Thursday Bravo Zulu

mnd_hellyerThe Hon. Paul T. Hellyer
Minister of National Defence, 1964-1967

While researching a favourite aircraft (the Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar) and its service with the RCAF, I ran across some interesting tidbits about one former Minister of National Defence, the Hon. Paul Hellyer.

Mr. Hellyer is known to younger Canadians as a strident and not entirely coherent advocate of UFO conspiracies.  To older Canadians, especially those with military service, he is known as the man who brought about service armageddon in 1968—by amalgamating the RCAF, RCN, and Army into ill-defined roles and responsibilities; also stripping them of their proud “Royal” nomenclature.  A somewhat harebrained decision whose consequences still reverberate today.

The post-unification period of the Canadian Forces has been a continuous contest between a hollow concept and traditional organizational demands. Insofar as traditional demands have their roots in enduring conditions—in the nature of warfare on land, in the air, and at sea—unification, a foreign element, has been an obstacle to the logical evolution of the Canadian Forces. As Henry Eccles predicted in his classic work, Military Concepts And Philosophy, “without conceptual unity the whole planning and execution process becomes uncertain, slow and contradictory with frustration and defeat as the probable end”.  Because there is still no consensus within the defence establishment about what unification means in an operational and structural sense, and because, like the proverbial Albatross, it cannot be discarded, no alternative concept or structure, such as unified command and service control, can take the place of unification. Therefore, endless and increasingly confusing ‘organizational fixes and functional reviews’ are suggested, and many are tried. Few, however, are then completely rejected, with the result that the Canadian Forces have come to represent a hotchpotch of organizations spawned from many, and at times contradictory concepts.

— Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas Bland.  Reviewing Hellyer’s autiobiography “Damn the Torpedoes: My Fight to Unify the Canadian Forces”, Dalhousie University Center for Foreign Policy Studies, October 1990.

What is less well-known, however, is that Mr. Hellyer was not merely a prodigious font of bad ideas.  He also had one very good idea:

In his autobiography, Damn the Torpedoes, former defence minister Paul Hellyer recounts at some length his mid-1960s campaign to transform Canada’s military air transport capability. Concerned about press reports of “hairline cracks” in the existing Fairchild C-119 tactical transports and sceptical of RCAF assurances that the C-119 fleet would remain “serviceable for years to come,” Hellyer made an unannounced visit to the repair site in Toronto. Flabbergasted by what amounted to the remanufacturing of the aging C-119 and annoyed by the RCAF’s fighter-driven reluctance “to spend money on air transport,” Hellyer moved quickly.

In short order, the Pearson minority government jettisoned the C-119, traded in the three survivors of the four Lockheed CC-130Bs acquired (astutely) by the previous Diefenbaker government and placed multiple orders for the newest iteration of the Hercules, the C-130E. The net result, by 1968, was a modern and essentially homogenous fleet of 24 CC-130E Hercules aircraft. Arguably the most cost-effective acquisition in the history of Canadian defence procurement, the CC-130E for decades provided the indispensable core of Canada’s military air transport system.

Subsequent governments, including those of Pierre Trudeau (five early CC-130H), Brian Mulroney (two new-build CC-130H, although the decision to acquire these aircraft was announced during John Turner’s ill-fated 1984 election campaign, two second-hand CC-130H and five CC-130H tanker-transports) and Jean Chretien (two stretched CC-130H-30), added to the fleet, but even today, the CC-130E fleet constitutes almost two-thirds of the 32 surviving Hercules (that is, nineteen CC-130E, four CC-130H-73, two CC-130H-84, five CC-130H-90 and two CC-130H-30). Indeed, one of the primary causes of the pending meltdown of the hard-pressed CC-130E fleet – one aircraft has already been withdrawn from active service – was the failure of successive Canadian governments to acquire additional C-130Hs in the 1980s and early-to-mid-1990s. Another was the much earlier failure to conclude a tentative deal for the Lockheed C-141 strategic airlifter.

— Martin Shadwick. Comment—”The Labours of Hercules“, Canadian Military Journal.

[emphasis mine]

So the man that destroyed the Canadian military’s links to centuries-old tradition, roles and nomenclature, giving rise to decades of logistical and organisational confusion, also managed to provide something cost-effective and absolutely essential—the backbone of today’s tactical transport fleet.  And he did it in a timely fashion, against the wishes of the CF brass of the day.  Thinking only of the CC-130s (put unification aside, for now), try and imagine any other MND in the past decade doing something as radical and useful.  Unthinkable.

Thumbs down on unification and the half-amalgamated, half-not structure we are stuck with today; but a big thumbs up (even a bravo zulu) on the insightful, efficient Herc purchase.

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