Air Force playing political games with spending

Steve Staples contributed to this article from the front page of the Ottawa Citizen. Check out David Pugliese’s blog.

Ottawa Citizen May 2, 2009

Ottawa Citizen May 2, 2009

Air force threatens to ground Snowbirds

Brass accused of playing ‘game of chicken’ with government over proposed funding cuts

By David Pugliese, The Ottawa Citizen
May 2, 2009

The air force is warning it won’t have any choice but to shut down the Snowbirds aerobatic team and the Challenger aircraft fleet used to shuttle Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other federal ministers if the government follows through with a five-per-cent cut to its budget.

The air force had been told to find at least $43 million in savings in the coming year, but that reduction could go as high as $123 million if the government doesn’t come up with an influx of cash regularly provided to meet existing funding shortfalls.

Air force chief Lt.-Gen. Angus Watt has come back with options to deal with the cuts that include grounding the popular Snowbirds team as well as the Challenger fleet, according to his 2009-10 strategic assessment obtained by the Citizen.

Another option includes shutting down all new construction projects, a move that won’t sit well with the Conservative government, which recently announced a number of air force-related building contracts.

Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, chairman of the red chamber’s defence committee, said the air force is playing a “game of chicken” with the government by presenting it with a number of unpalatable options if the budget cuts go ahead. “But it’s ridiculous in the first place that anyone would be calling for a five-per-cent budget reduction,” said Kenny, whose committee supports funding increases for the military.

However, Steve Staples, president of the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute, a group that opposes defence spending increases and argues that the military’s $18-billion budget is already too high, said the air force move is a ploy to avoid cuts when all federal departments are being required to scale back in the recession.

“They’re playing political games to avoid making reductions,” said Staples. “Instead of taking a serious look at how they spend, they come up with proposed cuts that are not only highly visible but would be politically unpopular.”

Staples noted that the Defence Department’s budget has significantly increased over the last several years and that it is the only department guaranteed spending increases each year.

Kenny counters that the recent budget increases are not enough and fall short of what is needed to rebuild the Canadian Forces after neglect by previous Conservative and Liberal governments.

The Defence Department could not say whether the cut would proceed. “Strategic assessments are a preliminary part of the annual internal business planning process conducted by DND,” the department noted in an e-mail. “No information with regard to business plans/strategic assessments can be released until the process is completed.”

But it’s not the first time the air force has threatened to ground the Snowbirds and Challengers. In September 1999, Jane’s Defence Weekly reported the air force planned to eliminate the aerobatic team and Challengers then involved in electronic warfare and other training as part of an effort to save money. The Challengers used for transporting government ministers and other VIPs would have remained untouched.

But the threat prompted Jean Chrétien, prime minister at the time, to accuse the Defence Department of playing political games. “I’m never surprised that what they put in the window as a danger of disappearing (is) something that the Canadian people like,” Chrétien said of the proposal to cut the Snowbirds.

The Snowbirds survived because of a public backlash. Private contractors were brought in to run electronic warfare and other training handled by the Challenger aircraft.

Privately, air force officers have said the Snowbirds and Challengers are often earmarked for cuts because they are not core to the air force’s war fighting role.

Besides VIP duties, the Challengers are also used for military transport and can be configured for medical evacuations.

Other options Watt has presented include limiting the role of CF-18s so they would be used only in the defence of North America, cutting back on the use of the air force’s new C-17 transports as well as Hercules and other aircraft fleets.

Still others include delaying maintenance and repair work, closing the new aerospace training centre at Canadian Forces Base Trenton and halting every new air force construction project.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay recently went across the country announcing a number of new construction programs at various bases, including air force installations. Those included the construction of facilities for new Cyclone helicopters to be situated just outside Victoria, as well as improvements at 17 Wing in Winnipeg.

Staples noted the air force made similar threats last year when faced with potential cutbacks. “If the air force can’t get serious over what cuts to make then Treasury Board should step in and decide for them,” he added.

Kenny acknowledged air force planners were likely being strategic in what they selected to eliminate if forced to make cuts. He said such decisions indicate there is little fat to trim in the organization. “They have some real problems with producing enough pilots and keeping fleets going,” Kenny said. “They have problems right across the board.”

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