Thursday, September 01, 2005

What is it with weasels named Martin?

Babble on.

If it's not one Martin cutting funding to our military, it's another Martin bashing it in our "national newspaper":

Last we heard from General Rick Hillier, he was calling the enemy "detestable murderers and scumbags." Since our military chiefs are usually a few shades less colourful, Redneck Rick triggered a storm.

Now the good general has got the town buzzing again -- this time with a big-bang plan to overturn Ottawa's sloth-ridden procurement practices and fast-track the acquisition of a new fleet of 50 planes at a cost of $6-billion.

The plan is to ram a deal favouring mainly American companies -- no other bidders need apply -- through cabinet before Christmas.

Oh, he pretends he's just kidding around by the end of the article, but in the meantime he's scored his cheap snicker points with the grandé latté crowd. And there are a lot of cheap snicker points: calling our top soldier Redneck Rick, invoking the American defence contractor bogeyman, impugning the motives of the CDS because he's worked with the retired generals who head up the group proposing this deal, and more.

Once you cut through the condescending pettiness though, Martin's point seems to be that a competitive bidding process would be better than a sole-source contract for a $6B military aircraft deal. In a perfect world, I'd agree with him. Martin's problem is that, although he pays it lip service, he doesn't really understand the magnitude of the mess our Air Force is dealing with.

Each of the aircraft replacements proposed will fill an operational gap that is growing every day, or a role we unwisely abandoned years ago. Our C-130 fleet is among the oldest in the world. Two of the airframes have logged over 50,000 hours - which is roughly analagous to owning a car with half a million kilometres on the odometer. Eighteen of the thirty-two C-130's are being pulled off-line to inspect their wings for cracks. Our C-115 Buffalos came into service in 1967, and suffer similar age-related problems as our overworked Hercs. Our heavy-lift helos were sold off to the Dutch in 1991, and we've been fiddling around since then with the woefully underpowered CH-146 Griffon, which means we've effectively gone without that capability for almost fifteen years now.

Our need for replacement aircraft is urgent. Martin notes in passing a DND study that showed average time to complete a purchase from start to finish for our military was seventeen years. That's not a typo: seventeen years - and Martin just brushes it off. In fact, even an attempt to fast-track a recent contract has ended in failure. If there was to have been a competitive process for these three aircraft requirements, it should have been started years ago.

Our intrepid columnist says it might save up to a billion dollars to hold a bid competition, but he doesn't support that number. Nor does he say how much the CF will save in maintenance costs by buying new now rather than later. I guess inconvenient facts don't merit mention for this hack.

Besides, even when the military dots all the i's and crosses all the t's, the Liberals are perfectly capable of manipulating a competitive bid process for political reasons and screwing our folks in uniform in the process. The Maritime Helicopter Project anyone? The Upholder purchase?

If Martin's going to write on military matters, he'd do better not to take his story tips from lobbyists for disgruntled rival manufacturers. The C-130J (in either the short or long form) is the best replacement for the C-130E we fly today. Our aircrew and maintenance personnel are already familiar with the most proven tactical airlift platform on the planet, and will require minimum retraining. We don't need to reinvent the wheel here. The C-27J Spartan is a collaboration between Italian and American firms, and is like a mini-Herc. While perennial Liberal favourite Bombardier is pushing the Dash-8, and CASA is pushing the Spanish CN-295M, the Spartan offers advantages in performance over both those competitors. And again, given the similarities to the C-130's, training and maintenance would be much easier with the C-27J's. As far as the CH-47's are concerned, I'd argue we never should have gotten rid of them in the first place. The Dutch are currently upgrading the 47D's we sold them into 47J's - which we could have done if we'd kept the damn things to begin with. To those who think other platforms such as the Blackhawk should receive some consideration, I'd ask whether you want a true heavy-lift helo or not. Even with Blackhawks, the U.S. still fly Chinooks. The CH-47 is the proven big kid on the block - they don't call it the Heavy Hooker for nothing.

All of which goes to show that Lawrence Martin is just stirring the pot. Like all too many of his fellow journalists and pundits, he gives no thought to the real-life consequences of his words. He will suffer no pangs of regret should a Buff plow into a mountainside next year, or a Herc fall out of the air due to metal fatigue, or a simple soldier die on an Afghan hillside due to lack of helicopter evac. No, our pompous columnist is sniping for the malicious pleasure of it, to make himself sound important.

Luckily, he is not.

Babble off.


At 7:34 p.m., Blogger Chris Taylor said...

Tac-lift replacements are long overdue but I think the dollars might be better-spent on a strat-lift solution with integral tac-lift capability, like the IL-76 or C-17.

The 130J is a great aircraft, but Canada really requires something with much longer legs. Tac-lift is great for intra-theater work, but we have no extended overseas logistics chain like the U.S., so it's harder to get overseas -- which is where all of our deployed troops go. There's no peacekeeping work in Whitehorse that I know of.

We also waste the 130J's inherent air refueling capability because we have no boom-equipped tankers, which limits us further.

Virtually every soldier and every vehicle going on a peacekeeping mission has to leave from Canada itself, and the 130J does not have long legs once you reduce the combat load far enough for the Herc to make it overseas. We will continue to ship all heavy items via sealift while the troops arrive by air, and only once they are both in-theater can the 130J perform a useful role.

Granted, unit procurement cost for a C-17 is something like USD $250m, whereas a 130J is about USD $55m, so we get many Hercs for the cost of one strat-lifter. But in terms of capabilities all the Hercs buy us is a slight increase in theater air mobility with zero expeditionary (or deploy-straight-from-home) capability.

If we were prepared to buy air refueling assets too then perhaps we could bootstrap the Hercs into the strat-lift role too. All we get out of this is lower operational costs, which will inevitably be scraped out of the DND budget by the next Liberal government.

We need to go big or go home.

At 9:20 a.m., Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Well reasoned, Chris. Except you're looking at it from only an expeditionary perspective. Try viewing it through a 'Canada-first' filter instead, and the plan may make more sense to you.

At 11:05 a.m., Blogger Chris Taylor said...

It does, but the insular Canada-first school of thinking has never appealed to me. =) If we were spending a big pile of money on ice-capable frigates or a school of arctic ops training then I'd be a little more inclined to favour it.

As it is, without a massive surveillance infrastructure, the combination of our cash-strapped military, a three-ocean coastline and a sparsely-populated country renders remote areas of Canada too difficult to patrol effectively and economically.

At 11:05 a.m., Blogger VW said...

The big problem with what L. Martin is proposing is that his tactic is what got us into the Sea King mess in the first place.

At 12:16 p.m., Blogger Fred :) said...

Given the distances flown WITHIN Canada, the focus on Arctic Ops and our International SAR resposnsibilities in the north, we do need a mixed fleet. We fly "domestic missions" of strategic lift distances/loads

I'd go for C17's, J Herky birds & the Spartan.

Each C17 can do the work of 4 or 5 130J's so we don't need 40 or 50 of them. Imagine doing the Boxtop replenishment mission with C17's ??

Tres simple.

The other part we need is an air-to-air refueling ability for our SAR birds - Spartans and Cormorants and probably some of the TAC helos. Wold give incredible flexibility in over ocean SAR ops, Arctic deployments etc.


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