One of the rallying cries of Conservatives has been the 2007 characterization of the Chretien/Martin Prime Ministerial years as a “Decade of Darkness” by General Rick Hillier. Defence spending lost to pragmatism and ideology in the effort to trim the Federal Deficit. Secondary, sometimes even primary, capabilities would be lost, shed in the effort to get the Federal Budget under control.
General Hillier was not wrong. Both Jean Chretien and Paul Martin were guilty of falling prey to the false economy of trimming a budget by deferring military purchases. Given the high inflation of defence capital costs the deferral promised moderate immediate savings, but balanced against much higher later costs. In effect, they were burdening the Nation’s children with the cost of providing what is, by any measure, a basic responsibility of government.
The 1990’s would be a disastrous time for Canada’s military:
Prime Minister Chretien would cancel the contracted-for EH-101 helicopter slated to replace the rapidly ageing Sea Kings used aboard Canadian warships and the Labrador helicopter used in Search and Rescue missions. Twenty years after that cancellation and Canada has still not been able to field a Sea King replacement. Political requirements mean that the chosen replacement would be an unproven militarization of a civilian helicopter. The cancellation would also incur massive penalties, money paid to receive nothing. Much of that cancellation fee was pure waste; the EH-101 was selected again as the replacement for the Labrador. The CH-149 Chimo designated as the Labrador replacement in the original contract was a more capable helicopter than the delivered CH-149 Cormorant. Waste, dithering, money for nothing and more spent on less.The Afloat Logistics and Sealift Capability (ALSC) project started by the preceding Conservatives would morph into the Joint Support Ship (JSS). ALSC, and JSS, were destined to replace the Canadian Navy’s fleet auxiliaries. ALSC was started in 1992, and by 2015 work has yet to start on the first of the ships to meet this need. It is worthwhile to note that we have abandoned even the modest capability growths envisioned by ALSC; the new fleet auxiliaries will have only marginally increased utility over the ships they will eventually replace. Also worth noting, the ships to be replaced are now gone. Delays in replacement have seen the fleet auxiliaries age to the point of decrepitude, and finally retirement.
The Somalia scandal, combined with a 25% DND budget cut, made it easy for the Chretien Government to disband the Canadian Airborne Regiment. The combined effects were a sledgehammer to the morale of the Canadian Forces. Massive Force cutbacks, without any commensurate reduction of missions or responsibilities, made the effects unimaginably worse. Combine that with a Prime Minister who referred to the military as ‘Boy Scouts’, the same Prime Minister would quietly drop the word ‘Armed’ rebranding the Canadian Armed Forces as simply the Canadian Forces.
It is difficult to imagine any Canadian Government holding the military in such open disdain.
The 2006 election, which leads to the Conservative Party under Stephen Harper forming a minority Government, offered hope for a beleaguered Canadian Forces. That hope was quickly realized, with military purchases coming fast and furious.
2006 was a turnaround year for Canadian Forces re-capitalization. The Harper government quickly purchased four C-17 Globemaster II aircraft to fulfill the long-missing strategic airlift capability.
In 2007 the decision to disband the Canadian Army’s tank capability was reversed. 100 Leopard 2 tanks were purchased from Netherlands stock. Some of these, upgraded to the Leopard 2-A6M CAN configuration, were arguably the most sophisticated tanks in the world at that time.
2008 saw the contract signed for new C-130J Hercules aircraft to replace the ageing Canadian Forces fleet of legacy Hercules types.
The acquisition of the CH-147F in 2009 restored a heavy vertical lift capability that was lost when the Conservative Mulroney government had sold off the earlier models of the CH-147.
Essentially, there ends the ‘rebuilding’. There are less significant acquisitions, but for all intents and purposes the glory days have ended with only a few bright sparks of hope. Outstanding ‘High Priority’ projects include:
The Canadian Surface Combatant program (CSC), designed to replace the RCN’s destroyers and frigates is yet to even produce a finalized design. The destroyer part of this program started in the 90’s as the Command/Control and Area Air Defence Replacement (CADRE). CADRE was killed, then reborn as the Destroyer Replacement Program (DRP) as part of the Single Class Surface Combatant (SCSC) project to replace both destroyers and frigates. SCSC itself was rebranded as the aforementioned Canadian Surface Combatant.
The Fixed Wing Search And Rescue (FWSAR) program has remained fixed only in the sense that it produces paper, not planes. A program started in the 90’s, it has been plagued by troubles, including the Royal Canadian Air Force tailoring the requirement to a specific aircraft type.
A replacement project disastrously started as an ACAN purchase of the F-35 began a media furor that would lead to a restart of the program. This necessitated expensive life extensions to Canada’s existing fleet of CF-18 aircraft.
Plans to replace the RCAF fleet of Maritime Patrol Aircraft also stalled. Again, a life extension project was needed for the existing planes. In this case the CP-140 fleet modernization was expanded, making a greater number of planes available.
The replacement program for the Army’s Medium Logistics Vehicle- Wheeled (MLVW) has seen no less trouble. Escalating cost caused the project to be cancelled, and then restarted. Logistics is the backbone of any military operation and the lack of modern, sustainable and reliable vehicles is troubling. The delay hits primarily the Army, as the domestic requirement was met by a separate contract. The vehicles delayed are for field use, directly in support of Army operations.
Re-capping we see that the Canadian Armed Forces are far from out of crisis:
- Delays in Fighter aircraft replacement
- Delays in Warship replacement
- Delays in Search and Rescue aircraft replacement
- Delays in Fleet Auxiliary replacement
- Delays in Army Support Truck replacement
- Delays in Maritime Shipborne Helicopter replacement
The ten years called the ‘Decade of Darkness’ has quietly morphed, with the aid of a few bright spots, into ‘Twenty of Twilight’.
The Harper Government can rightfully claim to have done a better job for the Canadian military than the Chretien/Martin Governments did. That is not to say that they have done a good job.
It merely recognizes that it would have been virtually impossible to do any worse.
Canada, and it’s military, deserve better.