Back in 2016 Andrew MacDougall, a pretty Conservative fellow, having been Prime Minister Harper’s director of communications, complained that we Canadians were treating our head of government, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, like a low-cost package holiday traveller when it came to doing the work we want done in international fora. His specific complaint was about the then ancient CC-150 Polaris transport aircraft (an Airbus 310-300 in civilian terms) that is used for long-haul VIP transport.
Recently, a week before Christmas, Amanda Connolly and Mercedes Stephenson of Global News told us that “Officials in Ottawa are [finally] starting the hunt to replace the aging fleet of Polaris VIP and transport aircraft … [because] … The military’s fleet of five transport and refuelling aircraft, which includes the VIP planes used for sitting governors general and prime ministers, has been plagued by mechanical problems.” They note that “The fleet began life as commercial aircraft in 1987 [flying for the long defunct Wardair] before the Royal Canadian Air Force bought them in 1992. It has been using them ever since when the planes are not in for repairs, which is often.“
I remember when they were purchased, and I’ve been retired from the Canadian Forces for almost 25 years. There was public stink then, soon-to-be Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was, predictably ~ as opposition politicians always are, aghast at the notion that the prime minister of Canada ought to travel in what he called a “flying Taj Mahal.” But, let’s all remember please that the primary roles of this fleet of aircraft are …
… to transport Canadian troops to wherever in the world they might need to go, for operations, and to refuel our jet fighters when they are deployed overseas, and to carry cargo, but smaller loads that do not require a big CC-130 Hercules or the mighty CC-177 Globemaster III. The Royal Canadian Air Force needs a fleet of specially modified aircraft for those roles. There are several more modern “tankers” available including …
… the Boeing KC-46 (shown on the left refuelling a F-35) which is used by the USA and Israel and the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) which is used by several nations including Australia and the United Kingdom. The photo on the right shows a RAAF KC-30 refuelling a US F-16.
Some commercial aircraft can be converted, easily and quickly, from carrying passengers in seats to carrying cargo in containers to carrying aircraft fuel in giant bladders with refuelling hoses attached. They are true multi-role aircraft. They can also be converted to VIP aircraft with special suites for sleeping, with showers, work spaces, secure telecommunications and regular conventional passenger seats …
… for support staff and journalists.
The key bit of a real VIP aircraft is a secure (high-grade encryption) communications and information suite. The prime minister, ministers and senior officials, when en route to a meeting in a foreign capital may need to have discussions that are SECRET-CANADIAN EYES ONLY with senior staff back in Ottawa and they may then need to have a video conference call with, say, the Prime Ministers of e.g. Australia and the United Kingdom using a different security system that allows them to discuss SECRET-FIVE EYES ONLY materiel. You’re talking a reliable satellite communications system (with a back-up, too) and various cryptographic terminals and the people to operate and maintain them. The comm/IT suite is complex and expensive. Everything else is optional and, even in the case of a VIP shower stall, pretty cheap, too.
OK, I can already hear the objections, many from Conservatives: “Why doesn’t he fly commercial? He can even fly First Class,” some will say. Aside from some very real security concerns, suppose he has to attend a G-20 meeting in Brazil. There are no flights from Ottawa, there are no direct flights from Toronto. Even if there were he would need an entourage of security and telecommunications/cryptography specialists. I know the Pope charters an Alitalia jet when he travels but I’m afraid that even Air Canada, which has 400± aircraft and carries over 50,000,000 passengers a year, might find it too difficult to keep an aircraft on something close to “hot-standby,” as the RCAF does, for the prime minister. This problem was examined many times over the years and the range of factors ~ security, communications, availability ~ dictate that a dedicated VIP squadron in the Air Force is the best choice … maybe the only sensible choice.
The nw fleet should be in at least two separate squadrons:
- One (of say six aircraft) for military duties: troop (and cargo) transport and air-to-air refuelling; and
- One for
The special duties squadron should have three types of aircraft:
- Short range passenger transports able to serve ministers and senior officials who need to fly within Canada and, say, to Washington when commercial flights will not work. They are not for e.g. Patty Hajdu to fly to Thunder Bay on weekends ~ they are “business jets” for government business purposes; and
- Long range passenger aircraft. In my book long range means, for example, Ottawa to Canberra or Wellington, New Zealand (over 16,000 km by the great circle route) with only one or, at most, two stops.
What kind of aircraft? As I always say, I’m not a pilot nor an aeronautical engineer nor a contract specialist nor even someone with detailed knowledge of the defence budget, so I have no idea. It it’s any comfort, I can guarantee that neither General Jon Vance, Canada’s top soldier, nor Lieutenant-General Al Meinzinger, the Commander of the RCAF, knows either. It takes a committee of experts, using a set of technical and financial standards, to recommend the best choice to cabinet, and then a committee of cabinet will add some (always quite valid) political considerations to the public service/military committee’s findings and recommend a final choice.
I just hope they move this along quickly. The aircraft are old and, literally, falling apart. Plus, there is a more urgent and much more expensive project waiting in the wings: a replacement for the even older CP-140 Aurora which entered service 40 years ago!