Recent government announcements about the intent to procure several new fleets of aircraft for the Canadian Forces are an encouraging sign that the bad days of the 1990s are past. The prospect of replacing ancient fleets with modern equipment has given the Air Force a boost in morale and the promise of operational effectiveness in a demanding future.

The government’s commitment to this massive (and expensive) modernization program is an acknowledgement that the world of defence and security has changed drastically. New enemies, new operational areas and new forms of conflict dominate, and there are encouraging signs that the Air Force is keeping pace with the Canadian Forces at large in preparing to meet the demands.

General Hillier’s major reconstruction of the CF’s command structure is a solid indication that adaptation is underway. Where the Air Force fits into all of this, however, is not yet entirely clear, but this will no doubt be made more explicit as the new commands become fully functional.

With the great emphasis being placed on Afghanistan these days there is also some concern within the larger military aviation community that the future of airpower is rather clouded. Largely because of past neglect (such as the absence of medium/heavy lift helicopters) the Air Force is seen by some as not much more than an air transport organization, with a handful of other less prominent capabilities. To help dispel this gross misconception, and to support our nation’s broader strategic interests, Canada’s CF-18s, currently undergoing a powerful modernization program, could and should be brought into operational service in that theatre.

Other improvements in the applications of Canadian airpower to Afghan operations will have to await the arrival of new equipment, notably the C-17 strategic lifters, the C-130J tactical transport aircraft, and the Chinook medium lift helicopters, all of which appear to be on the horizon. Innovative ways to speed up delivery have to be examined, given the urgency of the need.

Quite apart from the challenge of finding the $18 billion required for these initiatives over the next decade or so, the procurement process itself requires radical surgery if it is to produce the new fleets in a timely way. And then there is the worrisome shadow of ITARs, the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations, whose incomprehensible restrictions threaten to break down the traditional cooperation between our two nations in defence procurement, and force DND to rely upon other suppliers for its new equipment.

Difficulties notwithstanding, it is an exciting time for the Air Force. A rational way ahead is emerging. For Canadian airpower to attain its full potential in support of national security interests, some important challenges must be faced and resolved. Here are the principal ones, as I see it.
§ The air component of the capital budget will have to be managed with great care, to ensure proper balance and phasing in the acquisition of the new fleets
§ Adequate program management skills will have to be developed and applied
§ The new organizational structure must be implemented in such a way that the Air Force is properly and effectively employed, in keeping with a carefully articulated doctrine
§ That doctrine must look beyond Afghanistan, to possible new forms of the war against terrorists, and even beyond
§ The air training system must be finely tuned to provide the new fleets with highly skilled and dedicated air and ground crews
§ The full potential of the Air Reserve resource has to be exploited
§ At a time when the focus is understandably on land forces, great care must be taken to ensure that key components of Canada’s airpower are not lost in the longer run; defence planners must protect such fundamental capabilities as long range maritime and sovereignty patrol aircraft
§ Delays in the procurement of shipborne helicopters and fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft have to be overcome.

Most important, with the CF-18 fleet coming to the end of its service life in about a decade, National Defence must keep this essential capability intact through the acquisition of a new fighter fleet. With the inherent flexibility, speed and firepower that only manned fighters can provide, they represent the ‘power’ in airpower, and the ‘force’ in Air Force.

In choosing the right path at today’s crossroads, the Air Force will ensure that it contributes fully to a secure future for our country.

General (Ret’d) Paul Manson was Chief of the Defence Staff from 1986 to 1989. Over 38 years, he commanded at every level of the Air Force. He was instrumental in the creation of the new Canadian War Museum, and currently serves as president of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.