The position paper was reported by David Pugliese at Defence Watch (2) who had earlier reported (3) that Jake Jacobson, Chief of Staff to the Assistant Deputy Minister (Materiel) was talking about Canada’s C-17 purchase and how it had been such a successful procurement. He pointed out that it was so successful the Canadian Forces was looking at purchasing a fifth C-17 to add to its fleet. Jacobson has since retired. Here is what the RCAF has to say about it at the time.
“DND/CF briefly considered exploring options to purchase a fifth CC-177,” RCAF public affairs officer, Captain Jean-François Lambert told Defence Watch. “As the option was explored further, it was determined that it was currently not affordable and has been put on indefinite hold.”
The Department of Defences’ own web site (4) however, describes the aircraft in glowing terms, lauding their usefulness, saying in part;
“Canada’s four CC-177 Globemaster III strategic airlifters were delivered in 2007-2008. The CC-177 in Canada helps provide everything from the rapid delivery of troops and cargo transport to oversized combat equipment from coast to coast to coast and to anywhere else worldwide.”
On the other hand Stephen Priestley at CASR has written an editorial entitled “In Praise of Portly Planes – The Air Force Association of Canada Wants Another C-17” in which he points out the inconsistencies in the AFAC proposal. (5)
The Air Force Association of Canada now advocates us buying another C-17. The main reason stated is that the first go-around contract leaves us an aircraft short when the mandatory maintenance bell dings (well, we don't want to void that add-on warranty, do we?). Nor do we want to be caught short on the CC-177s' capabilities – which AFAC starts by praising but that former C-17 Project Management Office staffers now say never existed.
One aim of DND’s Airlift Capability Project (Strategic) was to garner a rough-field capability not available with leased airlifters while, at the same time, giving complete control over these new assets. Well, it seems that the C-17 Global Support Program ensures that our control is limited. And FWSAR PMO personnel, who once assured us that the C-17 could operate off rough fields in the Arctic, now tell us that we will need to purchase different aircraft for that.
With arguments as sound as these, who wouldn't be sold on the Air Force Association of Canada's procurement choices? But wait. Before we're on the hook for another Globemaster III, would the Airpower Advocacy Committee care to tot up how many Billions we've spent so far? How much is gone on the first four ... including the in-service support maintenance contract; dedicated C-17 ground equipment; new hangars; required upgrades to runways, taxiways, parking pans; etc, etc. Just curious (and neither our government nor the Air Force have been quick to let us know). And then, tell us how much more for your fifth CC-177.
In this case Priestly and others who do not see the need for more C-17’s are mistaken.
The “mandatory maintenance” here is in reference to the Global C-17 Sustainment Partnership, (6) a program under which Canada benefits from economies of scale for maintenance and repair spread over most of the C-17’s produced. It is no more a hindrance to our sovereign use of the Globemasters then any other international support agreement.
The issue of the C-17’s rough field performance is essentially a non-issue. The fact that the large jet powered aircraft can, under some circumstances, land on smaller airfields is an advantage that may even occasionally be of (7) use, but it is not a capability that, given their cost and limited numbers, will ever be used much. The whole concept is limited not by the aircraft's ability to land but rather the airfields ability to sustain repeated use by heavy aircraft. Maneuvering room on available ramp space is also a limiting factor that means that, in general, large expensive aircraft will not normally use small cheap airfields.
What they can do is deliver large loads over intercontinental distances on short notice at high speeds. This is a capability that a country like Canada needs to have, both for domestic purposes and to fulfill those international tasks that more and more fall to middle powers. As has been pointed out, (8) there is more then one way to exert influence and in many cases it will be far easier from the perspective of domestic politics to do it with cargo aircraft then with F-18’s or whatever replaces them.
The production line for C-17’s is coming to an end and there is only a short time left if Canada wishes to have more of these aircraft. (9) Other nations have lined up to buy them, but Boeing can only stretch out the production line for so long after the U.S. Air Force finishes its procurement run. Boeing has delivered 250 C-17s worldwide, including 218 to the U.S. Air Force active duty, Guard and Reserve units. A total of 32 C-17s have been delivered to Australia, Canada, India, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the 12-member Strategic Airlift Capability initiative of NATO and Partnership for Peace nations.(10)
While Stephen Priestly is right to ask how much our current C-17’s are costing us, it is also true that given investments in infrastructure and training that have already been made newly purchased C-17’s will not cost as much proportionality as the first four aircraft.
As events in Mali (11) have proved nobody ever has enough airlift and Canada is no exception. Having at least one, or more, C-17's to cover shortfalls caused by scheduled maintenance and to increase our airlift capacity seems like a no-brainer.
(4) CC-177 Globemaster III strategic airlifters, Overview