Saturday, January 12, 2008

MacKay, "But Clinton Chretien..."

Nice try Petey, but it won't wash with those who were actually there at the time.
Today's Canadian Forces are feeling the effects of former prime minister Jean Chretien's "flippant and callous" 1993 decision to cancel the $4.8-billion contract to replace the military's aging fleet of Sea King helicopters, Defence Minister Peter MacKay charged Friday.

In an exclusive interview with Canwest News Service, MacKay blamed delays in delivering the first in a new fleet of Sikorsky Cyclone ship-borne helicopters squarely at the feet of previous Liberal governments.


"It's a tremendous, tremendous disappointment to see once again this vital piece of equipment may be delayed. And it can all go back to a single, solitary decision and a flippant and callous stroke of the pen," MacKay said by telephone from Victoria. He was referring to Chretien's cancellation of the Cormorant contract shortly after he was sworn in as prime minister.

"It was done to great political attention at the time, by former prime minister Chretien, and as a direct result of that decision here we are again pulling ourselves out of a hole, playing catch-up."

MacKay might want to review the minutes of several meetings which took place under the Mulroney regime about the EH101 Petrel. It was too expensive and it was a Cadillac. The Mulroney government requirement that the aircraft was to be built in Canada had caused the price to rise well beyond what other countries were paying for a similar EH101 anti-submarine warfare variant.

Worse though, is that the ships from which the EH101 would have been expected to operate would have required extensive refitting and reconfiguration, because the EH101, even folded up, would not have fit in the hangars of the newly-launched patrol frigates. That would have added significantly to a $6 billion price tag.

Chretien explained his decision in his memoirs. You can read the excerpts at Take off, eh?.

There are other issues which MacKay neatly avoids.

The Mulroney government ordered the Ch-148/149 Petrel/Chimo with certain knowledge they were over-buying. The federal deficit was massive and the order would clearly have laid a bill, which would have taken years to pay, at the feet of Canadian taxpayers. Public opinion was decidedly against the purchase and then-defence minister Kim Campbell cut the order back to try and get the price down. The price was now $4.3 billion in 1995 dollars and public opinion was still markedly slanted against the purchase. Then she did something really stupid.

After being attacked in the House of Commons for not seeking other possible ASW helicopter replacements at a much lower cost, Campbell stood up and told parliament that the new helicopters were necessary to prevent the possibility of submarines running the UN naval blockade of Haiti. The suggestion was beyond absurd. The only submarines operating in the area were American, we knew where they were and in any case, the chance of that particular UN enforcement mission still being in operation by the time a new shipborne helicopter was delivered, trialled and cleared for deck landings would have been near impossible.

The Canadian public reacted very, very angrily to Campbell's ridiculous suggestions.

Chretien prior to being elected in 1993 did not hide his intention, should he form a government, to cancel the Ch-148/149 order. In fact, it was a campaign promise. Whether any of us liked it or not at the time, anyone involved in naval operations and naval air knew that, at the very least, the Petrel was not going to go into production.

It would complete the picture of Conservative promises to re-equip the armed forces. They promised a lot and delivered nothing.

When the navy and air force started making noises, after the Conservative legacy of a federal deficit was brought under control, the Chretien government gave the Canadian Forces approval to go shopping for an interim replacement shipborne aircraft on either a leased or used-but-serviceable basis. Several problems arose.

A revisit of the EH101 revealed that from delivery to actual employment took the Royal Navy five years. Not only that, there was nothing on the production line which Canada could buy off the shelf.

The only available USN helicopters were either far below the capability of the existing Canadian Sea Kings or were, in fact, Sea Kings - in worse condition than the Canadian air fleet.

British and European aircraft were either not being retired or were beyond useful service. The serviceable Royal Navy Sea Kings were being redirected to other uses and were not available.

I don't let the Liberals off the hook completely for this one. There was a point in the late 1990s when a rational assessment of the air fleet should have produced a competition to deliver a new shipborne helicopter by 2004. The contract wasn't even let until then when the Sea Kings had long since passed their useful lives as ASW helicopters.

However, MacKay is conveniently sidestepping one other point. The review of defence purchases, which the Harper government undertook after assuming power in 2006, set back every contract for new equipment by several months.

The Sikorsky H-92 Superhawk, designated the CH-148 Cyclone in Canada, was ordered in 2004 by the Liberal government of Paul Martin. When Harper's Conservatives took over, the CH-148 contract was not exempted from the delay incurred by the review.

The report by CanWest News Service says:

The first new Sikorsky aircraft was due in November, but that deadline has come and gone, sparking reports that the delivery is now three years behind schedule.

The delivery of the first aircraft is scheduled for November 2008 - not 2007.

As far as MacKay is concerned, the delay in acquiring a new shipborne helicopter goes to a pair of Conservative governments. The Mulroney regime for ordering something well out of the price tolerance of Canadian in the first place, and the Harper regime for contributing to a delay with an unnecessary review.

Not that we'd expect anything close to honesty out of MacKay.

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