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Challenger challenge: With jets grounded, how to evacuate injured troops?

OTTAWA - With two of Canada's controversial Challenger jets grounded and the fate of two more up in the air, the Canadian military is scrambling to figure out how to fill the fleet's often unheralded role as emergency life-savers.

Two of the aging jets, best known for ferrying around VIPs and government officials, were retired last week by the Conservative government, which used the decision to burnish its fiscal management credentials.

A news release said the estimated $1.5 million in savings per year would be redirected to other "higher operational needs," such as search and rescue.

But internal documents, obtained by The Canadian Press, show that a smaller fleet means the air force may have to use larger, more costly aircraft for important military missions, including medical evacuation.

Absent from Friday's news release from National Defence was the fact that the two jets were due to be retired anyway — they're old, spare parts are scarce and their outdated avionics prevent them from being flown overseas.

Internal air force memos show two of the remaining four jets are in the same situation and must be decommissioned before the end of the year, leaving just two jets based with 412 Transport Squadron in Ottawa.

The executive jets have long been juicy political targets — especially for the Conservatives, who railed against their use while in opposition, casting the sleek CC-144s as emblematic of Liberal excess.

Since coming to office in 2006, the Conservatives have repeatedly pointed out how little they use them, but have also been caught out in their own controversies — notably high-flying trips by both former defence minister Peter MacKay and retired general Walt Natynczyk.

The Conservatives have often said the jets spend more time flying empty just to keep the pilots trained than they do shuttling dignitaries.

But the Challengers also have a much more significant job: transporting wounded and injured troops back to Canada, and helping out with non-combat evacuations and disaster assistance.

The remaining jets will still be reserved for use by the prime minister and Governor General, and can be on stand-by for medical evacuations.

But a Dec. 20, 2012, memo said that any conflict "can be mitigated through the use of other RCAF aircraft or commercial air travel." In an emergency, the air force said it can press either the C-130J Hercules transports or C-150 Polaris Airbuses into service.

"There will be a corresponding financial cost," adds the memo, which recommends "further analysis and direction."

The average cost per flying hour for the Challengers ranges between $5,200 and $13,700, depending on the age of the jet, according to the memo.

Figures from the Pentagon show the new model Hercules runs between $9,111 and $14,014 per hour. National Defence refused to provide an average for the C-150, but a 2011 memo to the vice chief of defence staff said the cost of operating the Polaris in a medevac role would be “triple the cost per hour” of the Challenger.

Even still, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson figures taxpayers will still come out ahead.

“The government takes its role as a steward of public resources very seriously and makes every effort to ensure taxpayers’ money is well invested and the men and women of Canada’s armed forces have the equipment they need to stay safe and perform their duties effectively,” Nicholson said in Friday's release.

The Canadian Press asked National Defence earlier this month about the fate of the four oldest Challengers, but the department did not respond.

NDP defence critic Jack Harris questioned whether taxpayers would see the promised savings, which he described as political window dressing.

"Certainly politics is governing how they are trying to spin this," Harris said.

"But the effect is to reduce a military capability while retaining the VIP capacity. They may try to cast this as being prudent, but if we have to spend more money to accomplish same task, that's not good for taxpayers."

The air force clearly needs some kind of small, fast, long-range jet for specific tasks that should not come at the expense of dignitary travel, he added.

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