Re: Ottawa halts $1.6B upgrade of aging aircraft

The most recent article reporting on the state of Canada’s Aurora long-range patrol fleet appeared in the Toronto Star on 20 September in the form of a brief Canadian Press story confirming a CBC News

report.  The gist of the article is that Ottawa “…has halted a $ 1.6-billion upgrade to extend the life of Canada’s aging fleet of Aurora patrol aircraft.”  Canadian Press adds that the Minister of National Defence, Peter MacKay, confirmed this announcement on Thursday although this confirmation is not evident on the DND website.

There are two projects concerning the AURORA.  The first, AIMP (AURORA Incremental Modernization Project) is essentially an upgrade to the aircraft’s avionics systems (navigation and communications equipment as well as sensors) while the second, ASLEP (AURORA Structural Life Extension Project), addresses airframe structural issues after 25 years of operational service.  AIMP is funded to the tune of $ 1 billion plus and has been in large measure contracted to industry.  ASLEP is not funded and is still an unknown liability with estimates of as much as $ 1 billion required to repair the fleet.  Presumably, the Canadian Press report about the upgrade cancellation refers to the AIMP project.

This discussion will concentrate mainly on the long-range patrol missions of the AURORA but it must be borne in mind that AIMP and ASLEP promise to give the Canadian Forces an overland strategic surveillance capability for the first time.

Why the Department of National Defence finds itself in the position of cancelling a funded project requires a bit of prodding beneath the headlines.  There are two major issues.  The first is that the current government has yet to produce its much vaunted “Canada First Defence Strategy” and the second is that funding of the Department remains insufficient to carry out the tasks assigned to it by the Government.

Why does a defence strategy matter?  Without an agreed defence strategy, decisions, in particular decisions on equipment procurement, are made on the fly to respond to the priorities of the day rather than long-term objectives.

How does that apply in the case of the Aurora?  In April 2004, the Martin government produced a National Security Policy (NSP) entitled “Securing an Open Society.”[1]  While this policy has not been endorsed by the Harper government, it does provide a useful guideline to Canada’s national security interests.  In Chapter 6 (Transportation Security) of the NSP, a six-point plan to strengthen marine security is described.  Points three and five relate to aerial surveillance and cooperation with the United States in enhancing what is termed marine domain awareness – that is knowledge of what is above, on and under the ocean areas contiguous to North America.

While progress on the six-point marine security plan has been made, especially with respect to the establishment of multi-agency Marine Security Operation Centres, much remains to be achieved, especially in the area of marine domain awareness.  What is required is a National Plan for Maritime Domain Awareness which would address the following five questions:

•     What information is required?

•     In which geographic area will it focus?

•     To what level of confidence will it operate?

•     By whom will the information be acquired and assessed?

•     To whom will the assessed information be provided?

Based on such a plan, the government would establish priorities for the respective Federal Departments which would then be translated into departmental documents such as a Defence Strategy.  In other words, top down direction as opposed to bottom-up ad-hockery.

How does this all tie in to the Aurora?  The Aurora is the only platform currently available to the Government of Canada to carry out long-range patrol and response missions.  It is also the only platform that will be available for these missions for the next five to ten years.  Regrettably, because the Government has been unable or unwilling to establish priorities, there is no operational requirement which would convincingly establish the necessary priority to carry out both the AIMP and ASLEP projects since there is not enough funding to address all the critical deficiencies in the Armed Forces.

This leads us to the second major issue, that of funding.  While there has been much lamenting the decade of under funding of the Canadian Forces under the Liberal Government, the plain fact of the matter is that the Armed Forces have been under funded under both Conservative and Liberal governments.  As Senator Kenny has observed, the Canadian Forces remain dangerously under funded despite recent increases.  For example. within the Air Force alone, in addition to the Cyclone shipborne helicopter and the C-17 strategic airlifter, there are six major procurement projects, one of which is a proposed manned multi-mission aircraft which will eventually replace the AURORA.

In summary, the Government of Canada is facing a dilemma that could result in the elimination of an essential capability if the decision is taken to cancel AIMP and not proceed with ASLEP.  A similar decision taken to eliminate the Chinook helicopters, principally to address funding issues, indicates the perils of losing a capability only to discover years later that it is critically needed.