NEW! Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

Take the quiz and Win a Trivia Challenge prize pack!

Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

Take the quiz and Win a Trivia Challenge prize pack!

Eye On Defence: November/December

At the beginning of the 1980s, Canada purchased 18 brand new CP-140 Aurora maritime surveillance aircraft primarily to maintain its designated North Atlantic Treaty Organization task of locating, and if necessary, hunting and killing Soviet submarines in the Atlantic.

A Royal Canadian Air Force Aurora takes off during a training exercise in Hawaii in July. [PHOTO: SGT. MATTHEW McGREGOR, CANADIAN FORCES COMBAT CAMERA]

A Royal Canadian Air Force Aurora takes off during a training exercise in Hawaii in July.

The aircraft was and is a Canadianized version of the P-3 Orion patrol aircraft flown by the United States Navy and by dozens of other air forces and navies around the world. Based on the 1950s-era Lockheed Electra turboprop passenger plane, it still sets the global standard for these sorts of aircraft.

In the U.S. and elsewhere, the role of the aircraft has changed significantly since the Cold War and by stripping out and replacing all manner of surveillance and detection technologies, these aircraft still fly in the hundreds performing the submarine-detection role as well as target identification and vectoring for fighter bombers, search and rescue, coastal surveillance, open-ocean surveillance and even, in the United States, as hurricane hunters.

But the P-3s and CP-140s are obviously getting older and the intensity of their use plus their thousands of hours of over-water operations in salt air have taken a heavy toll on their airframes. It is relatively easy—though expensive and time consuming—to take one of these aircraft out of service to modernize its avionics—and both the U.S. and Canada have done that to the P-3s and the CP-140s several times. It is harder, and still more expensive, to literally take the airframe apart every few years to replace each and every part and panel–including wings—that have not stood the test of time under trying conditions. This latter process goes on all the time, particularly in the U.S., because any nation with significant coastlines and maritime interests simply cannot do without aircraft of this kind.

It is all the rage today for those who know little about the capabilities—and the limits—of unpiloted vehicles and surveillance satellites to decry the need for new “manned” aircraft to replace these old planes, but no pilotless vehicle now in existence, or even on the drawing boards, can replace an aircraft such as the P-3 (or the CP-140). These aircraft perform at very long ranges, carry large numbers of radar and other specialists and perform a wide range of maritime tasks. In Canada’s case these include sovereignty patrols of the north and Canada’s exclusive economic zones, environmental surveillance, monitoring shipping traffic, watching for human smuggling, submarine detection (yes, still!), as well as the air traffic and target identification duties that the CP-140s did for the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Libyan air campaign in 2011.

Canada, the U.S. and other countries thus have a choice—continue to spend billions of dollars to keep the aircraft flying for another decade or so, replace the aircraft entirely with a single new airframe and avionics package, or refurbish some old aircraft and swap out others for newer, cheaper, but somewhat less capable aircraft, or buy new ones. The U.S. and Australia have chosen to gradually replace their P-3 fleets with the brand new P-8 Poseidon built by Boeing which is essentially a Boeing 737 airframe and engines stuffed full of the newest detection and surveillance electronics. Britain is also considering the P-8, although possibly leasing them (as they do with their C-17 airlifters) rather than buying them.

Canada, too, was considering the purchase of at least four P-8s—not nearly enough for a nation with a three-ocean coastline and some of the harshest flying conditions in the world. The government was probably considering another upgrade of part of the CP-140 fleet combined with the new P-8s, but never spelled out its thinking. This past summer the government decided to scrap any plans to purchase the P-8s, instead shrinking the CP-140 fleet to 10 aircraft which will be refurbished so as to continue flying until 2030. Estimated cost of this program is $3 billion. The RCAF’s estimate of the cost of purchasing four new P-8s: $5 billion.

Here, then, is another case of putting dollars ahead of the real, concrete, necessity that this maritime country has for a sufficient fleet of modern, long range, maritime surveillance aircraft precisely when challenges to Canadian sovereignty and control of our own coastal waters are growing by the month. This is due both to geopolitical developments—the growing Russian military presence in the Arctic Ocean—and environmentally caused issues such as the appearance of more open Arctic waters especially in the summer months. The latter opens up so many possible missions, from locating downed civilian aircraft to detection of illegal shipping or environmentally hazardous vessels in, or approaching, Canadian waters, that it would take an encyclopedia to list.

So here is another Sea King fiasco in the making—patching together older and older equipment to serve the vital needs of the nation. Will we ever learn?


Sign up today for a FREE download of Canada’s War Stories

Free e-book

An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.