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A sea of blue broken by occasional whitecaps inundated the Canada Aviation & Space Museum Sept. 27. The blue was hundreds of Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) uniforms while the whitecaps were courtesy of a scattering of naval personnel attending an RCAF change-of-command ceremony as LGen Yvan Blondin took over from the retiring LGen André Deschamps.
After Defence Minister Peter MacKay and the Chief of the Defence Staff, Gen Walt Natynczyck, and other dignitaries had paid tribute to Deschamps for his three years at the controls, Blondin’s few minutes with the media made it clear that he’s prepared to hold course as the RCAF grapples with a trio of key fleet replacements.
A CF-18 Hornet pilot with some 3,000 hours logged over 20 years, including early time on the Lockheed CT-33 Silver Star, Blondin – who had been Deschamps’ second-in-command at the RCAF over the past year in a career that included Squadron command and deployments in Europe and Afghanistan – fielded politically-charged questions with aplomb.
He initially was asked about how he planned to manage the RCAF at a time of economic restraint and, potentially, budget cuts at the Department of National Defence. “I’m an Air Force guy, so I’m not a politician,” he demurred. “For me, it’s like when I’m flying and there are clouds around, I need to deal with the weather. Economics is just one factor.”
As for any possibility of reduced RCAF capability as current fleets continue to age and replacements remain contentious, he pointed out that the Canadian Forces as a whole are part of the government. “We respond to priorities and . . . government policies. My job is to advise government on how to best deal with air capabilities.”
And what about the planned replacement for the current fleet of MacDonnell Douglas/Boeing CF-18s? Did Blondin think Canada should be considering aircraft other than the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II? Conceding that it is “a hot topic,” he said the ongoing discussions are “mostly political” and are part of a debate “that has to happen.” He said his job is essentially to advise Natynczyck’s successor, Air Force LGen Tom Lawson, who has yet to be sworn in, on the RCAF’s needs.
“I do not decide,” Blondin reiterated. “My predecessors have advised, given the mandate given to the Air Force, that the F-35 was probably the best airplane to do the job, and I truly believe that . . . the F-35, from all the airplanes that are available, is the best airplane out there.”
However, delays in the acquisition of a “next generation” fights prompted questions about how long the RCAF can keep the CF-18s flying. “It’s not like this airplane has a set date when the airplane’s going to fall apart,” he replied. “This is just like a car: the more you use it, how you use it’s going to define how long you can keep it. The F-18 is the same way. We estimate the life of the F-18 to be somewhere around the mid-2020s. Now, depending on how we fly it and how we adjust around it and if we decide to put money into it, it’s possible we could keep it extended by a few years.”
As a pilot whose career has been mainly in the twin-engine CF-18, did he have any issues with the fact that the F-35 is a single-engine aircraft?
Blondin pointed out that the number of engines was debated at length when the RCAF was considering replacing the CF-18’s predecessor, the Lockheed CF-104 Starfighter, which German pilots dubbed the “widow maker” after a series of crashes.
“I’m old enough, actually, to remember the discussion,” Blondin said. “The choice was between the (General Dynamics) F-16 and the F-18. . . . Some remember that ‘well, we’ll pick the F-18 because it has two engines.’ ” He said that while that was a factor in the decision to go with the twin-engined MacDonnell Douglas aircraft, it was not the determining factor. “We picked the F-18 because it was dual-role; it could do air-to-ground and it could do air-to-air.”
Blondin explained the trade-offs, pointing out that while two engines do bring “a measure of safety”, it also generally means added weight and a bigger fuselage. “If I have to go in combat . . . I want the smallest airplane possible so that the radar cannot see me from far way; I want the lightest airplane so that we can actually load more fuel and I have more range.”
With Arctic sovereignty an issue, questions have been asked about taking a single-engine aircraft with long-range missions in one of the most hostile environments in the world, far away from search and rescue (SAR) centres in the event of a bailout. “The Norwegians have flown a single engine in the Arctic for many years without a problem, so I feel very comfortable,” Blondin said.
“When I look at the F-35, if I had an airplane of the same quality that could deliver the same amount of technology and it could fit two engines in the same size . . . well, yeah, I’d take it. But if it’s not there and I’ve got a single engine and the technology and everything, I’m very happy to choose that airplane.”
Blondin also addressed the continued delays in two other fleet replacements, maritime helicopters and fixed-wing SAR. On the former, where several Sikorsky S-92s at Canadian Forces Base Shearwater, N.S., are still considered “interim” helicopters, he said only that “if you look at all the projects that the Air Force has gone through through the years, there are not too many projects that have been on time.”
His focus was on how aircraft are used. How they are acquired is up to the civilian side of DND and Public Works & Government Services Canada. “I’m continuing to operate the airplanes that I have and when I get a new one we’ll operate this.”
The same applied to the FSWAR replacements. “For me, I’m flying the airplanes I have as long as I have to,” he said. “And I will find ways to fly them . . . and I wait for somebody else to deliver airplanes.”