Sloan: Harper failing Canada's armed forces
by Elinor Sloan
October 14, 2014
The bravado with which Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government announced Canada would contribute fighter and surveillance aircraft to the combat mission against the Islamic State was dripping with irony.
Both types of aircraft, the CF-18 Hornet and the CP-140 Aurora, were bought by the Pierre Trudeau government; they are old and need to be replaced. The Conservatives knew this when they came to power in 2006, yet almost nine years later there is still no contract for new fighter aircraft, and new surveillance aircraft have been indefinitely shelved.
Canada’s fighters were delivered in the early 1980s. Starting in the 1990s, the air force began warning that the CF-18 airframe would be structurally unable to fly combat missions beyond about 2017. Plans were started to acquire new fighter aircraft. The idea was that a decision would be made by 2012, the first new aircraft would arrive in 2016, and the air force would start retiring its CF-18s and replace them with a fifth-generation aircraft.
It didn’t work out that way. In 2010, the government announced Canada would buy the largely U.S. built Joint Strike Fighter, a verbal commitment that was to be followed with a contract award for a first batch of aircraft sometime later. But growing controversy over the announcement and a negative auditor general’s report prompted the government to freeze the file in 2012. With great fanfare, it announced an independent review of the fighter project, adding the review would be made public. After that, the government would decide whether to proceed with the Joint Strike Fighter or hold an open competition. Yet the review, completed and submitted to government many months ago, has not been made public. Even as Canada sends its fighters into combat for the second time in three years, it has made no decision on a replacement aircraft, nor even a decision on how it will go about making a decision.
Canada’s surveillance aircraft, the CP-140 Aurora, began patrolling the country’s oceans and arctic areas in 1980. An upgrade project was launched in the late 1990s, but in 2007, on the recommendation of the military, it was temporarily halted. Technology upgrades would be out of date as soon as they were completed, it was argued, and in any case structural concerns about the plane were more serious than expected. At some point, it makes no sense to put a fancy new navigation system into your old Ford truck.
The government split the difference, deciding to upgrade half the fleet, remove the rest from the flight line, and start the process of buying new aircraft. But the program for new aircraft moved at a glacial pace, culminating in a government announcement, just this year, that Canada would not buy new surveillance aircraft after all. Instead, some more (but not all) of the original planes would be upgraded with the goal of keeping them flying until 2030.
This saga over replacements for Canada’s fighters and maritime surveillance airplanes are just two of the many military procurement projects that are years behind the planned and promised schedules. The Royal Canadian Navy’s supply ship project is so delayed that Canada will not see new supply ships for many years after the old ships have been decommissioned.
When the Harper government entered office, it recognized that the Canadian Forces needed a strategic airlift capability. The minority Conservative government at the time demonstrated the political will to contract, acquire and deliver four giant transport planes in less than two years. Since then, these decisions have been proven to be unquestionably the right ones. A replacement for Canada’s ships, fighters and surveillance aircraft are every bit as critical – especially now that we are engaged in an ever more complex security situation and pending combat operations.
What has happened to the Conservative government’s political will?
Elinor Sloan is a professor of international relations at Carleton University and fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.