Wednesday, 26 September 2012


 The Snowbirds Demonstration Team (431 Squadron) fly the Canadair CT-114 Tutor. Purchased in 1960 the Tutors have served for over fifty years. No longer in service as trainers they are currently found flying only with the Snowbirds. Nothing lasts forever and the Government has announced plans to replace them by 2020.

With a replacement cost of $755 million being suggested it is bound to be a controversial issue. The usual suspects are already beginning to marshal their arguments for and against the replacements and even the continued existence of the Snowbirds Demonstration Team itself. (DND and former team members for, Steven Staples and the Rideau institute against)

I should declare a personal interest here. I have watched the Snowbirds at air shows, fly bys and practices from one side of the country to another for many years. I may not be entirely objective, I like the Snowbirds.

Public art is always going to be a hard sell. Who should pay for the art, whose lives does it enrich, are the artists benefiting more then the public? Good art is challenging and in truth few people like being challenged. It brings out the old fogie in all of us, “that’s not art, that’s just noise!” Many of the people who are unhappy with the existence of the Snowbirds don’t like to think of themselves as fogies, let’s face it, fogies probably never do.

One answer to the critics and to the need to provide value for the taxpayer’s money is to find other uses for the Snowbirds. Properly organized, equipped and tasked a “demonstration squadron” could have a variety of uses. It might mean fewer air shows, but at the same time it could answer some of the critic’s complaints while meeting more of the needs of the Canadian Forces.

For example, right now the R.C.A.F. has at least one flying squadron that has no aircraft. 414-Electronicwarfare squadron, based out of Gatineau Airport, Quebec, uses leased Dassault/Dornier Alpha jets provided by Top Aces Consulting. Needless to say the Top Aces jets do not have any CF markings and are not included in the CF aircraft inventory.

Leased aircraft from Top Aces, as well as others, provide support to the Army in training for their deployments as Forward Air Controllers and Red Air adversary support. Aircraft like this can simulate an attack on a ship, either as an opposition force, or as a cruise missile. In some cases, their role is even to augment the CF-18 crews in defending the ships. The DND also contracts for target towing for live fire targeting.

The kind of trainers being considered for Snowbird replacement aircraft are similar to the Alpha jets used by Top Aces (in fact an argument could be made that the cheapest thing to do would be to buy the Top Aces aircraft). We could use these aircraft to fulfill the functions we now use leased aircraft for. If you want to take this suggestion a step farther these aircraft could even be used operationally. As well as providing training for Army Forward Air Controllers, we could actually provide close air support for our Army. Big, fast, expensive fighters don’t make good close air support aircraft. Small, slower, cheaper aircraft often work better. (There is precedence for this kind of thing; the UK actually tasked the Red Arrows with Air Defence duties during the cold war.)

The economic arguments, let alone the military ones, for ending the lease agreement and providing our own aircraft instead are reinforced when the aircraft involved are already being procured for the Snowbirds. These recommendations for additional uses for the Snowbirds and their aircraft would work with almost any reasonable, turbo-prop, new build jet or second hand aircraft that the DND eventually purchases for use by the Snowbirds.

There is another argument in favour of retaining the Snowbirds. Some factors are unquantifiable but they do matter. There is something to be said for benefits of maintaining elite units. Things like esprit-de-corps and the willingness of pilots to trust one another with their lives matter even in an age of drones and “video game wars”.  They don’t count for as much in peacetime, especially because they can’t be quantified, but by every account they are all important when the men and women we pay to do violence for us are called upon to do their real jobs.