CAS: LGen André Deschamps
The old curse “May you live interesting times,” might apply to LGen Deschamp’s tenure as Chief of Air Staff (CAS) – except he would see it as a challenge, not a curse. As we sit down to talk, the Air Force is simultaneously engaged in four operations (G-7, Winter Olympics, Afghanistan, and Haiti) not to mention normal duties in NORAD and Search and Rescue across this vast country. That he has made time to chat with FrontLine is, in itself, amazing.
Lieutentant-General Deschamps began by acknowledging the work of his predecessors who had deftly stick-handled the transformation of the air force in the last decade. He says he has been reaping the benefits of their foresight and perseverance. “Right now, there is a lot of pressure on an organization that is already going at high speed. A lot of things are coming into fruition at the same time. We’re into a pretty busy air force transformation, introducing the C17s, bringing great new capability very quickly. Our first J-model Hercules will be showing up this spring ... [we have to] make sure those airplanes have the infrastructure and people to go with them. Its really about implementing measures that were put in place by my predecessor.
Canada will not get the first Chinooks until the summer of 2012. “Clearly, that time frame would not support the current Afghan mission,” notes Deschamps, “that’s why we bought the Chinook Deltas, in theatre right now, to provide immediate support for the troops. But the brand new ones – built on our requirements – are a long term solution, and the Chinook Foxtrot is going to be tremendous machine. Very versatile, great range and endurance, great systems on board regarding survivability. They will be used overseas wherever the government needs us.”
The challenge CAS plans to focus on for the next three years is operational success. It seems like an obvious statement for the new man on the job to make, but delivering that success across a broad front requires a fair amount of re-prioritization of both money and people, explains Deschamps. “I can’t be successful in operations if I don’t transition these new fleets, integrating them into our operational structures. And this is a hand-in-glove challenge as we are engaged on many fronts. We can’t take a pause right now – its bit of a relay race. We are changing runners so how do we do this in an effective fashion? Take the C17 – we are introducing something new, standing up a new capability that never existed before. It’s value-added but not quite the same as changing an exiting capability.”
Getting the C17s and J-model C130s is great but what about the Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) replacement? Putting the SAR Buffalos out to pasture is long overdue, and LGen Deschamps agrees, noting that “with the C130 we are going to be re-balancing the fleet as we do business in both SAR and all our deployed ops. Given that FWSAR procurement has not yet come to fruition, just as we get the J’s we can release some of the older Hercs that are due for retirement (the old E-models) and then, as we get more Js, we can put the newer H-models, the best of our legacy fleet, toward our SAR community. When at some point we get all 17 J’s, the 13 or so legacy H-models will be concentrated in the SAR fleet. The H-fleet is younger and have a longer life expectancy. We are looking at 2017 as their current life expectancy. Eventually we will have a mixture of Es and Hs in SAR. That will keep the SAR fleet viable until 2017. As to the Twin Otters in the Far North, they are doing fine. We did a life upgrade to the airplanes – they are sound, viable, good for many years. There is a plan to look at when we should replace them but it is no imminent pressure that we need to address.”
During Deschamp’s tenure as CAS, the CF will be pulling out of Afghanistan – 2011 is less than a year away. With ongoing operations in Haiti would this make even further demands on the Air Force transport fleet? Deschamps explains that the planning of pulling equipment and personnel out is underway with the operational support command – “the guys who do all the logistical planning. They will do this in phases because they’re coming out in a process that we control. Its not the same as going in to start an operation and sustaining it which puts a lot more pressure on airlift. In the reduction of forces in Afghanistan we will see mixture of economical transport vs priority transport. There will be balance between airlift, both air force and contract, and sea lift through Pakistan. The government’s direction is pretty clear, we will be removing ourselves in our current configuration completely ... and we have no plans to leave anything behind.”
Haiti – Op Hestia
LGen Deschamps is eager to talk with FrontLine about the Air Force contribution to OP HESTIA. “This is what we do and we do it well. Flexibility – that is the essence of air power, to be able to respond quickly and with effect. The value of putting the right equipment with the right people gives you this kind of flexibility. Within 18 hours of the earthquake, we were airborne and enroute to Haiti. The C17 was too big to operate in Jacmel [Airport] – the Hercs and helicopters there provided us with the flexibility. The C17/C130 was a package that gave us the flexibility to go where we wanted to move our people. By using our Hercs as a relay between Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, we can move personnel and equipment without having to go through Port-au-Prince.”
A former fighter pilot (Deschamps flew CF104s in Europe at the height of the Cold War), he has a personal interest in discussing the Next Generation Fighter Capability (NGFC) project. In 2008, the Canada First Defence Strategy confirmed the government’s commitment to a manned fighter capability for this century.
The Air Force timetable is to obtain a Next Generation Fighter in time for the replacement of the CF18 fleet by 2015/2016. Some expect a decision on a CF18 replacement aircraft to be made as early as this summer.
One option is the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). “We’ve not jumped to the JSF as a solution yet, its part of what we are looking as one of the options for the government to consider. This is something that hopefully we can table with the government this year so they can reach a decision. Our expectation is that this dialogue will occur this year.”
Thrilling as it is to talk about the new aircraft that the Air Force has (and might get), in the end it all comes down to the nitty gritty – money – and the Army, Navy and Air Force are all facing budget “adjustments” that have to be made by the end of March. The Air Force is required to adjust $59 million (7% out of its annual budget). Given the pressing requirements, I can’t help wondering how CAS is going to meet this. It’s a prioritization exercise, he says, given the pressures that the dept has to manage. “We have to do some re-prioritization to cover some of the expenses currently being incurred. The next couple of years are going to be tight. We’re still fully engaged in Afghanistan, and that’s a pretty expensive operation, plus everything else we’re doing has just brought everything to a head. We still have the same amount of money – but there are a lot of pressures to be addressed in a very short time line.
“So we’ve set priorities for what we need to make sure it is fully funded and in what we can take a bit of risk with. We can certainly defer a lot of activities, renewal of some equipment, some infrastructure work, some of the flying we can afford to delay.
“Fuel is the big expense in our budget- our aircraft are the main consumers of aviation products. We will look at how we can adjust some of our flying to economize. This fiscal year we’ve had to look at the fuel prices because that has a big effect – if the price goes up, our buffer disappears quite rapidly. But we’ve been doing okay so far and can take bit of risk.
“We can defer some training (not essential to operations) and catch up next year. We can cut back on temporary duties, travel that doesn’t affect operations and the peripheral courses that people take.
“Then there is infrastructure – procurement of vehicles etc., items of hardware that we can afford to defer. If we don’t actually need to replace it this year, then we defer to the next. That way we save a bunch of cash that we can put into operations.”
Time is running out on the interview, his executive assistant reminds us that CAS has to be elsewhere soon, but LGen Deschamps isn’t done. Although there is to be re-prioritization in some areas, he wants us to know that training will not be one of them. “Training is very important to us,” he declares. “We have dramatically changed how we do our training. It used to take us 4 years to get an aircraft technician trained- now we’re down to 2 ½ years. As in other industries, the retirement of the baby boomer technicians will greatly affect the training of new students coming in. The young people won’t have the luxury of going to the older technician for advice.”
To bridge that gap, the Air Force is using an e-learning system known as AFIILE or the Air Force Integrated Information and Learning Environment. Web technology links students, instructors, training resources and course management capabilities into a seamless system. It turns schools into a single, virtual reality classroom where all students learn the same material.
Reference material is available simultaneously, course materials can be shared, amended and improved from any training location, and student training can be monitored and tracked from any Air Force school.
By using commercially available software to explore the workings of a piece of equipment on a touch screen tablet-style portable computer, an aircraft technician at 14 Wing Greenwood, in Nova Scotia, can access a 3-D model of a CP-140 Aurora landing gear schematic that is hosted on a server at 16 Wing Borden, in Ontario.
From budget cuts to virtual reality, overseeing the Next Generation Fighter Capability, and handling crises operations like the Haiti response, the tenure of Lieutenant-General André Deschamps as CAS of Canada’s Air Force will be interesting times indeed.
Peter Pigott’s latest book is “Canada in Sudan: War without Borders.”
© FrontLine Defence 2010