air and to control the air, a nation’s air force must be founded on three main principles. First, an air force must be able to control or at least significantly contribute to the control of its airspace. It must be able to control the air so that the army and navy can conduct any domestic or international operations they may be assigned without interference from hostile air power.

Second, an air force must be able to deny others entry in its airspace. It must be able to support these and other taskings such as surveillance, search and rescue, aid to the civil power and so on.

Third, an air force must be of a certain composition and size so it can be trained to conduct missions as assigned by its government without hindrance or impediment by that government.

An air force that fails to adhere to these principles fails its nation. Today, Canada’s air force cannot exert control of the air because our government is attempting to be all things to all people without providing adequate funds to accomplish any chores effectively.

History has shown that control of the air is crucial to the fate of nations. During World War II, the Royal Air Force’s ability to dominate the air over England during the Battle of Britain—coupled with the Luftwaffe’s inability to do so over Germany—set the stage for the Allies winning the war.

During that same war Canada adhered to the principles of air power and developed the fourth largest air force in the world. The Royal Canadian Air Force successfully conducted air warfare alongside its allies.

In the vanguard of this air force was its fighter fleet that fought to control the air over England and as far into the continent as their capability permitted. Without this the Allied bomber force could not have pursued the course of action it did, which set the stage for the June 6, 1944, Normandy invasion.

In his book The First And The Last, General Adolf Galland, commander of all fighter forces in the Luftwaffe during WW II, stated that Hitler coined the idea of the European Fortress. Galland went on to quote President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who told Congress on Sept 17, 1943, that “Hitler forgot to put a roof over this fortress.”

At the conclusion of WW II, Canada’s air force was reduced in size from the fourth largest in the world to a pale shadow of its former self. But at the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 and the arrival of the Cold War the RCAF was obliged to rapidly expand in size and composition. And it did this with the prime aim of being able to control the air. All other taskings became secondary.

In Europe and in Canada, control of the air was paramount. In Korea, it was the United States Air Force’s ability to control the air that prevented the loss of the Korean Peninsula to the North Koreans. It was the USAF fighter fleet that controlled the air over the battle and that helped give the land forces the opportunity to conduct successful operations.

Around the same time, Canada decided to supply forces to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to help halt the Soviet Union’s expansion. Part of these forces were supplied by the RCAF in the form of an air division of top quality F-86 fighter aircraft whose sole aim was to control the air. In addition, Canada deployed a substantial force of all-weather fighters for the defence of North America operating alongside the USAF, and later in Europe as well.

Throughout these years, Canada also developed operational maritime surveillance, anti-submarine and air transport capabilities to support the three armed services. All these responsibilities were carried out with great expertise and with first-class equipment. The high level of respect accorded to these forces and to Canada was well known.

Clearly, it was the threat posed by well-equipped and operationally ready and willing enemies—first Germany, then Korea and the Cold War with the Soviet Union—that caused Canada to generate the air force it did. When the Soviets no longer posed a threat to North America or to Europe, the attitude was that it was no longer necessary for Canada to maintain an air force that could control the air.

So in the absence of an apparent threat, Canada opted for an air force that purports to be of a size and composition to support every tasking with a little bit here and a little bit there. But when walking the hangar line, the air power is not there to complete the task of controlling the air.

If the above references to the world wars, Korea and the Cold War seem like ancient history, then it would serve us well to look at the most recent war in Iraq. The Iraqi air force, in essence, did not exist which gave the coalition forces immediate air supremacy and after neutralization of the Iraqi air defence system, complete mastery of the air. This situation allowed the coalition air forces, including the powerful naval squadrons, to radically reduce the fighting ability of the Iraqi ground forces and allow coalition ground forces much freer movement to achieve their objectives.

The high-performance fighter and bomber aircraft were greatly assisted by the ground support A-10 aircraft, also known as the Warthog, in taking out pockets of resistance needed to be removed by the land forces. How did all this happen? Simply put, it was through the integration of many elements of military air power. There was, of course, preplanned targeting for a great many enemy sites but when these fixed targets were eliminated, the real magic began. Using a great variety of sensors from personnel on the ground through to satellite imaging, targets were identified, information assessed by ground facilities and an Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft (AWACS). A tasking was sent to a weapons carrying aircraft and the target was hit sometimes within 20 minutes of the request being made.

Ground support aircraft when called in by a forward air controller were often on target within five minutes. Control of the air has never been as efficiently used as in this war.

The war in Iraq and the wars of the last century should make us more, not less vigilant when it comes to controlling the air. We must remember that there was only 20 years between WW I and WW II. Is it wise to abrogate our potential responsibilities because the threat does not seem plausible? And what about North Korea? That country is flaunting its military power, including probable nuclear weapons, before the world and raging that they are willing and able to cause enormous destruction. There are several other countries that some refer to as “rogue states” that must be considered real threats to world peace.

Of at least equal importance is the threat posed by the belief of other nations that Canada is a “paper tiger” because we do not have credible armed forces “in being” that are of any consequence. Credible forces in being are now the coin of the realm and without such coin others will think it easy to take advantage of us economically or worse still, ignore our voice on the world stage.

As historian Jack Granatstein stated recently, “Canada is the laughing stock of NATO” and with this reputation goes the prestige of our country. And in this regard our current air force leadership may have become culpable and have failed Canada, in that they have failed to point out to the nation that the air force can no longer credibly control the air.

The air force leadership is, in part, accountable for this situation. In 1981, Gilles Lamontagne, the then-minister of National Defence, told the Conference of Defence Associations that “in the final analysis we will be judged on military grounds; that is, the extent to which we have effectively contributed to the security of Canada, to the deterrence of war and to the support of our allies.”

In examining the current situation it is clear Canada’s air force is so deficient that it cannot credibly deliver on its responsibilities. And so in order to plan for the future, we need to take a look at what the air force has in the bank today.

First, let’s look at weapons platforms. Our most important asset is our fighter fleet of 121 CF-18 Hornet aircraft. However it is understood that only 80 of these aircraft are to be upgraded over the next 10 years to be comparable with other NATO aircraft and only 60 of the 80 will be in squadron service. These upgrades will give the fighter fleet a reasonable capability until perhaps the year 2020. The only other aircraft in our inventory capable of delivering a weapon is the long-range reconnaissance Aurora that presently can deliver only one type of weapon—the Mk 46 Mod V torpedo. There are unfunded plans to upgrade the Aurora to be equivalent to the U.S. Navy’s Orion, but this program is expected to take at least 10 years.

What about air transport? If Canada is requested by NATO, the UN or some other alliance to project our air power to some global hot spot then the next most important asset is our transport fleet. Today we have 32 C-130 Hercules of various vintages up to 40 years old and the older ones are of questionable reliability. The entire fleet has an extremely low serviceability rate. The only other heavy-lift aircraft in the inventory is the Polaris (Airbus A-320) and we own five of them. Our air force also has several light utility transport aircraft consisting of six Buffalo, eight Challenger, four Dash-8 and four Twin Otter aircraft.

Our air force does not own any primary, basic or advanced pilot trainers. These are supplied and maintained by Bombardier on a contract basis. The primary trainer is flown by pilots hired by Bombardier but the basic and advanced trainers are flown by air force flying instructors. There are still 24 of the 50-year-old T-33 aircraft on inventory to “do this and that” while awaiting phase-out and 24 Tutor aircraft, 12 flown by the Snowbirds with the remainder in storage as spares.

Now let’s look at our helicopter assets. The air force has taken delivery of 15 Cormorant helicopters to fill the Search and Rescue role to replace the 12 Labradors now in service. There are 29 Sea King helicopters extending the reconnaissance capability of the navy ships upon which they are deployed. In the 1960s the air force backed into the tactical helicopter business with the mistaken attitude that if it flies, it belongs. The air force now owns 99 civilian pattern Griffon helicopters. Except for small units stationed at our two fighter bases at Cold Lake, Alta., and Bagotville, Que., and the NATO training base at Goose Bay in Labrador these aircraft are employed in seven squadrons attached to and controlled by army units.

The fighting capabilities of these assets can be quantifed by the following comparison: Our entire fighter force of operational CF-18s is considerably less than the fighter force aboard a single U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. Further, the carrier force is equipped with a variety of fighters, including F-14s, F-18s, A-6s, plus a variety of weapons, fuel, rescue helicopters, AWACS and in-flight refuelling capability. Easily concluded from this comparison is that Canada’s air power is incapable of even minimal independent action, and as a result cannot project Canada’s wish internationally.

And so what does Canada’s air force need?

We must be able to control our own airspace and the airspace over an area where our air power may be projected to achieve peace in some part of the world. In this sense, it must be assumed that Canada will not act unilaterally in any wartime activities but will be a partner with other nations in any such activity. In this context, Canada needs:

1) Front-line fighter aircraft armed with the latest weapons for both air-to-air and air-to-ground operations.

2) Highly trained, well-motivated and highly skilled pilots and maintenance personnel.

3) To support a North American missile defence system.

4) The capability to deploy anywhere quickly, including an in-flight refuelling capability.

What don’t we need?

Canada does not need AWACS aircraft to control our fighters since any deployment outside the country will be with an alliance who has these aircraft on call. It should be noted that Canadian aircrews are presently flying the AWACS in Germany with NATO and in the U.S. with Norad. The air force does not need tactical helicopters to do army and navy jobs.

What must we do?

The government must upgrade all 121 CF-18s and put 100 of them into operational service. It must also act now to replace these aircraft before the year 2020 when they will have run out of time and capability. A study group of highly qualified fighter pilots and engineers must be formed to evaluate new fighter aircraft without the political interference that resulted in the purchase of the CF-5 in 1968. That machine didn’t make the original shortlist of aircraft to be considered by the air force and only squeezed onto the bottom of their second list after the politicians downgraded the operational requirements. The government then purchased the machine.

In addition, it must take as many as 20 of our old C-130 aircraft out of service and replace them with the latest version off the production line. The C-130 has proven itself to be an outstanding machine and the air force needs this superb capability for local, tactical and some strategic airlift.

The air force also desperately needs a heavy airlift capability. A group of air transport experts should be formed immediately to study our requirements and make recommendations, including whether to buy, lease or rent. Several heavy transports could deliver our troops and equipment to a major airport near any hotspot where the troops could be transported onward by the C-130.

Canada must also expedite the upgrading of our long-range reconnaissance aircraft before they become of so little use that their role may no longer be doable.

Our air force must also train to a common wings standard and train to meet operational requirements.

The 18 Aurora aircraft in our inventory are probably sufficient to meet Canada’s requirements. The problem is the lack of funding to properly equip and train our air and ground crews. The air force does not have money for fuel or expenses let alone contract for the very necessary updates required. While our Aurora aircraft were deployed to the Persian Gulf, the crews had to do their patrols at low level because they are limited to using only radar, Forward Looking Infra Red and the old Mk1 eyeball. The U.S. Navy, flying the Orion, an identical airframe, fly at medium to high levels using multiple sensors. Further, the Orion can carry and deliver up to 30 different types of weapons.

The Sea King helicopter is not a machine that helps gain control of the air or project that control. However, the helicopter has done a very creditable job for the navy despite the bad press over the years. But the Sea King is long in the tooth and must be replaced.

Earlier this year, Defence Minister David Pratt called for tenders for new maritime helicopters. This is very good news and it is hoped that a contractor will be selected this summer. Prior to Pratt’s announcement there had been indications that political interference may force the air force and the navy to accept a second-rate aircraft. Such a situation would be totally unacceptable. I also believe that while the navy has control of its helicopters, it must also have command of them.

This brings us to search and rescue. While not leading directly to the role of control of the air, search and rescue operations are an air force responsibility and a service in which Canadians can be justifiably proud. Over the past decades our search and rescue units have flown many missions in every part of Canada and over our three oceans and they have performed heroically. It is notable that our search and rescue units are the only air force units getting new equipment—the Cormorant helicopter replacing the venerable Labrador.

Tactical helicopters are doing an army job and they are controlled by the army units to which they are attached. To a tactical helicopter pilot, air power means moving the army forward. And while this is important to the army, it has nothing to do with control of the air. When helicopters were first coming into service, it was positively stated by their advocates that there was no threat from fighter aircraft because they could hide so easily. A trial was arranged, circa 1969, at Canadian Forces Base Rivers, Man., pitting helicopters against fixed-wing fighter aircraft (T-33 aircraft with gun cameras). It became immediately obvious that the helicopters were sitting ducks no matter what tactics were used.

This finding was supported by stacks of gun camera film and written reports. The final report seems to have been lost and it is doubtful if any realistic threat assessment has been done since. One thing we must not be drawn into is the misplaced idea of the “attack” helicopter. The attack helicopter came about due to the long-running competition between the USAF and the U.S. Army which was resolved by dividing the flying machines, fixed wing going to the air force and rotary wing to the army. In 1970, a group of high ranking “experts” from National Defence Headquarters flew down to the States to watch a demonstration by the Huey Cobra, the first attack helicopter. The author was the only fighter pilot in the group and likened the attack capability to the old air armament Harvard trainer in delivery speeds and weapon carrying capability. Canada rightfully determined not to go the attack helicopter route and this determination must continue.

During the war in Kosovo, the U.S. Army sent in 20 Apache helicopters with great fanfare. They didn’t turn a rotor. The reason given was that they needed a special inspection of some kind. Some people believe that some logical thinking senior officer realized that the environment was far too dangerous to risk the loss of these machines. During the war in Iraq, the Apache was again deployed. While they were successfully employed against lightly held targets, they were badly mauled when 20 of them were sent against a more heavily defended Iraqi Guard unit. One aircraft was shot down and 15 others suffered major damage.

Having said this, there is no doubt that the air force must provide close air support for our ground forces. In Iraq this was supplied by the A-10 Warthog. These heavily armoured aircraft can carry a very large weapons payload, including a tank-busting 30-mm cannon and they have up to five hours of loiter time while waiting “on station” for a call for support. It must be noted that the A-10 was developed by the USAF as a result of the horrendous loss of over 5,500 helicopters in Vietnam. The air force must give the army its dedicated close support by immediately purchasing 60 A-10 Warthog aircraft from the USAF and deploying five squadrons across the country to work with the various army area commanders. They must be able to deploy with them to hot spots when required. The present deployment to Afghanistan would be a perfect job for these specialized machines.

The army has operational control over tactical helicopter operations. It is time to give the army command of these squadrons along with the duties and responsibilities that go with such ownership. The air force doesn’t need them.

On the subject of pilot training, the pilot fraternity has argued for years against “streaming” the training of pilots. Streaming is the breaking off from the normal training syllabus prior to the trainees attaining wings standards and streaming them into helicopter or transport training for the last half of a changed syllabus before gaining their wings. Pilots destined to be fighter or instructor pilots continued the normal training to wings standard before moving to operational or instructor training.

Unfortunately, streaming was finally adopted against the advice of pilots but a financial squeeze could not be fought. The streamed pilots are given 95 hours or about half of the full syllabus and further training in a field which, in the case of helicopter pilots, limits their future employment. The chickens are now coming home to roost; because helicopter pilots being cycled into the basic flying instructors positions require a great deal of costly retraining. Fixed wing (transport) pilots have an easier time becoming flying instructors. The air force should immediately return to producing a well- rounded pilot, from a proven flying training syllabus, who can be transferred between different aircraft types to ensure that Canada maintains a highly qualified and competent air force.

Flying hours available for primary, basic and operational training has not been limited. However, flying hours for continuation training has been severely curtailed. Our CF-18 pilots now must train in either air-to-air combat or air-to-ground operations, not both. Our long-range patrol aircraft have had to discontinue patrols of our Arctic due to insufficient funding for fuel and accommodations. The fact that our air force continues to provide outstanding service is due to the extremely high quality of our air and ground crews, but the quality is bound to diminish unless funding can be found for more training.

It is time for some senior air force commander to say, “We will train to meet our flying standards and to meet our operational requirements. When the money runs out, we will close the hangar doors.” It is at best false economy to cut back on training and at worst, criminal, to put our dedicated airmen and airwomen at grave risk because of it.

During the Cold War you often heard the expression: “Sleep tight tonight, your air force is awake.” It is apparent that the Canadian air force’s ability to project air power has been severely degraded from what was once the fourth largest air force in the world. Today we can only be described as a hodgepodge collection of under-strength, poorly equipped and under-funded squadrons due to budget constraints and a lack of clear guidance and direction from the politicians in both defence and foreign affairs.

We must now seek “peacetime utility” for our war fighting machines. Immediate action must be taken to stop the bleeding of our air force and increase the resources and funding to a level that will allow Canada to project her air power whenever and wherever required to meet the nation’s needs. It has been said that every country will have an air force, our own or someone else’s.

I vote for our own.

Editor’s note: Ralph Annis joined the RCAF at 17 and worked as a radar tech before going aircrew. He has flown the F-86, T-33 and CF-104, and served with NATO, Norad and with the United Nations in the Middle East. He is a former Dominion Command vice-president and president of New Brunswick Command.



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