LGen Yvan Blondin
LGen Yvan Blondin, the former Deputy Commander who was promoted to Commander of the Air Force in September 2012, sat down with Chris MacLean to discuss his personal vision of what needs to be initiated, accomplished or pushed forward during his time in the Air Force hot seat.
Blondin enjoyed his four years of service as Deputy Commander of Air Division in Winnipeg during what is commonly acknowledged as the busiest time in the Air Force since the Korean War.
“We started with Afghanistan,” he recalls, “where we used the Chinooks. We were involved in the Olympics, in Haiti, we had the G8 and other summits, and then went to Libya.” And it was a busy time; during his second year in Winnipeg, deployments were high, “all my airplanes were on operation, even a search and rescue was deployed in Jamaica. It was great being an operational commander because I didn’t need to worry about politics or budget or money, you’ve got a task and you do it.”
With obvious pride, he explains that during that high tempo period, members of the Air Force would push the envelope of what could be done. “We’ve got a great Air Force for the small size that we are – and the guys were good. My people did almost any job in Afghanistan.”
And there were challenges. For instance, the Griffon helicopters were not the best platform to operate in the high altitudes and temperatures of Afghanistan.
The Grif was “at the edge of its envelope, and we knew that going in, we had to take a bunch of stuff off to make it lighter.” They felt they needed the hardy Chinooks with better protection – a procurement process was underway, but it would be a few years before acquisition, so the U.S. Army stepped in with six used Chinooks which had “just enough time left on [them] to fly for three years, but our guys just took them apart and rebuilt them, and I had my guys qualifying the Chinook, re-learning how to operate it in Afghanistan, and did a great job in three years.”
Another significant operation was going to Libya in support of UN Security Council Resolution 1973. “Within 24 hours the airplanes were out the door, heading towards Europe, didn’t even have a place to land yet, we just told them ‘take off and we’ll tell you where to land once we’ve arranged something’.”
Blondin had gone to Bagotville to send off the 150 people leaving for that deployment of six planes (11 pilots, the rest were maintainers and support staff) to Libya. Amidst the uncertainty of that crisis, the Canadian government received a UN request for refuellers, and as the Air Force headed towards Europe, they found out their short mission was being extended to six months, and they’d be basing out of Trapani, Italy. The 11 pilots would be flying back and forth into Libya, dropping bombs.
What goes through a Commander’s mind at a time like this? “Well, we’ve got a young Air Force – 7 of those 11 had less than two years of experience as a pilot – and he’s alone in his cockpit, looking on a small 8" screen to decide if he drops a bomb or not, if there’s a school or not close by, if there are civilians nearby, and if he makes the wrong decision and the bomb lands on the wrong place, it’s going to be on the internet that night, and it’s going to have a strategic effect on the whole campaign, and yeah, I was a bit concerned. I told them ‘you’ve got to make sure when you’re dropping a bomb, that it’s right.’ They did it for six months and did a fabulous job. You can have the best airplane in the world, but if you don’t have the right people, it’s not going to work. I saw what they could do, and I saw success.”
Take Care of Your People
What are his take-aways from Winnipeg? “It’s a great Air Force but I’ve got to maintain that high standard. We’ve slowed down operations for a while but I need to make sure I’m keeping the way of doing things – I need to take care of the people, they’re the ones that make it work. Through my 33 years of operational service I went through every issue of command; there was never enough money, never enough people, never enough resources, but we train the people well and we empower the leaders to make decisions and do a job, and they do great. So my challenge is to maintain this; how do I take care of people; how do I make sure I’m protecting the training and our way of doing business; and how do I keep these people for as long as possible? This business is not like [the private sector] where I can steal engineers from somewhere else, or if I lose somebody I can just pay more to get x company’s vice president to come over. If I lose a lieutenant-colonel who’s commanding a squadron, if I lose him after 20 years of service, it takes another 20 years to recruit and train another. So somehow, I have to ensure I keep them as long as possible.”
The military is having to cut back in many ways, and training seems to be taking a hit. How is the Air Force handling what the Commander calls ‘fiscal challenges’? “Resources that I thought would be there are not necessarily there anymore. It all depends on what I do with this, and that’s probably my biggest challenge, if I want to maintain that operational readiness, and I want to keep all those people, how do I modify things if my bank of money is a bit less? Are there ways to do things differently? What will help me save cost but keep the same readiness?”
As an example, he cites the advantages of simulators. “Simulation is a big target for me, I don’t think we have maximized simulation, we can do more with simulation. And if you can produce that virtual world and get the right tools, I can reduce my flying hours. Reducing flying hours is going to reduce my cost, it’s going to increase the life of my airplanes and turn into savings because I’m going to keep them longer. So there is room for savings – it’s what you do with what you’ve got.
And does the Air Force have enough simulators? “No. Personally, that’s what I think.” Over the last 30 years the Air Force has slowly (some might say reluctantly) increased its simulation capabilities. LGen Blondin admits that many still claim the best training is in the air, “and I was one of those, but I’m at the point where I’ve got all that experience and I’ve seen what simulation can do, and I see what’s coming up with the next generation of airplanes and how we’re using them,” and he believes simulation is the answer to saving cost.
He cites examples of CF-18 fighters flying 4.5-5 hours on auto pilot to get to the refueller, refuel, back on auto pilot to get to Libya and 1.5 hours later they are over Libya and need a stable platform to do their job. “You’re flying at 25,000 feet, you’re keeping the right speed, the same altitude because now you want to concentrate on the video screen to find your target – you want a stable platform to drop your bomb.” It compares to playing a video game inside a cockpit at 25,000 feet – stability is key, and once the bomb has dropped, the pilot continues to monitor the video screen to ensure the target was hit successfully, and then flies back at 25,000 feet. Those hours of flying “can easily be replicated in a simulator because most of the real work you’re going to do is using your video. Simulation is an outstanding tool to do that mission and not fly five hours in an airplane.”
As for typical operations in the future, LGen Blondin says “everything is about sensors, about sensing. The two prototypes that were offered in the American Joint Strike Fighter competition were very similar, and the emphasis was on sensing and being able to take action – the more you know about your environment, the better you can do your job. If I know where enemy radars are, enemy missiles are, other airplanes are, I can do my job. I don’t want to be seen, so I want to hear, I want to sense what’s out there, this is what that new generation of airplane is offering,” he says.
“Simulators are getting to the point where it’s going to offer me better training than flying. Canada is probably the most advanced industrial country offering simulation, and I certainly would want to take advantage of that. I see some big advantages in what we could optimize if I had the right stuff.”
The RCAF Commander has recently created a directorate to plan a virtual world for the Air Force. Over the years, he says, each community (maritime air, fighters, tactical aviation, and transport) has developed, in isolation, its own sense of what can be done with simulation and how to use it for training. However, training silos are costly. “If I had one virtual world for everybody I wouldn’t need the 26 that I’ve got now with different simulators.”
Blondin’s ambitious vision would see simulators for all communities networked together to simplify the process and to quickly adjust parameters to train for any emergency mission, or those involving multiple aircraft types. “I don’t have that now, that’s what I’d like to have.”
To that end, LGen Blondin has tasked this new directorate to prepare a detailed analysis of requirements – number of simulators and part task trainers (training fidelity devices), networking options – in short, everything that could be required to create a virtual world that can accommodate all Air Force training needs. The target timeline for this proposed virtual world to be complete is 2025. Once the analysis is done, Blondin will propose the concept to the department. By then he will know what is needed “and it’s going to be a shopping list of simulators, networking, servicing, and instructional capabilities. I’d like to build all of this into an omnibus project and be able to qualify and business case this, [to show] what I can bring to the table for savings for the next little while. Now, if I can make this work I’m reducing my costs and I’m protecting my operational readiness – I’m just doing it in a different way.”
It sounds like a modern approach to training, and I suspect this vision is finally coming in sync with today’s decision-makers. Blondin does not want to call it “revamping” the training, but rather “putting a strategic vision, and a strategic structure” into it. He believes this will allow each of the capabilities to be optimized – while reducing costs. “I’m convinced I can push 50% of those [flight training] hours into simulation, if I do this I’m cutting my cost by a lot, I’m reducing my carbon footprint, I’m increasing the life of my airplanes, an accountant can turn all of this into business money that I can invest somewhere else.”
Not every ‘community’ will achieve that level of savings, such as the mobility piece (C17s, 130Js), but savings are there. “My objective would be, everything is a paying hour, all the training should be done in simulation – the commercial companies do it, why shouldn’t I?”
The task, explains the Commander, then becomes one of identifying objectives and optimizing for each community, and determining how much simulation is needed to “ensure you’re protecting the capability, and not going below the [current] standard.” For instance, the transport community would not require as much simulation because most of its training can be done while completing actual transport missions.
When it comes to pilot training, the most common criticism for years has been the backlog of people who can’t get started in the training. “It’s been bad for the last five years,” agrees the general. “Our problem has been the NFTC (NATO Flight Training in Canada) contract and the way we’ve been trying to do business, and the training in Moose Jaw – it never achieved what we wanted. We were looking at the production of 110-120 pilots a year and we never got beyond 70-75 on average in the first 10 years of a 20 year contract.” Surprisingly, 10 years passed and the NFTC had never met its 110-pilot target, for myriad reasons, from mechanical problems to the Air Force not providing the instructors. “There was always something,” sighs Blondin. And then, about a year and a half ago, knowing there were still 10 years left of the contract with Bombardier, the Air Force decided to try to change the process. “We got into some good discussions with Bombardier, planning, revamping, changing the program, and both the Air Force and Bombardier [worked] to save this and we made some drastic changes. They optimized simulation and cut back the flying hours, then they optimized the ground school. “It’s paying dividends,” beams the Commander. “Last year was the first time we got above 100 pilots; we’re aiming for 125 for next year, and now we’re looking at finding some better efficiencies in the selection process.” As Blondin explains it, his capacity to test people has become a limiting factor, and now that training is moving along so well, the idea is to begin restricting the selection process so only the ‘best of the best’ even have a chance, thus lowering the attrition rate, and with it, the training costs. “This summer, we’re introducing a new system that we’ve copied from the Brits, it’s a computer-based testing system, and much simpler. Now, instead of being limited to testing 300 people a year, I can probably test 3000 people because you could do it from home on that computer by connecting and doing the test right now.
“I haven’t tried it, but I understand the software can measure your reflexes, your coordination, your ability to learn and be able to use information to make a decision. The Brits and Germans have been using it for the last three years and they’re getting some amazing results, so we’re copying and using this, and my hope is that I can aim towards selecting the top 10% of the test group and reduce attrition from the first part of training from 40% to something around 10% – and we’ll know within a year and a half, if that’s successful. Then, without changing anything in my production I’m going to go from 105 to close to 140 capacity,” he says.
“So all this to say, we had a problem; we’ve made some huge improvements in the last two years and the results [are better than anything in the last] 10 years. At the last meeting with Second Air Division in Winnipeg, which is responsible for training, the concern from the commander was ‘I’m not sure you’re getting enough people to get in.’ Two years ago I had 300 people waiting 3-4 years for training, and now we’ve caught up to the backlog and now my people asking ‘are you sure your recruiting is going to feed my machine?’”
And how is recruiting going, now that the visibility and tempo of Afghanistan operations have lessened? Hopes are riding high that this new test will completely eliminate the week-long air crew selection process that was formerly done in Toronto. Apparently there are lots of people clamouring to get in – they will be tested and only the best will be selected.
“Let’s talk about fighters,” LGen Blondin suggests, to my surprise, even though he is a former fighter pilot. He describes a fighter airplane as “a compromise; there is no perfect fighter,” he states. “I’m a fighter guy, I flew fighters all my life, I’ve seen the selection process when we went to the F-16, F-18; if I could have the perfect fighter it would have as many engines as possible – the more engines you have, the higher your survival – but the more engines you have, the more weight you put in your plane, and the more fuel you need to feed the aircraft. The smaller the airplane, the harder it is to see in combat and is your best chance of survival. So you want a small aircraft with a small engine, not much of an infrared signature, the smallest radar signature, you want the least heat-producing airplane as possible – but then you can’t go far! If you don’t have a big enough engine you don’t have the manœuverability or the speed you need, so you need to compromise.”
The Commander notes that today’s fighter aircraft are all around the same size, that most countries have reached similar compromises. Over the years they have all been between the larger F-15 with its bigger radar signature to the smaller and more manœuverable F-16 size which is not as powerful. The F-22 is about the size of an F-15 but has a bigger engine and is very manœuverable, it’s a great airplane, but very expensive to build. And big engines need lots of fuel, lots of fuel means you compromise on something else. “The F-22 is a great airplane, it’s probably the most manœuverable in the world, and stealthy, it’s got the advanced technology but very very expensive. We’d love to have an F-22, but how many could I afford?” Would we even be allowed to acquire an F-22, I ask. “Well, we never asked,” replies the Commander. “You see the Australians were in the same position as we were, the Americans have said they’re not selling to anyone else. The Australians were considering the F-22 at one time. Canada would have probably been the same, except we never saw it as something we could afford, and something that could fit into what we need. The F-22 was developed to be an air-to-air plane (aerial combat), not to air-to-air plus air-to-ground (bombers), so we would need to buy that really expensive plane and still need an air to ground capability such as the F-18. The decision we made 30 years ago was the same choice, F-16 was air to air, F-18 was air-to-air, air to ground, people think we chose the F-18 because it had two engines, that wasn’t it, the reason was the air-to-ground plus air-to-air, and the fact that it had two engines was a bonus, but not the deciding factor. The F-22 is a great airplane but very expensive and burns a lot of fuel. It needs to meet the refueller very often which can be a vulnerability.” So, I’m getting the point, there are compromises in everything you buy.
“Look at the airplanes that we’re considering today,” he continues. “Most of them can do the job, they offer a certain level of manœuverability, some more, some less, but all acceptable; they can all carry bombs to varying degrees; but as a fighter pilot, I could do the job with any one of them. They’re all offering something different; some have two engines but are a bit bigger. The Typhoon is a great airplane, very manœuverable, nice design, it’s great to do air-to-air, it’s fast, it’s got a couple of good engines, not that great at doing air-to-ground, but it’s big, and not much stealth capability – so it’s got pluses and minuses. The F-35 is certainly not the most manœuverable airplane, and it’s not the fastest, it’s the one that concentrated on being a sensing machine because they’re looking towards the future. Everything is always based on what you need, the fighters have been developed through the years and evolved because of the threat, because of the environment. It had to be very manœuverable, and as small as possible during the Second World War because the one who saw the other first and had vision control would most of the time win the fight. Now we’re at the point where I can be manœuverable and can push the limit (that limit becomes the human body), but there’s going to be a missile that’s more manœuverable, and much faster, so this missile is going to catch me. So aircraft speed is not necessarily a deciding factor, everything becomes ‘how do I survive in that environment’?” LGen Blondin is quite convinced that instruments and sensors and human factoring in any given environment is the key to survivability.
“Personally, if I say I could fly any one of those airplanes today, it’s true any one of them could do the job I need to do today and I’m really looking, if we’re going to be selecting a fighter it’s not going to be for today. We thought the F-18 was good until 2020, it turns out it’s probably closer to 2025 (I’ve got the luxury of time compared to Australia), so we’ve got a few more years. I don’t feel pressed to make my selection, but at the same time I’m actually looking at airplanes that we’ll start flying somewhere around 2025, that’s a good 12-13 years from now, and we’ll fly it for 30-40 years. If I do a lot of simulation, does that mean we can fly it for 50 years, since that will increase the life of the airplane? 2025-2065/75 that’s the window I’m looking at flying the next fighter, we were very successful with the F-18, flying for 30 years now, 1982 was the first delivery and I’m still planning to fly it for another 12-13 years. By the time we are finished with it, it’s going to be 45 years maybe close to 50 years for the last ones. It’s been successful because we’ve been able to modernize it, put new equipment into it, and we’re 30 years into the life of the airplane now, and it’s still one of the best airplanes out there to do the job that we did in Libya. So how do I get an airplane that I’m going to fly in 15 years that will have technology that will carry me for 40-50 years?”
Technology is changing faster than we could have imagined just 20 years ago. How will the RCAF plan for technologies it has no idea will exist? “What I need,” answers the Commander, “is a platform that can grow, a platform that will give me options that can grow. We’re not looking at the Russian airplanes even though they’re developing some great airplanes, the Chinese are developing some great airplanes. If I want to fly for 30-40 years, who is to say what will happen. Am I going to rely on China to provide parts for my airplane, what about a Russian airplane? So all of this is providing a measure of risk and is not where we need to go as Canadians. What about Swedish airplanes? French airplanes? American airplanes? How do I ensure that whichever one is chosen will give me the commonality that I need? We’re a very small fleet, we’re going to buy 65 airplanes (if that), and the way we’ve done operations for the last 25-30 years is as part of a coalition. Canada’s defence is based on alliances, I defend Canada as part of the North American alliance with the Americans, we’re involved in the world as part of NATO with many other smaller countries that all have smaller fleets, but the idea is to pool them all together for operations. If we have some measure of commonality in standards and parts and weapons, it makes it much easier. If I’m defending North America, I need commonality with the Americans. If I’ve got a Chinese airplane and the Americans have something else, and I end up on an American base short of weapons and ammunition, chances are theirs are not going to fit. I’m going to need commonality. If, 20 years from now, new weapons are developed, and every 10 years or so you’ve got a new system, new radars, new missiles, new bombs, you hope that it’s going to fit on the airplane because Canada will not develop the systems on its own – we’re too small for that. We’ve been relying mostly on the Americans for weapons and radars and other stuff, now it doesn’t mean that it absolutely needs to be there but it is certainly an advantage to have commonality with the Americans.”
Members of the National Fighter Procurement Secretariat or NFPS, (formerly called the F-35 Secretariat, probably by the same bright light who masterminded the July 2010 F-35 communication disaster) have reportedly said that even though they are gathering data and requiring potential contenders to spend significant resources to satisfy requests that are not related to an official RFP, they are simply amassing data and submitting conclusions, but will not be making recommendations to the ministers as to whether or not Canada should compete the project. What can you tell FrontLine readers about this?
“Personally, I provide personnel and expertise to the Secretariat to be doing their analysis of the options of what the government has been asking. Now, exactly what form their conclusions will take, I don’t know. I don’t know what direction they’re going to suggest, will it be only conclusions or will it be recommendations? I don’t know. I will provide expertise to help them to understand the data they will receive from different companies, and be able to put all of that together.”
Your gut feeling, do you think there’s going to be a competition? “I don’t know, and personally from what I’ve seen, from what I’ve heard from the Secretariat, they’re asking the right questions, they’re looking at the right things and the fact that we’re reviewing all this is not a bad thing. I am not married to an option.”
The Air Force had clearly set its collective heart on the F-35 as the best airplane it could buy, but extending the F-18s until possibly 2025, opens more doors. “Looking at the situation today, the fact that we’re reviewing the options is not a bad thing for Canada. We’ve got a democracy here in Canada, and you’ve got 35 million people who are picking the next airplane, we’re all looking, and everybody has ideas on how things should be, but the fact that the option is being reviewed, is actually a great situation to be in – who knows how much the F-35 is going to cost five years from now, 10 years from now? The economy has influence on many budgets for many countries, if the U.S. decides to reduce the order even more and the price of the F-35 goes higher, would that be still a good option when we compare it to other options? I told you I could do the job with all five airplanes today, I know what option I would recommend to the government today, would that be the same option tomorrow? I don’t know. And the fact is that we’ve got a Secretariat reviewing all of this because we’ve got the time to look at this and still discuss it. I’m just going to wait for what the Secretariat is going to recommend.”
Three other high profile Air Force programs have been in great trouble for many years: Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR), the Maritime Helicopter Program (MHP), and the Joint Unmanned Surveillance Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS), what can you tell our readers about them?
“Well, Fixed Wing SAR had its problems through the years, the first Statement of Requirements that we built was probably too restrictive and we were criticized on that, we didn’t give enough options to Canadian companies that would want to compete and be a part of this.”
That SOR, which originated in 2002, is very old. Certainly search technologies and sensors have improved substantially. Is this reflected in the current requirements?
“We reviewed that. We kind of tried to ‘soften up’ everything we could, to provide more options to companies to be creative in their solutions, whether they wanted to offer one fleet or two fleet options, three, four, five bases. So we get more into what effect we want, to let some of the companies offer different options and be able to play with this. I think this is what the industry wanted, but it delayed the process.”
Such diverse solutions with varying numbers of bases and aircraft and hangar requirements are extremely difficult to compare. The RCAF has been struggling to devise a process that has the flexibility to accommodate a wide range of solutions while maintaining all the checkpoints of a fair competition. “We have had many discussions with industry and we’re going to be developing the Request for Proposal, coming out in 2014. So it’s been delayed, it’s late, but we’ve got a lot of pressure to deliver something on this, the minister is on us, saying ‘I want an airplane’, so we’ve got a lot of pressure to work with PWGSC and to develop something that will deliver this in time.”
Should the focus be more on the actual rescue piece rather than just the search? Of course, the person needs to be found, but until you actually rescue that person, time keeps ticking and the danger is still there.
“Well the fixed wing is one portion of the whole SAR system, working with the fixed wing platform in a system where you’re being cued by satellites and working with ships from the navy and coast guard, as long as we accept that we need a fixed wing platform to be part of that whole process, that’s the only thing we’re looking at. Fixed Wing is probably the main item we’re using for searching, once we’ve searched, you’ve got something to pick it up.”
Some believe the ‘pick up’ should be an integral part of the FWSAR equation – how much time it takes to find them vs the time it takes to rescue them – those options must work together and should be assessed as such. Finding the coordinates is not the end of the mission. In some cases, particularly when it comes to exposure, the fastest search is not much better than the fastest pick-up option. Should the search function be assessed without due consideration of the rescue options to complete the mission?
“Again, I can’t separate or pool the functions. I’ve got a call, I’ve got an approximate location, and I need to get something there quickly, it could be a ship that is close by, it could be a helicopter that is close by, it could be one of my other airplanes that is close by, but chances are most of the time I need to scramble an airplane to take a look, and I’ve got specialized airplanes for that. This is the fixed wing airplane that I need to send to try and find what the problem is. I could send a helicopter there, it just takes longer, so I’m sending an airplane that can get there quicker and assess the situation. I’ve got the ability to send a few Techs down below to help, but the plane can’t land, so that requirement is a portion of the whole system. So, in the sense you’re talking about, it’s not something we can initially modify. I need to have that capability. I’ve got something happening in the arctic and I need to send something with the right equipment to search and find what’s out there and be able to react by sending a couple of SAR Techs, if I need, to parachute down and give some help, and then bring other resources that take longer to get there, to bring them on station.”
What is better for searching, a full suite of sensors or the human eye (otherwise known as the Mark One Eyeball)?
“I wouldn’t do without the MK1 eyeball, but if I can have a radar to go with it, if I can have a sensor, a video camera, and all the equipment to go with this, I’m going to take it. The MK1 eyeball doesn’t work well at night, but night vision goggles or night vision camera or infrared camera are going to provide me some tools. I can look into a forest and I’m not going to see much with the MK1 eyeball, but I can see with an IR finder if there’s some heat signature. If I have a combination of the right sensors to complement the MK1 eyeball, I’m going to take all of it. If it’s useful and it’s going to provide me with an edge in finding people, that’s what I want on my airplanes. And if somebody on my crew swears ‘nothing beats the MK1 eyeball, that’s all I need’, I’m going to tell him it’s time to retire, it’s time to bring in some new people that can exploit the technology and can give me all the edge I can get.”
We are all awaiting the next word on the Maritime Helicopter Program. Should we not just tell Sikorsky they’ve run out of time and then choose a proven platform?
“I’m like you, I’m waiting. I would have liked to have the helicopter a few years back. Right now it’s out of my hands, I’m only the customer waiting for the helicopter. PWGSC is dealing with the contract, the company is late, is not delivering what’s required. I’m not sure where they are now in negotiations and what they’re doing, but I’m just the guy looking at it from a window as you are. My job is to ensure that the government still has something to fly and we’re ensuring that I’ve got capability to provide if it doesn’t show up or if it’s later than has been promised. So hey, I know I can get five more years out of the Sea King, I can still fly it safely, and it’s still doing a good job. This is what I’m telling the Chief of Defence, and he’s telling the Minister, we’ve got some time, but you’ve got to find a solution. I’m hoping to get the replacement, we’ve been looking for that replacement for a long time now.”
The JUSTAS program has been repeatedly put on hold for many years, what can you tell us about the current status?
“I would’ve liked that one to move a little quicker. The JUSTAS program came up when we were in Afghanistan, we were using UAVs, and now we’re renting UAVs, and I need some of my own. That’s how the program started as a requirement, because we had experience in combat in Afghanistan. But as we started looking at the requirement for UAVs, it became apparent that Afghanistan was just one operation – the bigger requirement is to be able to patrol in the arctic, and patrol at sea. We saw a huge advantage in being able to use the UAV, but when we started looking at what’s available and what we would need to cover the huge distances in the arctic or out to sea – the range and the endurance you would need – there’s really only one platform that can do that, and it’s [the Northrop Grumman] Global Hawk. But it is very expensive, it costs as much to buy a Global Hawk as buying a twin-engine passenger airplane, it’s not cheap. It requires a lot of maintenance and you need a lot of people one the ground to control it and to be looking at the product it’s going to be sending back, so we saw that as a luxury edition. But UAV technology has evolved so rapidly that when we look at the next platform that’s going to come in, we think it’s going to cost five, six or seven times less than the Global Hawk. What took us away from committing to the Global Hawk, was that it would provide long distance endurance but could not give you the ability to fly at lower altitudes and send back live video.”
According to Blondin, Canada had been comparing the Global Hawk, which is a HALE (High-Altitude, Long-Endurance) platform, with General Atomics’ Predator, a MALE (Medium Altitude) platform, which is smaller and slower, but more manœuverable. “If we’re going to deploy somewhere, that [MALE] is the kind of UAV we’re looking at. For operations at home, the Predator had the range, except it flies so slow, around 110-120 knots. If I’m using it domestically and I’m going over the ocean and there’s wind at 100 knots on the nose, it wouldn’t come back very quickly. So each of them had limitations. My requirement is for a UAV to go north, to go over the ocean, but if I need to deploy, I would like to have it with me, when I went to Haiti, I would have liked to have had a UAV to show me which roads were closed and where I could move my people. I would’ve used it in Libya.”
The medium altitude platform seems to have the edge, particularly due to the live video feed and payload capability. “I can carry SAR packages if I’m flying north or I can carry bombs if I’m over Libya, so that’s the kind of UAV we want to be able to deploy and also to use it domestically. So, for a while, we looked at the idea of having a split squadron with two different capabilities. There are some new emerging capabilities that are actually a compromise between those two – those are promising. Those are getting to what we feel could be the right platform for Canada, for what we need up north. It’s got enough speed, enough range to go up north, but a lot less expensive and probably with one fleet we could be able to do everything we want.”
Thinking Outside the Box
Despite industry’s frustration with projects being put on hold, we must take changing technologies into consideration and realize how difficult this makes any long-term decisions. It appears the JUSTAS delays will result in a better solution for Canada, and Air Force feedback to industry has probably influenced those new changes. One recognized problem is contracting a specific platform and then requiring add-ons (otherwise known as Canadianization) which cause integration headaches and delays. I asked the general if it would make sense to publish a wish list of things that would help the military do its job better, and let industry respond accordingly? If the technology exists, and you need it now, have a competition; if it partially exists and you are not quite ready, publish the add-ons in the wish list for industry to respond to. If the technology doesn’t exist but is realistic and there is a market for it, someone will create it. In other words, give industry time to digest the future requirements, and then contract truly off-the-shelf when the government is actually ready to buy, and only allow proven solutions to compete.
“Well, we’ve never done that. It’s always been looking at what’s out there. But it’s interesting you’re saying this because it’s actually one of the things we’re starting to look at. Let me give you an example: the CP140 for maritime patrol. We’ve done maritime patrols for the last 40 years – always with the big machine, four engines, it’s got range, it’s got endurance, you can carry torpedoes, sonobuoys, you can put 15 people in the back with all the stuff – that’s the way we do Maritime Patrol Anti-Submarine Warfare. Now, we need to replace that capability, and for a while we were contemplating exactly the same requirements, but the only option available was the P-8, which is very expensive. We look at this, and the envelope we have, and we can’t afford it. I can only afford only six or seven of them, which is not going to be enough for Canada. So what we’re proposing to the government right now, is to keep the CP140 a little longer. The original plan was to replace them in 2020, but it’s still a good airplane and I could get another 10 years [out of them, with full modernization]. The P-8 is not forecasted to match capabilities that we’ve put on the CP140 with the new modernization package until 2025. If I can keep the CP140 for 10 more years, and push the requirement to 2030 that would give me time to maybe buy a P-8 at that time, if I can afford it, but more importantly, the challenge I put to my staff is, ok is there a different way to do business? What if I don’t need a big machine like this? What if I could do it with a much smaller platform that doesn’t carry torpedoes or sonobuoys, with only a few people in the back? You could combine it with four or five UAV’s that would carry the torpedoes or the stuff you need, and when you do an ASW mission, you’ve got a much bigger footprint. You’d have more airplanes and more platforms for what you need, you can control the UAVs from back home or you can control them from inside the airplane and use the smaller, cheaper plane as a mothership for the UAVs. You can employ them separately. You can use the UAVs to patrol on their own – I’ve got a need for this. You can use a smaller platform to do ISR mission on its own; or use it as a camera over a G8 to Toronto; and because it’s cheaper, I can probably get more of them. And maybe it can be a Canadian airplane, a Canadian solution that could be developed for this. The UAVs that carry torpedoes don’t exist, but if I push the requirement 10 years to the right, and I engage industry, and we start discussing, is there a way we can engage researchers to be looking at this and, while it doesn’t exist right now, discuss what is possible? This is what I would need, is there a way to develop it? And industry would have 10 years to look at this and maybe develop a Canadian solution. What you’re talking about is what I’m challenging my folks, to try and find a different way of doing things if I had the time to look forward instead of the way we have always done business.”
What do you feel is the most personally surprising aspect about assuming command of the Air Force?
“Well, you spend 30 years as a military person going through operations, I was a pilot, I was flying airplanes, I moved up because I was a good pilot and then when I was chosen as a squadron commander it’s because I could do operations and I could deal with people, and when I went on to become commander in Winnipeg, as I mentioned, I felt I had the right experience, the right training to be able to do all this.
“Moving into the world of working in NDHQ is different because now you’re getting to know how the bureaucracy has to work with the operational requirements, and you’re really speaking a different language – you need to, if you’re going to do this job. You really need to understand the completely new dimension of how the decisions are made, be able to speak that language, be able to interact with people a lot differently. You need to establish contacts and personal relations to be able to function within this level of the operation. I sometimes feel the uniform is a problem, the uniform becomes a barrier, people will see the uniform before seeing the person.”
What about interacting with industry? “I don’t do enough of it. I was with CADSI at their conference a few weeks back and I told them I need them. I think many other countries have found a way to interact and integrate the military requirement with the industrial capacity and be able to exploit this much better than we do in Canada. Sometimes I feel like we are very shy in talking to each other and working on projects, working on requirements and working on solutions that could be good for the industry, good for Canada, and fill the military requirement – we don’t do enough of it. I spoke to them for 45 minutes and I gave them the example of the CP140 and, if I’m asking my guys to look at solutions, why don’t we look at them together? Why don’t you send a few experts who know what can be developed, what’s possible, and we can think together, it doesn’t tie any one of us to anything but at least it can provide some ideas on what could be done.”
One reason such interaction has been actively discouraged is because of the margin for undue influence and the optics that one company may be getting an advantage over another. Do you feel there’s a way to get around that?
“It’s always a concern, I’m hoping some smart people are going to find a way [for everyone] to play in that minefield.”
It seems counterproductive for DND to be making decisions without all of the information at its disposal, not being able to talk to industry about what they’re working on.
“There are some pitfalls, some minefields out there,” he agrees. “How do we negotiate around this, how do we find a way to talk to each other without getting into problem areas? Again it’s a democracy, we need to find ways to not give perceptions that somebody’s getting advantages over another. But at the same time, Canada is such a small country, and we’ve got some of the best aeronautical industries in the world – and if we can’t take advantage of that, to match what we’re developing in the military side, it gets silly.”
“You get to be the steward for the institution for only a few years before you pass it on to someone else, I can’t break this. It’s working well, it’s a great machine, and it has provided Canadians with a huge service compared to its size – and it’s recognized throughout the world. It’s got a great reputation, and I need to protect that, I need to maintain that, I need to make sure that I’m protecting the people because I feel that’s the secret to everything we do. So for me that’s a real priority.
“I’m challenged with money; budgets are a little lower than they were, so I need to adapt that creativity out there so I can protect the readiness. I need to find some smart ways of doing business. Simulation is one of them, but it’s not the only one. The stuff we do is about technology, and technology gets better every year, so what can I use that’s going to give me an edge or lower my cost – and there are solutions out there. I just need to ensure I’m asking the right questions. I’m getting my people to take the time to look at this and figure it out.”
Chris MacLean Editor-in-Chief, FrontLine Defence Magazine
© FrontLine Defence 2013