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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Air force pushed for fifth heavy-lift plane as DND budget axe was falling

OTTAWA - The Canadian air force was pushing to buy a new US$169-million heavy-lift transport plane two years ago even as National Defence — the army in particular — was embarking on a painful budget-cutting exercise, internal documents show.

With Canada's costly war in Afghanistan finally at an end, the budget axe was falling on the Canadian Forces in 2012 when senior commanders were nonetheless arguing that a fifth C-17 transport was essential.

"Canada's experience in Afghanistan and other theatres of operation has shown that fifth (C-17) aircraft would prove a highly beneficial asset to the Canadian Forces," said a briefing document dated Feb. 14, 2012, and prepared by air force staff in anticipation of a defence policy update.

There was "a strong operational and business case" for making the purchase, the commanders say in the documents, adding that they intended "to pursue this procurement aggressively" in 2013.

The Conservatives will soon publish their first annual list of military procurement plans and it's unclear if the gigantic C-17 aircraft will make the cut. But one defence expert says the pitch, coming as it did during a massive austerity drive, underlines the need for the government to finally lay out a clear, coherent defence policy.

The proposal dramatically demonstrates what happens without an overarching defence policy that spells out what is — and what is not — a priority, said Dave Perry, an analyst with the Conference of Defence Associations.

"No doubt you can make a compelling argument for more strategic lift," Perry said.

"You could pretty much always find a use for those. I think the real question is, how do you weigh those against other potential procurements."

National Defence spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier wouldn't say Monday whether the aircraft still fits into the military's future plans.

"As part of proper planning, the Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces have a responsibility to explore various options to better serve Canada," Le Bouthillier said in an email.

The documents, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, show the air force proposed using funds left over in the department's corporate account.

The department had allocated $1.8 billion to complete the initial purchase of four Globemasters, but one of the briefings says only $1.4 billion was expended.

The pitch came as the Conservatives delivered a tough, deficit-slashing budget in 2012 that proposed taking fully one-fifth of all federal cuts out of National Defence.

Taken together with cuts resulting from a 2008 strategic review and additional spending cuts in 2010, the army was dealing with a budget that had shrunk by as much as 22 per cent.

But the air force nonetheless argued that adding another C-17 would expand its capability in disaster and humanitarian missions, while also easing the burden on the existing fleet.

A purchase represented a "unique time-sensitive opportunity for DND," said the briefing, which noted that the manufacturer, Boeing, planned to close its C-17 assembly line in 2014.

"The acquisition of a fifth (C-17) will provide a significantly increased ability to meet airlift demand that is within technical, operational and financial constraints."

Despite having spent billions on C-17s and new C-130J Hercules transports, the Canadian military is still somewhat dependent on contracted heavy-lift aircraft — pressure that would ease if the pitch were successful, the report said.

National Defence has been struggling to deliver on a whole host of hardware, including ships, army trucks, helicopters and fixed-wing search-and-rescue planes.

That's one of the reasons the government launched a major overhaul of procurement, delivering a strategy earlier this year with much fanfare. But the government still needs to deliver an overall defence vision, said Perry — something that makes sense, gives clear guidance to the different branches and tames the competition for resources.

"It's all finite resources and these are all dollars competing with each other," he said. "These C-17s are quite new; versus how old are our fixed-wing (search) Buffalos? How old are our supply ships?"

The federal cabinet was slated to consider a rewritten defence strategy last December, but there has been no word on when it will be approved, let alone made public.

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