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AEW, next-gen helicopters among defence policy commitments for the RCAF

By Ken Pole | April 9, 2024

Estimated reading time 10 minutes, 26 seconds.

Ottawa has committed $18.4 billion over 20 years to acquire a fleet of new tactical helicopters to replace the CH-146 Griffon. Mike Reyno Photo

New airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft and dedicated funding for tactical helicopters to replace the current multi-role CH-146 Griffons, are among the key aerospace elements of an updated defence policy released on April 8. 

They are also part of the government’s stated commitment to increase defence spending to meet NATO’s goal of two per cent of gross domestic product, a target reaffirmed by Canada and its allies at the 2023 NATO Summit in Lithuania. Canada’s spending, which bottomed out at one per cent in 2013, currently hovers around 1.33 per cent. 

The government is now aiming to reach 1.76 per cent by the end of the decade. 

Riffing on the national anthem, the Our North, Strong and Free policy paper—a two-year exercise made public following a technical background briefing to media—projects $8.1 billion in new defence spending over the next five years. 

An official at the briefing said that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had responded positively to an “overview” of the plan by Defence Minister Bill Blair.  

“I think all NATO allies are going to be happy to see that Canada is making a significant move forward to meeting our . . . commitment.”  

However, in a televised interview, Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister who ramped up his country’s defence spending before becoming the alliance’s leader 10 years ago, made it clear that he expects Canada to be more specific about when it would hit the two per cent target. “I expect Canada to deliver,” he said. “This a promise we all made. … Canada is a big economy, a member of the G7 … It really matters what Canada does.”

Stoltenberg cited Canada’s plans to boost its contributions to NORAD, its pending acquisition of F-35A fighter jets, and its role in building a brigade in Latvia, saying “all of this is good.” But an accelerated move toward two per cent was increasingly critical “in a more dangerous world.”

The U.S. Ambassador to Canada, David Cohen, said in a statement that the direction of Canada’s plan for enhanced northern defence was particularly welcome. “We are also encouraged by the assurances we have received that there will be additional investments,” he added. 

Unveiling the policy at 8 Wing Trenton, Ont., the Air Force’s main air mobility hub, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged that some elements of the new plan have not been costed, but said: “there is more to come over the coming years, as Canada continues to step up in a more uncertain and, quite frankly, more dangerous world.” 

Asked during the online technical briefing to elaborate on the prospect of the Royal Canadian Air Force acquiring AEW platforms—a $307 million commitment over 20 years—a senior officer told Skies that it would be a “brand new capability.” He pointed out that the function currently is provided through NORAD and other allies in overseas operations.  

“It will allow us to provide for greater surveillance of the approaches to Canada’s air and maritime (domains) and plug some of the gaps that may exist in radar and other infrastructure and . . . allow us to burden-share with our allies,” he said. 

As for the CH-146 utility helicopters, the officer said the fleet, “will come to the end of its service life in about 2031, so we need to replace that with a capability that is going to be able to contribute to modern threats and operate in the context that Canada needs it to.” 

The RCAF will need “platforms that can go a little bit further in terms of reach, can carry a little bit more, and can execute the tasks that we’d require of it,” he explained. Moreover, “modern technologies allow us to explore other options than simply crewed aircraft.”  

A Royal Australian Air Force Boeing E-7A Wedgetail, equipped with a high-powered radar used to monitor the battle space and provide friendly forces with an advantage over their opponents. USAF/Airman 1st Class Josey Blades Photo

In 2022, the Air Force created an office to begin assessing what it calls the next Tactical Aviation Capability Set (nTACS) project, a next-generation fleet with range, speed and manoeuverability, starting in the 2030s. The multi-fleet solution could be a combination of crewed and uncrewed capabilities. The government has earmarked $18.4 billion over 20 years for the project. 

Also affecting the RCAF, the Royal Canadian Navy’s fleet of Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS), some of which are still under construction, will require upgrades to enable them to handle the CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopters. With a 29,300-pound maximum take-off weight, the Cyclones cannot yet be operated from the ships, which the officer said can only accommodate light helicopters. 

“You can’t embark and conduct operations with a Cyclone,” he said, explaining that the Department of National Defence (DND) will explore options for “securing and traversing mechanisms” as well as “helicopter control and approach, capable radar, and some network infrastructure.” 

The updated policy also addressed ongoing issues with the procurement process, which the government conceded “takes too long to deliver the capabilities we need.” The answer, it said, would be “a renewed relationship with Canada’s defence industry and a focus on innovation with trusted partners” to respond to “a faster, more competitive age.” 

Noting that “autocracies and disruptive states are challenging the international order that keeps Canada safe and prosperous, propelled by Russia’s flagrant violation of international law and China’s attempts to reshape the international order,” the government committed to building a stronger defence industrial base to support a more resilient, modern and sustainable military. That would include, it said, a significant increase in the production of NATO-standard artillery ammunition,” which has been depleted by donations to Ukraine, “and investing in innovation.” 

The commitment was cautiously welcomed by the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI), which speaks for a sector that employs more than 100,000 Canadians and contributes more than $12.4 billion to the country’s GDP. 

“This defence policy update is encouraging and, critically, has funding attached that we hope can be counted on—especially at a time when budget cuts remain underway within DND,” CADSI president Christyn Cianfarani said in a statement. She noted that “many elements” of the planned defence spending would be left to future governments. 

Overall, though, she was pleased with the government’s commitment to a new relationship with industry.  

“What that means to us is collaboration on both current requirements and road-mapping the future—not just more of the same types of engagements that currently exist,” she said. “It also means mirroring the approach of our allies, who unabashedly preference their domestic firms when it makes sense to do so, which can greatly speed up the acquisition process. If the technology, service, or equipment is Canadian-made, and it’s something that meets the [Canadian Armed Forces] needs, we buy it.” 

Procurement reform is “something that has proven elusive,” she observed. “The solution cannot only be increased reliance on foreign-made military equipment and services. NATO’s targets – and its Defence Production Action Plan – are based on the idea that each member nation is responsible for building and sustaining a defence industrial base that can contribute to greater allied capacity and deterrence. We commit to working with the government to implement this plan.” 

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  1. This pathetic embarrassment of a defense spending “commitment” should have been announced on April 1st because it resembles nothing more than a bad joke. It took two years to come up with this? At a time when the world has never been a more dangerous place we get this piffle. Absolutely no sense of urgency. Russia, China, Iranian and North Korean leadership must be laughing their collective a###s off. Of course all of this is back loaded past 2025 after the next election so none of this will happen. But let’s take a look anyway. …..
    New AEW platforms purchased for $307 million over TWENTY years?!? An E-7 Wedgetail is shown. I doubt that would buy more than than two aircraft with spares, training and associated costs but then again it wouldn’t surprise me because that’s what we did for the MAISR (CE-145C) requirement. A whopping THREE aircraft. Most likely Bombardier will be gifted this one to make up for the P-8 Poseidon buy.
    The CH-146 will be replaced but if the best aircraft had been purchased in the first place (SH-60 Blackhawk) there would be much less urgency. Canada would have enjoyed a much superior helicopter fleet for the last 25 plus years but that was impossible as once again Canada bought the inferior choice to placate Quebec. Had to keep the separatists appeased.
    Only in Canada can we build an Arctic Patrol Vessel that is almost defenceless and still fail to build it to be able to carry the primary helicopter it needs to deploy with, the CH-148 Cyclone which is a prime example of how NOT to procure a weapon system.
    And they wonder why the forces are short 16 000 people with more leaving than enlisting.

    1. Ken, you are absolutely correct in your assessment. As a retired Airforce Officer, I agree wholeheartedly with you.

    2. I have a question for you.
      Who is invading this country?
      What else do we need? 3 aircraft carriers and a fleet of 600 of the newest jet fighters, along with a 300 ship navy?

      1. Hi. Basically civics lesson here. Canada belongs to a little organization called NATO. NATO is like a big invisible shield that makes bad people like Poutine and Kim Dong Ill think twice about attacking their neighbours who also belong to NATO. Part of enjoying that invisible shield is contributing to the cost of maintaining it. We could not fulfill our commitment and try our luck on our own but we will all be speaking Spanish after one drug cartel wipes out our entire military and makes us Columbia Jr.

      2. I have a question for you, do you enjoy the freedom to travel, the freedom to live without worrying about border checks, the freedom of knowing you can go out day or night and not have secret police crashing down your door and taking you away.
        Before WW2, many countries likely had your attitude of “who is invading this country?”
        Freedom comes with a price that’s paid by those who put their lives on the line; Police, Fire fighter, and the Canadain Forces. I for one, want those who choose to defend our freedom to be as well equipped as possible so that they are safe while doing their jobs.
        Canada’s defence needs are great as just like his Dad, Trudeau has neglected the Canadian Armed Forces.

  2. I totally agree with Ken. Canada needs to stop piggy backing on the US and initiate 2% of GDP now . I am canadian and am so embarrassed of our nato contrapution. With current international stres sors this is no time for complacency. Also let’s get serious in reference to Artic sovereignty. More action less words.

  3. We have all heard the empty promises before. So have our allies. We have no credibility in the international arena. We could outline the myriad of deficiencies in equipment throughout the forces, but the AOPS/Irving Enrichment Program takes the cake. These aren’t warships. They are barely fishery protection boats. They have the same armament as one of the army’s LAVs, lack any anti-sib, anti-missile, anti-air capacity, and at best could hold off a pontoon boat of revelling cottagers. The fact they were designed, built, and entered service while unable to land the only maritime patrol helicopter in service would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. To top it off we paid over $300 million a copy, and the Norwegians built a better copy with actual real weapon systems – anti-air missiles – the Svalbard class, at under 100 a million a copy.
    The Irving’s thank you for your contribution.
    In any other nation, heads would roll.

  4. This is not the first time the government promised large amounts of money for the military. The years promised is out of their control unless they win the next election. The liberals are so far behind they hope all the spending they promise will win them the election. Most Canadians are tired of the Liberal government over spending , it is time for them to go.The Prime Minister has tried to hide so many wrong doing and squirm his way through.
    He has no control of spending past his elected term.

    1. The west is so weak , I think we in Canada believe the US will protect us,.Canada has no manufacturing capabilities,we said let those other people get their hands dirty,well those other people keep coming , be nice to have those jobs for them.

  5. The Griffins are now just being modified/ upgraded to the 412EPI announced last year. This is a multi million dollar project that has just started. This was to extend and upgrade the griffins for years to-come and now it’s a wast of Canadian tax payer dollars. This government knows how to spend money in useless directions.

    1. That’s like saying “My car needs new brakes and the radio doesn’t work anymore but I won’t fix it because I plan on buying a new car in a year or two”… Makes no sense you should still fix the brakes and it’s probably worth fixing the radio too even if you sell the car in 6 months. Keeping aircraft up to date is incredibly important and even if you get a few years of service it is entirely worth it. (This is covered in the former policy: “Recapitalize or life-extend existing capabilities in advance of the arrival of next generation platforms.”) We should be continuously upgrading our assets, which is actually also covered in the new policy: “To accelerate the integration of new technologies into our vehicles, vessels, aircraft and other equipment, Defence will pilot a Continuous Capability Sustainment approach to upgrading equipment. While the traditional approach is to wait years to do minor upgrades to major equipment to align them with major mid-life overhauls, a continuous approach will give Defence the flexibility to rapidly integrate the latest technology and innovations in more regular, incremental maintenance cycles.” This means that in the future you might see aircraft being upgraded all the way up until their last few years of service. Keep in mind also, and that might be a very minor point, that those helicopters are not sent to the scrapyard once we’re done with them and they probably have more resale value if they are modernised.

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