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Canadian Force Procurement – Opinion Piece – Politics & Procurement  –  Oct  2010

Whither Aircraft Procurement: Canadian Civilian and Service Politics, the Directorate of Aerospace Requirements, and 'The Waiting Game'

Op-Ed:  On the state of select DND aircraft procurement programs by Steve Daly, CD
Politics and Procurement – An Overview of  what  Underlies Buying New  Military Aircraft

With the contentious decision to purchase the Lockheed Martin F-35 for Canada's Air Force, the current realities of  defence procurement become apparent. The first is that DND and the governing Harper Conservatives have different approaches to procurement and, in the case of high-profile purchases, the Government will have its way. [1]

Less high-profile requirements tend to fade away. For an example, see replacing the CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol fleet. Air Force planners placed great urgency on buying P-8A Poseidons or the like. But  nothing has been heard of replacing the Auroras for years.  On the political side, an example is the Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue Project. FWSAR  has been  touted as the Air Force's top priority time and again. Yet that project remains in limbo  –  FWSAR being neither part of a real public debate nor making any notable headway through the labyrinth of defence procurement policy.

Low-profile aircraft requirements  fare even less well.  Government is content  to save  money by ignoring such requirements. This is compounded when the requirement fills a role of  little interest to the Air Force –  an example being Northern utility aircraft. While there are obvious possibilities to enhance Canadian Arctic sovereignty  with a  CC-138 Twin Otter replacement, neither DND nor the Air Force will act.

The Federal Government might actually welcome a chance to claim credit  for a simple improvement on Arctic sovereignty assertion combined  with direct benefits to Canada's aircraft industry – for example, through  the purchase of  new  Viking Twin Otters. But DND prefers to bundle its CC-138 replacement into an expanded FWSAR Project (despite not being close to putting a single aircraft onto the ramp) and the Air Force would happily avoid permanent basing in the Arctic if at all possible.

Sussing Out SARP –  What's Behind the Delayed Snowbird Aircraft Replacement Project?

One Air Force requirement has fared particularly badly  –  the Snowbird Aircraft Replacement Project. Depending upon how fortune is favouring the Snowbirds Demonstration Team's fleet of aged trainers, SARP either has no profile at all or it is front-page news. Neither government nor DND want tragedy or catastrophe in the headlines. So, how did SARP drop off the radar?

The Snowbirds' current mounts are the CF's last Canadair CT-114 Tutors. These aircraft were delivered to the RCAF between 1963 and 1966. The ancient Tutors were replaced as training aircraft in 2000 by the CT-155 Hawk. So, these 45-year old aircraft have not  the prestige of  being up-to- date trainers nor even of being current CF service aircraft outside of the Snowbirds themselves. [ Ed: AETE at CFB Cold Lake also has at least one CT-114 Tutor in service.]

By definition, an air demonstration team is highly visible to the public. Should Canada's famed Snowbirds find themselves without aircraft to fly, the public outcry can be imagined. So why does the Air Force place so little emphasis on re-equipping its premier air display unit ?  One possibility is that Air Force staff  know that they can use any political pressure that emerges.

If  misfortune places the Snowbirds on the front-pages once again, the Air Force knows that the government of  the day will fund the needed aircraft and get them in service as rapidly as possible. Any financial considerations will take a back seat to short-term political expediency.

Why push matters to this extreme position? As always with Air Force procurement, the great difficulty is with the expense of  purchasing the desired aircraft. In the case of SARP, the Air Force prefers the BAE Hawk  jet trainer to the exclusion of  all other aircraft types. The SARP challenge is compounded by the fact that the CF's in-service CT-155 Hawks aren't owned  by DND – these are contractor-provided, leased aircraft used exclusively in the training role.

Potential alternate solutions have been part of the public debate.  This has included purchase of other jet trainers as well as propeller-driven trainers like the CT-156 Harvard II.  I presented one such possibility  –  a  'CF-156B Harvard II'  for SARP while a similar aircraft filled the CF's COIN/light attack role. The current Harvard II  fleet may lack the prestige of Hawk jet-trainers but the Harvard II is still capable of performing multiple missions for the Canadian Forces. [2]

The Pride of Ownership — DND, the Canadian Forces, and the Alternative Delivery System

Another 'prestige' aspect to SARP  is  the desirability of owning the aircraft flown by the nation's most famous air demonstration team. Being a tactical aircraft, the 'CF-156B' would  have to be owned by Canada. Adding a small number of aircraft earmarked for the Snowbirds would not add major expense to such a purchase. A similar case cannot be made for ownership of additional Hawk trainers. If the Snowbirds were to be re-equipped with Hawks, the logically-consistant course would be to lease the new aircraft in the same way as other CF-operated examples of the type.

As it is, the Air Force would prefer there to be no public debate on SARP. When the need for Snowbirds replacement aircraft become politically sensitive,  government will find the needed funds. As a bonus from the planners point of view, that same political urgency will leave little time for alternatives to be sought. Political expediency substantially increases the possibility of the Air Force's preferred choice of aircraft as the only viable course in the time available. In other words, waiting out the government is actually beneficial to Air Force planners' goals.

Procurement politics aside,  there is no reason for  the Snowbird Aircraft Replacement Project to be relegated  to the back-burner at NDHQ as  'more pressing' requirements are met. Suitable aircraft are available –  for purchase or lease – and at comparatively reasonable prices. Service personnel understand that they are putting their lives on the line. But, even ignoring the cost in human lives, what internal political wrangling could possibly warrant needlessly risking the lives of those most highly-skilled  pilots of  the  Snowbirds  Demonstration  Team ?


[1] In the case of the CF-18 replacement, both DND and  the Air Force were preparing for their particular style of  'competition' – that is, pitting industry submissions against one another for a requirement written around the desired F-35. It was assumed that competitors in this contest would be the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Saab JAS 39 Gripen, and Eurofighter Typhoon.

[2] The USAF and Royal Australian Air Force fly similar aircraft  ( the T-6 Texan II and Pilatus PC-9) with both air demonstration teams and combat missions (T-6B on COIN, PC-9 on FAC ).


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