More for the Defence Review: Aviation

58-air-commandBack in about 1975 an act of organizational vandalism was perpetrated on the Canadian Forces in a downright silly attempt to redress a C² error made by Defence Minister Paul Hellyer’s team about a decade earlier: Air Command was formed because, in the words of the Air Force, “most seriously, there was no voice for the Air Force, especially when air assets were identified to take heavy hits during the 1973 budget cuts.” (The picture is of the then CDS, Gen Jacques Dextraze, presenting the scroll establishing Air Command to LGen Bill Carr.)

Gosselin-1The problem Mr Hellyer created was an unbalanced “top level” structure in an organization that had always had rank equality. In the not so good old days, prior to Mr Hellyer’s integration/unification experiment, the Canadian Forces consisted of three services: two large (the RCAF and the Canadian Army, with about 50,000 full time (regular force) members each) and one smaller service (the RCN with about  20,000 members). Each was commanded by a three star officer (vice admiral, lieutenant general, air marshal) because it was recognized that size, measured in people or units, did not reflect either importance or combat power. After Mr Hellyer’s (generally, except for the uniforms, quite sensible) reorganization we had several commands in the new Canadian Forces:

  • Maritime Command: a big command, with a three star commander, with fleets on both coasts and its own, organic, Maritime Air Group;
  • Mobile Command, also a big command, also with a three star commander with several brigade groups and an organic, Tactical Air group with ground attack jet fighters (CF-5s), tactical transports and a variety of helicopters;
  • CF-100Air Defence Command , a medium sized but vitally important and fully ‘operational’ command that had five first line fighter squadrons (one for Electronic Warfare flying CF-100s) and two Bomarc missile squadrons on several bases across Canada but it was commanded by a two star officer (a major general);
  • Materiel Command, also a medium sized, two star command;
  • Air Transport Command, a small, one star command; and
  • Training Command, also a small, one star command.

Now, much was made at the time of 11 (former, single service) commands being reduced to six but one obvious issue was: why not have five? Why not have a big Air Operations Command, also commanded by a three star general, comprising both Air Defence and Air Transport Commands and part of Training Command, too? I know for a fact that this question was asked of some very senior officers, officers who were involved in the organizational processes, when they visited the Staff Colleges, more than once, not long after the 1968 reorganization and before the 1975 changes, and the answers were always about the same:

  • “We were trying to make a HUGE change, we didn’t get everything exactly right, we got it more right than wrong;”
  • “Purity of function, i.e. separate Air Defence and Air Transport Commands, mattered more than ranks;”
  • “We had to show some savings in senior ranks;”
  • … etc.

In fact the Air Force did have some legitimate complaints, but the great big, overriding one was that the “navy” and “army”commanders were still three star officers but the most senior “air force” commander was only a two star, even though his (it was a him) command was at least as important as any of the others … that’s what irked many air force generals, like Hull and Carr, so much, and that’s why they convinced Gen Dextraze and Defence Minister James Richardson to put absolutely everything that flew into the new Air Command ~ disregarding the obvious and vital command and control requirements of the maritime and land force commanders.

fidel-castro-and-pierre-trudeauThe cuts in 1973 that brought things to a head were savage … the 1970s were the real “decade of darkness,” when Pierre Trudeau actually wanted to disarm Canada, leave NATO and so on. But, it was also the military’s own fault: the commanders of Maritime Command and Mobile Command were narrow minded and short sighted and had lost a proper, military appreciation of the vital need for their own, organic air elements. They were, in 1973, most interested in saving their own ‘navy ships’ and ‘army regiments’ and, in the process, they “gave away” too much of their aviation assets and eventually “lost” them all and, with them, the steps forward, in modern warfare, that Paul Hellyer had forced them to take. Navy and army parochialism was met, matched and bettered by the air force’s parish pump, inter-service politics, and the end result is a military organization that make no operational sense.

What’s needed, now, is to return to one of Paul Hellyer’s good ideas ~ and there were more than one: unified commands.

We need operational joint commands on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, each with its own, organic, fleets ~ large and smaller ships, and maritime air units ~ long range patrol squadrons and shipborne helicopter squadrons.

We need army brigade groups to be joint, too ~ to have organic tactical helicopter squadrons for reconnaissance, attack, utility and transport roles.

We need to be able to ‘mix and match’ air force fighter bombers with other, already joint forces, into ‘plug and play’ joint task forces for operations anywhere in the world.

We need one, joint, air training organization to train aircrew and specialist ground (and shipborne) crews and one joint system to manage maintenance and safety and so on.



The operating assets ~ aircraft and crews ~ need to need “in,” not just “in support of” the Navy and the Army; and the Navy and the Army have to be just a careful and concerned with their aircraft, and the people who fly and maintain them, as they are with their ships and tanks and the people who sail and crew them. If our commodores and generals cannot be 100% joint then we need new, better trained and focused commodores and generals.

h46ca_voys55caWe really do not need to worry about which uniform a pilot or a technician wears … maybe they should remain in Air Force blue, maybe they should change to Navy blue or Army green … that’s ‘housekeeping,’ not operations. The operational imperative is to have good, smooth, clear, simple command an control, relationships, and since 1975 we have not had those.

Paul Hellyer was right about some things … the air force, 40+ years ago, got in a hissy fit about one of the things he didn’t get right and their “cure’ was far worse than the “disease.” We’ve undone Mr Hellyer’s uniform and rank errors, now let’s undo Bill Carr’s organizational error.

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