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A procurement problem

The storm of controversy that has arisen around the CF-18 replacement project and the ongoing delays with the CH-148 Cyclone are but the latest chapters in a play that has been running since Confederation.

May 6, 2013  By Paul Dixon

The storm of controversy that has arisen around the CF-18 replacement project and the ongoing delays with the CH-148 Cyclone are but the latest chapters in a play that has been running since Confederation. The Canadian public have a limited awareness of their military. The day-to-day operations of the army, navy and air force largely take place out of the spotlight and are rarely newsworthy. Two things have largely determined the state of our military, one being our political heritage and the other being the reality that we have largely been dependent on other countries to equip our military or provide the design expertise for domestic manufacture.

The ongoing controversy over the CF-18 replacement project has brought the military procurement process in Canada into serious question.  Photo: RCAF


Prior to Confederation, Britain was responsible for the defence of Canada through the presence of the British Army and units of the Royal Navy. After 1867, the Canadian Army gradually evolved from British units with the first permanent force being created in Kingston, Ont., in 1871. When the Northwest Field Force was dispatched to put down the Northwest Rebellion in 1885, it was the first time Canadian troops (a mixture of regulars and militia) had been commanded by Canadian officers.

The Boer War marked Canada’s first official dispatch of troops to an overseas war. It was a political hot potato for the Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, establishing a pattern that would repeat itself many times over in years to come. While Canadians of British heritage supported the war, urging the government to send troops, most French-Canadians and immigrants of other nationalities weren’t convinced that Canada had any business in a war halfway around the world. Laurier demurred until the internal and external pressure forced his hand. Initially agreeing to send a battalion of volunteers, he eventually sent more than 7,000 Canadians to South Africa. Laurier rationalized at the time that this overseas expedition was not a precedent, but history has proven otherwise.


Towards the end of the Boer War, a diplomatic tiff between Britain and Canada resulted in Britain refusing to supply any more Lee-Enfield rifles to the Canadian troops. Canada had no arms or munitions industry and had relied on Britain.

Attempts by the Canadian government to entice British manufacturers to set up operations in Canada failed. This forced the government to turn to the Ross rifle, developed by Charles Ross. It was an accurate weapon and a fine hunting rifle, but a poor infantry weapon, heavy and prone to malfunction when exposed to dirt.

When Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, Canada and the rest of the Commonwealth were caught up in the rush to arms. The government had no plan in place for mobilization and the standing army of less than 3,000 exploded to more than 32,000 in the first two months of the war as recruiting centres were overwhelmed. The need to outfit and equip this many soldiers was an overwhelming task. The first two Canadians sent overseas were clothed in shoddy uniforms and boots that disintegrated in the filth and muck of the trenches and armed with rifles that were next to useless.

There was widespread outcry of war profiteering by suppliers such as Ross who were awarded contracts more on the merit of their political and social contacts rather than the quality of their products.

There had been a considerable gap between the military and the industrial world before the First World War, but as warfare became increasingly mechanized the gap closed. As Germany re-armed in the ’30s after Hitler’s rise to power, the British recognized the need to remove weapons production from the reach of enemy air forces and, in 1937, approached the Canadian government for assistance. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, true to form, was hesitant to agree to the request, fearing public backlash. In 1938, John Inglis and Company was awarded a contract to produce Bren guns for Britain and Canada.

There was considerable outcry, not over the fact that weapons were being produced, but because there had been no public bid process in awarding the contract. This awakened sentiments of war profiteering from 20 years earlier. A royal commission was appointed and concluded that while there may not have been any actual impropriety, there were inadequate controls in place.

The commission’s findings resulted in the federal government creating a centralized procurement agency with civilian experience in purchasing to deal with both Canadian military needs and export demands, with the goal of economic and administrative efficiency. The Defence Purchases, Profits Control and Financing Act was passed, authorizing the creation of the Defence Purchasing Board (DPB) in July 1939. The DPB was replaced in 1940 by the War Supply Board, a full government department created to handle military procurement.

Canada now had a system in place to deal both with determining the needs of the military and meeting those needs. The reality is that while Canadian shipyards and factories churned out ships, aircraft, vehicles of all descriptions and a wide array of arms and munitions, virtually everything was based on plans and designs provided by the British or Americans.

Canadian industrial production boomed through the war years, but once the war ended production shifted back to civilian needs as soldiers, sailors and airmen were demobilized.

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) came into its own in the First World War. Canada trained more than 130,000 pilots and aircrew under the British Commonwealth Flight Training Plan and thousands of aircraft were manufactured in dozens of plants across the country, but all those aircraft were of British or American design. Another major Canadian contribution was the creation of the air route over the North Atlantic that was created after the RAF said it couldn’t be done. Almost 10,000 multi-engine aircraft were delivered to Britain by what became known as Ferry Command, establishing the routes that would open up commercial aviation after the war.

Within two years of the end of the war, 90 per cent of RCAF personnel had been demobilized and flying duties in Canada included aerial photography and surveying, mapping, and search and rescue.

With the rise of the Soviet bloc and the creation of NATO in 1949, Canada quickly found itself making a contribution of 12 front-line squadrons in Europe. The RCAF received its first jet in 1947: the de Havilland Vampire. The aircraft were limited by the cold in much of the country, but the Canadian government was bound to accept them as part of a complex system of wartime credits negotiated between Britain and its allies during the war.

The front-line squadrons in Europe flew the CF-86 Sabre and the CF-100 Canuck, two Canadian success stories. The CF-100 was designed and built in Canada by Avro to meet the RCAF’s need for an all-weather interceptor capable of operating over Canada’s north. It was one of the best fighter aircraft of its time. The CF-86 was built under licence in Canada by Montreal’s Canadair. More than 1,800 were produced with the Mark VI variant, incorporating design upgrades hailed as the ultimate Sabre. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, interviewed by Wings while flying the Sabre Hawk 1 as part of the Centennial of Flight in 2009, said flying the Sabre made him feel as though he had been given a pair of wings.

As the Cold War expanded through the 1950s, the new Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker played a political trump card that would have wide-reaching and long-lasting consequences for military procurement and supply in Canada.

In 1957, Diefenbaker committed Canada to NORAD without consulting either his cabinet or Parliament – a decision that led directly to the cancellation of the Avro Arrow.

With Canada’s aviation dream shattered, the RCAF was forced to accept the American F-101 Voodoo (an aircraft it had previously turned down in favour of the Arrow) to replace the Canuck with a supersonic interceptor. In Europe, the RCAF’s duties expanded to include delivery of tactical nuclear weapons at the same time consideration was being given to a replacement for the Sabre. The RCAF preferred the F-105 Thunderchief, but the government chose the F-104 Starfighter based on Lockheed’s proposal to build the aircraft in Canada in collaboration with Canadair. Canadair built 200 Starfighters for the RCAF as well as sections of 104s destined for the German Luftwaffe.

The F-35 Lightning II may still be an option to replace the CF-18. Photo: Lockheed Martin


Moving into the mid-1960s, the RCAF was under fiscal restraint and was not able to acquire all the Voodoos and Starfighters required to replace the phased-out Canucks and Sabres. In 1965 a competition was announced for a lightweight fighter. The aircraft that the RCAF preferred, the F-4 Phantom, was far from a lightweight and the government chose the Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter, to be designated as the CF-116. Again the government insisted on a license agreement and most of the 115 CF-116s were built by Canadair.

The Freedom Fighter was purchased for the RCAF, but delivery was made to the Canadian Forces starting in 1968, shortly after unification of the three services. Unification was touted by Defence Minister Paul Hellyer as a way to achieve both cost savings and improved command, control and logistical support of a unified military.

In the 1970s, the Canadian Forces had two major procurement projects on the books to address a mixed fleet of aircraft that were aging and becoming increasingly costly to maintain. The first was the Long Range Patrol Aircraft (LRPA) project, which would select the CP-140 Aurora, a modified version of the Lockheed P-3 Orion, and the second was the New Fighter Aircraft (NFA) project to find a replacement for the Voodoo, Starfighter and Freedom Fighter. The LRPA was first up, and while the committee settled on the P-3 quickly, the project was shelved by the government. Once reinstated, the project lurched through a series of blunders that saw cost estimates out by hundreds of millions of dollars and a government minister sued for slander.

Adding to the overruns on the original budget was the need to modify the aircraft’s sensor suite and other modifications after the contract had been inked, a problem known as “gold-plating.”

Going into the NFA project, the government made it clear that it would only consider an “off the shelf” aircraft that would require minimal modifications. It took three years of study to decide on the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18, known as the CF-18 Hornet. The Canadian Forces received 138 Hornets to replace almost twice as many Voodoos and Starfighters. By this time, Canada’s NATO commitment was reduced to three squadrons in Europe. The increased mechanical reliability of the new aircraft and a higher availability rate made it possible to meet commitments with fewer aircraft.

The CP-14 Aurora has been undergoing modernization over the past decade through two projects. The Aurora Incremental Modernization Project (AIMP) to upgrade the electronics and the sensors as well as a glass cockpit. The Aurora Structural Life Extension Project (ASLEP) will see 10 of the 18 Auroras receive new wings and key structural components, addressing structural fatigue issues with the intention of extending the aircraft’s service life by 5,000 flight hours per aircraft.

Finding the right fix
The CF-18s are rapidly nearing the end of their serviceable life. With no presence in Europe, the operational aircraft are posted to two active squadrons at Bagotville, Que., and Cold Lake, Alta. Just as a change in international obligations allowed the military to downsize its fleet with the acquisition of the Hornet, the RCAF had announced its intention to replace the Hornet with 66 Lockheed F-35 Lightning II.

In a 2010 interview with Wings, Lt.-Gen. Yvan Blondin, then the commanding officer of 1 Air Division, articulated the thought process behind deciding on the number of aircraft, integrating them into existing units and identifying training needs and methods. One thing he clearly stated at the time was that it was his job to fly whatever aircraft the government provided him.

It seems the whole procurement process has become a quagmire, more about process or the appearance of propriety rather than actually getting the job done. The contrariness of our political process and the lack of a clear vision of this country’s place in the world are leading us into a dead end.

It’s time we stopped what we are doing and figured out what we want to be so that we can understand what it will take to get us there.


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