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$35M Military Plane Upgrades Highlight Canada's Procurement Delays

In what amounts to yet another tacit admission that the military's procurement system is in dire trouble, the Conservative government has quietly announced it's restarting a twice-cancelled plan to extend the life of the CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft.

The news arrived last week in the tabling in Parliament of supplementary estimates.

The estimates are a request for approval of additional government spending, in this case nearly $35 million "to support projects that will help extend the life of 14 CP-140 Aurora long-range patrol aircraft."

The military has undertaken a series of refits and modernizations of its 18 aircraft Aurora fleet, beginning in 1998.

The Aurora long-range patrol aircraft entered service in Canada in 1981. The 33-year old fleet is used to survey and monitor Canada's maritime approaches and to participate in the hunt against foreign submarines. But they are also useful to assist in search and rescue.

More recently upgraded variants of the planes have been used by Canada to create maps of the ground in Afghanistan and to provide surveillance and targeting information to fighter jets during the attack on Libya.

The military's upgrade program has cost roughly $1.7 billion since 1998 and has included scores of different projects, from upgraded sensors and surveillance gear to new structures to support aging wings.

In 2007, the military decided to restructure its upgrade program and only completely modernize 10 of the 18 aircraft, while it started looking for a replacement.

The cancellation of the modernization program was, at the time, a big deal.

That decision happened at about the same time Canada began exploring the purchase of large, armed, unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — to patrol and survey both at home and overseas. The military even created a program to purchase UAVs that it called JUSTAS — the Joint Uninhabited Surveillance and Target Acquisition System.

But that program, despite at least seven years of Canadian effort and massive advances in the use of UAV technology by allies like the United States, has yet to yield a purchase.

The proposed fleet of drones would inevitably have taken some pressure off of the Auroras. As would have the Conservative government's 2007 plan to purchase a new aircraft to replace the Aurora: the so-called Canadian Multi-mission Aircraft (CMA) also featured in the government's 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy, with an initial operating capability of 2017.

But that project has faltered as well, and like the JUSTAS program, and the program to buy new search planes, and the one to replace the CF-18 Hornet fighter jets, there's no telling when the military might actually get close to buying a new aircraft.

In the case of the drones and the multi-mission aircraft, a lack of progress had direct implications for the future of the Aurora fleet.

Military briefing notes obtained by CBC News under access to information laws indicate the defence department had begun to reckon with its lack of substantive progress back in 2011 when it came back around to the idea of increasing the size of the fully modernized Aurora fleet from 10 to 18, as opposed to "aggressively pursuing the procurement" of drones and replacement patrol aircraft.

The documents show the decision to cancel the Aurora Capability Extension program, as that plan was called, was made in September 2011 after a meeting between the then chief of the air staff, Lieutenant-General André Deschamps, and the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, Vice-Admiral Bruce Donaldson.

"It was decided there was no longer enough time to implement the ACE proposal, and that the Air Force needed to re-focus its efforts on finding an appropriate replacement capability," the briefing note says.

But it's not clear that re-focusing of Air Force efforts actually occurred.

The briefing notes suggest just a few months later, the Aurora Capability Extension was back on the table, winding its way through meetings of senior generals and into a so-called Capability-Based Planning assessment.

"[The Aurora fleet] remains highly relevant to maritime surface surveillance and with an appropriate sensor suite it will be highly useful as an over-land [Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance] platform," that assessment concluded.

In November 2012 the military tried to make its case to then defence minister Peter MacKay in an "options assessment," and then again in a "decision brief."

Those documents suggested without more of the fully modernized Auroras the military was at risk of failing to meet the duties set out for it in the government's 2008 defence strategy.

Of course, that strategy had called for the military to acquire new capabilities such as drones and an Aurora replacement aircraft by 2017. The briefing notes suggest the earliest date that now might happen is 2020, and some Auroras could still be flying in 2030 — almost 50 years after they were introduced into the Canadian fleet.

Keeping the Auroras flying that long would require a large fleet of upgraded planes. Last week's estimates suggest the government is willing to go at least part way there, offering upgrades to four more Auroras, bringing the size of the modernized fleet to 14.

It's not entirely clear what the upgrades mean for the government's 2008 promise to equip the Canadian Forces with new patrol aircraft or drones, but it almost certainly means both programs are delayed.

That question was put to the office of defence minister Rob Nicholson. His press secretary responded.

"The RCAF has recommended that we modernize the Aurora," Johanna Quinney said by e-mail.

"We are committed to maintaining our maritime surveillance capability and these upgrades will allow us to continue this role.

"The augmentation of the Aurora fleet will extend the lifespan of these [aircraft] to provide service at the best value for taxpayers."

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