31 March 2005

RAF Goose Bay: a fond farewell

Today is the last day for the Royal Air Force detachment at Goose Bay.

CBC keeps referring to it as the "British" Royal Air Force as if there was another one.

In honour of this event, ending decades of British presence at the Goose, I offer up a column I wrote for the old Independent last year at this time. The federal defence minister had announced a bunch of obvious things and the local concerned citizens committee was still flogging old ideas about training.

What has changed in a year? Not much, sadly. The locals have switched from more low level training to an X-band radar. Go back and check my archives for early March to see some posts that point out the radar idea is not much better than the old Goose Bay obsession.

When it is all added up, though, the government still hasn't bothered to find anyone who actually udnerstands defence and can develop a sensible policy to get what can be had for Goose Bay. At the very least someone with a clue can save everyone from chasing nonsensical ideas.

For what it is worth, here's the column:

The panic is on to save Goose Bay.

Anybody paying attention has known for a few years the allies are reducing their training at Goose Bay. Defence minister David Pratt’s announcement the other day didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know: in 2006, the current training agreements expire, but in the meantime there will be some activity. Apparently, Canada is going to look into setting up a new training centre at Goose Bay that let’s pilots fly supersonic, drop live weapons and do just about anything they would do in wartime except kill people. To make sure training stays for those last two years, the federal government is prepared to charge Germany, Britain and a couple of others only for their gas and sandwiches. Everything else is free.

There aren’t many surprises in all that. NATO air forces have been changing in the past 10 years, in part to save money, and in part to keep up with the role of air power in the modern world. The changes have meant fewer aircraft, for the most part, and the mission profiles have seen the low altitude role reduced dramatically. There is also an even greater need for training with allies, especially the United States.

The Luftwaffe, for example, has reduced the number of aircraft it flies and consolidated training in New Mexico. Why New Mexico? Well for one thing, the weather lets them fly round the clock all year. Second, the desert terrain is more like the land they might be flying over operationally. Third, the German pilots get to train with their major ally, the Americans. Fourth, they can also consolidate a bunch of different training for the army and air force, thereby saving a ton of money. Fifth, they can use the existing facilities in the U.S. that cover everything they need to do – supersonic, chaff, live weapons. Costs are cheaper and they are available today – not after a lengthy, expensive and sometimes difficult political process needed to start building from scratch as we would do at Goose Bay. Existing facilities at New Mexico are such an attractive option for the Germans that they invested more than US$40 million of their own money to build new hangars and offices there in 2000.

The slow-down at Goose has been coming for years, not like a Stealth fighter, but like a B-36 throttling up at the end of the runway. You couldn’t miss it, even if you were dead.

Officials in Newfoundland and Labrador didn’t miss it; they just followed a historic local pattern of ignoring the opportunities until a crisis emerged. Defence spending brings a lot of money to this province. Hundreds of millions of dollars comes from bases like Goose Bay, or from the reserve forces in the province. The money they spend comes in the form of salaries and purchased goods and services from local companies. In addition, though, a growing number of businesses throughout the province are landing contracts manufacturing components for military equipment or supplying communications and other high technology services. They generate as much or more in the private sector than the federal government could ever spend here. Those companies work without the recognition and support they should be receiving from government.

It really is time to take a new approach to defence. One of the most productive things the Williams government could do is hire someone who knows defence issues. Get someone who speaks the language understood by defence officials in the public and private sectors. Set him or her to work securing what we already have and identifying new opportunities for increasing public and private sector investment. The amounts at stake here for the whole province are considerably more than the $100 million some say the Goose training program generates. That new approach would ensure we are acting before decisions are made, not like Goose Bay, nuclear submarines, coastal patrol vessels, the Gander base or the NATO air weapons training centre where we have never been on the leading edge.

In the usual panic with these things, we wind up losing money. We discount our services, as defence minister David Pratt announced last week and as the Goose Bay lobby endorses. Worse still, we wind up competing in areas where others have a big advantage. Odds are really good that in building new infrastructure like supersonic and live weapons ranges, the taxpayers of this province and Canada will wind up eating the costs. That is in stark contrast to New Mexico where the Germans invested their own money to train. Wow!

A couple of weeks ago, The Sunday Independent profiled a local defence contracting coalition, Northstar Network. Companies in that venture are working to get a piece of the multi-billion dollar defence business, something they have already shown they can do. Local companies can compete successfully against the best in the world. They have shown it already. They play to our strengths. They plan. They work. They reap the benefits in jobs and profits.

There’s an old military saying: fail to plan; plan to fail. In this province, we know the truth of that axiom in just about every sector of the economy. It’s time to learn from our mistakes.