Cpl. Mark Gibeault missed the big news conference. Many of his colleagues gathered around TVs last week at the Comox, B.C., armed forces base to applaud Defence Minister Arthur Eggleton's long-awaited announcement that Canada would buy 15 new search-and-rescue helicopters. But Gibeault was busy in a hangar, preparing to yank a worn-out engine from an aging Aurora patrol airplane. For Eggleton, the day marked the end of a political struggle to gain approval from a skeptical federal cabinet for the controversial procurement deal. For Gibeault, though, it was just another shift laboring to maintain Canada's often outdated - in some cases, nearly decrepit - military hardware.
How many billions Ottawa spends upgrading that old equipment in the next few years will depend largely on Eggleton's skill in piloting his department through the political turbulence stirred up by the $790-million helicopter purchase. The government was dragged reluctantly into selecting the Cormorant, a renamed version of the EH-101 chopper chosen by the Tories in a much larger deal that was scrapped by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien soon after he took power in 1993. Some Liberals grumbled that defence bureaucrats drafted the highly technical specifications for the procurement contract to ensure that the aircraft they coveted, the Cormorant, came out on top. If so, there may be a price to pay. "The cabinet feels it was sandbagged by the department," said one senior defence industry official. "The Liberals may be so ticked off they won't be inclined to approve the next project."
Eggleton seems braced to take on any such resistance. In an interview with Maclean's following the Cormorant decision, he was adamant about the need to proceed with a series of other major purchases, from a second batch of helicopters and new submarines, to expensive upgrades for CF-18 fighter jets and those Aurora patrol planes. "A lot of these projects have been stalled for a while and they need to be brought forward, in a framework that's affordable," he argued. Eggleton insists, however, that he is not joining the lineup of cabinet ministers at Finance Minister Paul Martin's door pleading for a slice of the much-discussed "fiscal dividend" - the new federal money that will be made available by a balanced budget, expected this year or next. Instead, Eggleton said the purchases can be funded out of the $8.5-billion annual budget already approved for the defence department.
Still, there is no chance of a smooth ride through cabinet for at least one of those multibillion-dollar projects. A plan to buy up to 35 military helicopters for about $2 billion is bound to stick in the throats of many Liberals. Having won last week's search-and-rescue contract, Britain's GKN Westland and Italy's Agusta SpA would be the clear front-runners. If they win again, the combination of the two contracts would appear to all but restore the entire Tory plan to buy 43 EH-101 helicopters - the very deal Chrétien slammed in his 1993 election campaign as too costly. Many defence observers expect Eggleton to allow for a cooling-off period before proposing a call for bids on the military helicopters.
Nearly as controversial as the helicopter saga is Ottawa's scheme to acquire four slightly used submarines from Britain. (At present, Canada has only three subs.) The purchase, estimated at nearly $1 billion, would largely be paid for in a swap involving the training of British troops in Canada. Under such a deal, Canada would waive the fees it charges for training foreign troops. "We've had this opportunity for some time," Eggleton said. "Closure has to be brought to it before long. Last month, we resumed discussions with the Brits about it." The problem is that submarines are a tough sell. Critics say they are rarely useful in the peacekeeping missions Canadians tend to favor, and are less effective than ships and aircraft in nonmilitary coastal-patrol roles, such as fisheries inspections and chasing drug-runners. "I think there would be no public support for subs," said Bill Robinson, a researcher with the Waterloo, Ont.-based peace group Project Ploughshares. By contrast, Robinson said, even his organization sees merit in buying helicopters and armored vehicles for peacekeeping.
More mundane than buying high-tech choppers and subs, but potentially nearly as expensive, is the need to upgrade the air force's CF-18s, in service since the 1980s, and its 1970s-vintage Auroras. Along with general refurbishing, the fighter jets need new weapons systems and the patrol planes more modern radar. The combined cost of the two projects could be $2.5 billion. And while investing to keep those older aircraft in service seems frugal enough, even these projects come with political pitfalls. Different companies - and their home provinces - will vie for the lucrative work. Ottawa remembers all too well how Brian Mulroney's Tories suffered in 1986, after awarding the last CF-18 maintenance contract to a Montreal firm. A Winnipeg company had been recommended to cabinet by defence officials and the decision to ignore that advice fuelled western alienation for years. As Eggleton is fast learning, the task of a peacetime Canadian minister of defence largely amounts to defending where the money goes.
January 19, 1998