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Availability of planes, helicopters worries defence watchers

Jun 03, 2009, Ottawa,  (Source: CP, By Murray Brewster) - Only half of the surveillance aircraft and rescue helicopters designated to guard Canada's coastlines are able to report for duty on any given day, newly released figures show.


June 3, 2009
By Carey Fredericks

Jun 03, 2009, Ottawa,  (Source: CP, By Murray Brewster) – Only half of the surveillance aircraft and rescue helicopters designated to guard Canada's coastlines are able to report for duty on any given day, newly released figures show.

And that poor availability rate has defence critics wondering how the country would cope with a major disaster.

Figures presented to the Senate security and defence committee show the air force is able to muster only nine of its 20 CP-140 aging maritime patrol aircraft on any given day for surveillance of the country's three coastlines.

And just seven of the 14 CH-149 Cormorant search-and-rescue helicopters, purchased just a few years ago, can be called upon for duty.

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Figures for the antique CH-146 Sea Kings are even worse: a mere 10 out of 28 aircraft can be spooled up for operations aboard Canadian warships, senior defence officials told the committee.

A defence analyst said it's clear the age of the air force fleet is catching up with the military as elderly aircraft spend more time in the shop and less time on the flight line.

Rob Huebert of the University of Calgary also said it's a condemnation of the convoluted, dysfunctional procurement systems that have sidetracked or delayed replacement planes and helicopters.

The air force has become a “thin blue line'' despite the billions of dollars spent recently on new heavy-lift transports and battlefield helicopters, Huebert said in an interview.

National Defence and the air force were asked to comment but after two days of requests no one was available to respond.

The country's premier air-defence fighter – the 1980s vintage CF-18 Hornet – has only two-thirds of its fleet strength available – just 60 of 94 aircraft – while the workhorse C-130 Hercules fleet counts 16 of its 27 planes on the tarmac.

Huebert noted that routine maintenance and high-tech electronic upgrades mean that not every aircraft can be available all of the time. But the air force aims to have 70-75 per cent strength with newer models and slightly less with older ones.

Add all the numbers, he said, and the military probably has enough to get by day-to-day “as long things don't go wrong'' and the air force is not compelled to deal with an unexpected emergency, such as terrorist attack on a major metropolitan area or an airlift into natural disaster zones.

“I don't see a lot of surplus within those numbers and so how do you deal with the unanticipated?'' Huebert said.

The air force is replacing the Sea Kings, but the project is behind schedule. The first new CH-148 Cyclone won't be delivered until November 2010, nearly two decades after the Mulroney government first proposed to retire the ship-borne Sea Kings.

The 1980s vintage CP-140 Auroras are currently going through an airframe and electronics life-extension  – something that accounts for part of their down time – and are not due to be retired for perhaps another decade.

Huebert said it's unclear how the military will meet increasing routine demands, such as more surveillance in the Arctic, with such a limited fleet.

The one bright spot in the figures is that they demonstrate the diligence of the air force's maintenance schedule and aircraft maintainers, he said.

The air force has had success in acquiring new aircraft, most notably four cavernous C-17 heavy-lift transports in a $3.4-billion sole-source deal with Boeing. It is also awaiting delivery of updated C-130J Hercules transports.

The latest strategic assessment from the head of air force warns that an internal five per cent budget re-allocation could starve the service of necessary operating funds.

Lt.-Gen. Angus Watt predicted that a possible reduction of between $103 million and $123 million “would require consideration of grounding a major fleet of aircraft,'' said the 2009-10 assessment, obtained by The Canadian Press.