The Little Air Force That Could

Lord Trenchard, Mr McCurdy, Sign. Douhet, Mr Corrigan, Ms Earhart, General Mitchell, fellow aviation pioneers! This is the second in a series of senior staff briefings. I am honoured to address such a knowledgeable and influential gathering of aviation pioneers. LGen Campbell, Chief of the Air Staff of the Canadian Air Force, presented the seminal, bell-wether speech in this series to the Annual General Meeting of the Canadian Council of Defence Associations.

The core theme of his address was simple and straightforward, namely, “our goal is to become the best small air force in the world.” I believe I can advise, without fear of contradiction, that we reached the second arm of that estimable goal. A brief overview of how we’ve developed a lean, mean, fighting machine from the rubble of our overmanned, over equipped Cold War Air Force is in order.

Since the mid 1960s, generations of our military leaders and their civilian counterparts have thoughtfully and judiciously reduced overall manning levels from approximately 55,000 to approximately 15,000 souls (I am pleased to announce that this number does not include Reservists, civilian “military personnel,” or Air Cadets.) Redundant Bases at Chilliwack, Penhold, Claresholm, Lincoln Park, Saskatoon, Rivers, Gimli, Aylmer, Clinton, London, Centralia, Rockcliffe, Downsview, St Hubert, Chatham, Summerside, Torbay, Sea Island and MacDonald Pine Tree, Mid-Canada and DEW line stations, Metz, Marville, Grostenquin, Zweibrucken, Baden and Lahr have been closed. Twenty-one jet squadrons, each with 18 aircraft and 30 crews, have been disbanded.

One could assert that the Canadians are without peer in accomplishing prodigious staff and materiel reductions while retaining all of the Air Force’s core roles – Maritime Patrol, Transport, and Fighters, while assuming a plethora of helicopter taskings/functions, many relatively new to the Air Force. In many instances we’ve also retained a modest fleet of aircraft – 1965 vintage Sea Kings, “E” and “H” model Hercs (38 and 29 years young respectively), 1980 Auroras and 21 year old CF-18s. Some malcontents might call our aircraft old and out of date. I prefer the term proven! And we certainly have “proven” that, unlike the Prime Minister, our brave young aircrews are proud to fly helicopters that benefit from thirty hours of quality maintenance for every hour of flying time! How have we managed I hear you ask?

Some remaining Bases and Squadrons have been “born again.“ Bases boasting a runway have been designated Wings. Air units with three or more aircraft, former Operational Training Units, Search and Rescue units, and similar formations have been given a Squadron number. Two or three CF-18 squadrons relentlessly patrol Canadian skies – one or two from CFB Cold Lake and the other from Bagotville. A 2,000 mile gap in Canada’s CF-100 day’s defences – roughly between Revelstoke and Wawa – has been partially plugged. Some may have the cheek to suggest this might be Canada’s own Potomkin village.

I can assure you that we maintain, within a 3 or 400 nautical mile circle around Cold Lake and Bagotville, absolute air superiority (a.k.a. aerospace – I love those neat words). Sleep well tonight – those circles are not fixed but, given adequate notice, can be moved to almost anywhere with an adequate runway.

Cynics might conclude that an Air Force without the offensive and defensive capability to gain and maintain sovereignty over its homeland is little more than the Army equivalent of a Laundry and Bath unit, or comparable to the Navy’s HMCS Protector. There is no place in our Air Force for such naysayers.

In his speech General Campbell described, in some detail, the United States Air Force’s capabilities and interests, and provided a cursory overview of how our “best small air force” might support the US. Unfortunately time prevented him from fleshing out this concept. I shall try to assist!

There is a possibility that our F-18s, might, in the not too distant future, providing all goes well, and funds become available, be equipped with state of the art avionics (to complement the 24 channel UHF and their out dated IFF gear) and weapons of semi-mass destruction. Assuming the USAF declares sufficient ordnance “past its best before date” we’ll be able to purchase same – marking paid to that deficiency. If we have insufficient funds, I expect Good Old Uncle Samuel will give us the weapons and high tech gear.

But I digress. Let’s “blue sky“ the role air power might play in the coming decades. In keeping with our previously stated goal that small is best our Air Force occupies a minuscule space on the North American military stage. Thoughtful, profound and accurate conclusions might be beneficial but are far from necessary. This makes our task measurably easier. We may not have the answers but some questions and facts are reasonably clear.

If and when our F-18s are upgraded, how enhanced and combat ready will our fighter fleet be? It appears that, after a cursory look at the Balkan’s scrap and Desert Storm, we should be cautious and not overly sanguine. If our friends invite us to a mini war, it might be prudent to limit our participation to areas of the globe that enjoy super weather (northern Mexico or Bermuda would be ideal), that are non-mountainous (skip Mexico) and with opponents with no, or an obsolete, air defence system. We should also be cautious of friendly hype. You will recall that, during Desert Storm, military mouth pieces and CNN “journalists” fed us the fiction that the air war was being fought, almost exclusively, with “smart” weapons. The bad news; only 7 or 8 percent of all air to ground weapons were “guided.” The really bad news – these smart weapons cost approximately 85% of the total cost of airborne munitions. Peace is not without its price!

Now for some good news. Most of the new CH-149 Cormorant SAR helicopters have been delivered. The crews are performing splendidly. Though this should probably be classified I feel I can advise that contracting out the Cormorant maintenance package to a civilian agency is quite innovative and has generated a number of unforseen benefits: no requirement to train technicians, no pension and other personnel benefits packages, no temporary duty costs, no requirement for messing or messes, no movement of F & E, no problems with poor esprit, and a solution to the age old argument (central vice squadron maintenance), etc. Another recognizable benefit – we have a temporary shortage of trained technicians, a problem that we continue to study and which will be addressed in a future Aerospace Capability Framework paper. This “thinking outside the box” has its benefits. What if the Air Force was to apply this policy wherever possible (all flying units, administrative support, pay accounts, supply, military police, chaplains services, etc.) it might be possible to eliminate the need for enlisted personnel completely.

Before I leave this topic I am very pleased that the gentleman in the balcony has asked the following astute and penetrating questions: Does the military monitor the civilian contractor regarding its quality control processes? Did the contract go to the lowest bidder? Is there a non-strike clause in the contact? I will, in the near future, provide clear and concise answers to these thoughtful questions.

Now I must cite, with favour, the words of L Gen Campbell in his aforementioned address to this august body. Discussing the Air forces future plans he stated, in part:

“The vehicle we’re using to map-out our transition to the future is the Aerospace Capability Framework, or ACF. The ACF…which I hope will be ready for publication this spring…will provide Commanders and staff with strategic guidance to focus their efforts on those capabilities and initiatives we require to achieve overall goals. By necessity, the ACF will be a living document…that can be adjusted as required to meet new or changing threats while maintaining the overall thrust of the air force program.”

Further, according to General Campbell, “the end result will be an aerospace force with capabilities in four key areas: control of the air; precision engagement; information exploitation; and rapid force mobility.”

Perhaps I can help by fleshing out the General’s conclusions. With respect, an ACF will not necessarily provide “an aerospace force with capabilities…. ” It is merely a plan that, if properly funded and executed, and barring unforseen developments, may enable our Air Force to attain its estimable goals. Unfortunately unforseen developments may render this document null and void. Fortunately it can be amended.

Your Air Force dedicates a substantial portion of its personnel and resources to providing helicopters and crews to the Army and Navy. These functions are well performed and important elements of a complete National Defence Force though, candidly, of little assistance in gaining or maintaining air sovereignty!. It is amazing how many helicopters you can buy for 35 million dollars.

Fixed wing proponents have apparently lost their traditional monopoly to develop Air Force doctrine. Has their traditional theory which dictates that air superiority is a first principle of air power been marginalized? Have rotary wing visionaries seized the reins of power?

Perhaps having achieved absolute control over Canadian airspace (one might argue by default) it is safe to conclude that some or all of our fighter fleet may be safely dedicated to an alternate role – air to mud operations. Multi tasking is a main tenet of our Air Force. Iconoclasts claim we’ve become a military “Jack of all trades, Master of none.” Nonsense! For instance our well run and fully staffed assorted headquarters could comfortably control an Air Force ten times the size of the existing force.

You will be interested to learn that we are seriously considering restructuring the form and, more importantly, the content of this and similar briefings. Historically these presentations have contained a brief, generic overview of the past and present, and a more wide ranging, general overview of the future. We are planning to present, as far as possible, specifics as to where we are, where we are going and how we propose to get there. Estimates of the funds needed to achieve our goals and the impact of funding shortfalls will be central to all presentations. We firmly believe this proposal will warmly received by, and a great benefit to, all our stakeholders.

Thank you and good night!

General Confusion

Kenneth Douglas Munro (Major – Ret.)
Born Fort Qu’Appelle, SK
Air Force navigator  – 1952 – 78
6100 flying hours including Voodoos 1700 – Lancaster  1400 – DC3s 1100 – CF-100’s 800.
LL.B. (U of Manitoba 1981) Called to the Manitoba Bar 1982.
8 years Commercial Law with Pitblado & Hoskin (Winnipeg)
7 years General Counsel and Corporate Secretary with Manitoba Hydro
Writing a book on a great grandfather (Chief Trader with the HBC).

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