How well will Shearwater withstand the coming cuts?

The ‘Strategic and Operating Review’ underway in the Department of National Defence is primarily a cost-cutting exercise.  A message sent to DND and CF members on Friday, 5 August, under the signatures of Deputy Minister Fonberg and Chief of Defence Natynczyk, outlines two potential outcomes: reductions to meet at least a five percent savings; and heavier reduction resulting in at least ten percent savings.  Associate Deputy Minister, Mr. Matthew King, and the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, Vice-Admiral Bruce Donaldson, will head the process up.  Six key questions will drive the process:

  • Should we still be doing this – and doing it in this way?
  • Does this have to be delivered by this organization?
  • Why does it cost as much as it does? Can we find savings?
  • Is it achieving the expected results efficiently?
  • Is this a government priority, and is it affordable during a period of fiscal restraint?
  • Are we achieving value for money?

The results will be announced as part of the budget process for 2012.

How will Shearwater fare in all of this cutting?  Its history over the past several decades has been one of continual reductions (you can find a concise history here, courtesy of the Shearwater Aviation Museum). It was downsized to a detachment of CFB Halifax in 1994.   The military aviation activities are now solely helicopter related and the runway complex is no longer maintained for fixed-wing operations.  Approximately three-quarters of the base property was turned over to the Canada Lands Corporation for disposal but the majority has been reacquired.  Will more of it be offered up on ‘the altar of economy and efficiency’?

The future is not all bleak: the pending arrival (the latest info says in November) of the Sikorsky CH-148 ‘Cyclone’ maritime helicopter, will bring renewed purpose to the facility.  A new Maritime Helicopter Training Center is being built plus a new 423 Squadron hangar facility, a new 12 Wing Air Maintenance Squadron facility with 6 repair bays, and a new Operational Support Facility where the Helicopter Operational Test and Evaluation Facility (HOTEF), and various 12 Wing headquarter functions will all be part of the new look for Shearwater.  But, is that the limit for the future of Shearwater?

All of these new facilities should be secure and, indeed, they are vital to the future viability of the upgraded and life extended Halifax-class frigates.  The frigates are a ‘weapon-system’ that includes a maritime helicopter: to speak of them only as ‘ships’ really misses the importance of air operations to the conception and employment of sea power.  But, there is far more to sea power than just maritime helicopters and frigates.

The Conservative Government has made repeated statements about a ‘more robust Canada in the world’.  The 2008 Speech from the Throne stated: “Our national security depends on global security. Our Government believes that Canada’s aspirations for a better and more secure world must be matched by vigorous and concrete actions on the world stage.”  The 2011 Speech from the Throne, in a paragraph that that speaks about northern sovereignty, asserts: “The strongest expression of our sovereignty comes through presence and actions, not words.”  The message of both speeches is a clear commitment to action when it is required, wherever it is required.  Maritime capabilities will play a major part in both the global and the northern aspects of future security missions.  The problem is that there is little in the way of capability to underpin the commitments, and the pending reductions will cut into that which is left.  How, then, are the commitments to ‘do more’ to be accomplished while the cutting ‘provides less’?

The ‘big idea’ behind the Strategic and Operating Review is stated this way by DND: “[T]o rethink its workplace, its tools and competencies, and bring about transformative change in the way the organization delivers its mission to serve Canadians.”  It would seem that a transformational change agenda is underway.  In any such exercise, something has to go out in order to bring in something new.  A northern and expeditionary focus lends credence to the idea of a ‘mounting base’ [or bases] on the coast [or coasts] and Shearwater fills that bill pretty well.  The ‘proof’ comes if the transformation process does a good job of assessing the bottlenecks and restraints that stand in the way of creating and deploying effective capabilities and then does something about them.

Most of this work is logistical in nature.  How quickly to respond with how much capability and how fast to move in response are all factors that dictate the type of infrastructure needed to build, form and sustain the capability.  It may not be a combat capability at all that is to be generated.  But, whatever it is, the advantage of being close at hand and as ready as the conveyance system that will transport it can be maximized through co-location.  Separation between the forming-up point and the mounting point for deployment simply wastes precious time.  A larger role than just a helicopter base for Shearwater is easy to imagine.

Shearwater will likely come out of the review process pretty well, but may be pared back yet again.  How would that match with the transformational thinking supposedly ongoing coincidently with the review?  If only more public engagement were part of the transformation process.  Right now, all one can do is wonder aloud.