12 WING: Can Shearwater be Saved?
© 2006 FrontLine Defence (Vol 3, No 5)

A determined rearguard campaign to roll back the clock on the sale of nearly half of 12 Wing’s base in Shearwater, Nova Scotia, seems to have failed despite cogent arguments for its preservation as a key element of Canada’s strategic capability and cabinet-level commitments to review the original decision.

Driven mainly by retired officers and Halifax-area politicians at all levels, the campaign began almost as the ink was drying on a 1994 federal budget announce­ment and a 1995 cabinet document confirming the plan. In them, the Liberal administration of then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien approved the divestiture of property to Canada Lands Company (CLC), a Crown agency established in 1995 “to create financial and community value” from former federal real estate.

The decision was predicated on the notion that much of the former CFB Shearwater, south of Dartmouth on the east side of Halifax harbour, was surplus to operational requirements in a post-Cold War era. However, the emergence of other global threats, notably the need to deal with international terrorism at its roots, has resurrected the debate about the need for a centralized strategic and tactical marine and airlift capability. Critics of the divestment argue that Canada’s planned acquisition of four Boeing C-17 Loadmaster IIIs to give DND its own strategic airlift capability underscores the need to preserve the base in its entirety.

The sale to CLC of some 373 hectares for $1.5 million was formally concluded in 2002. However, critics took hope from DND’s realization that offshore oil rig repairs in the harbour infringed on the flight path for a shorter runway retained mainly for helicopter operations. Lengthy negotiations eventually led to a “value-for-value land swap” this summer that saw three parcels, totalling 154.83ha, returned to DND in exchange for 34ha of other land and what CLC describes as “very slight monetary compensation.”

The sale, which includes the base’s longest runway, has left 12 Wing with 391ha, CLC with 252ha and the Canadian Coast Guard with just over 11ha.

12 Wing flies 28 CH-124 Sikorsky Sea Kings deployed to shipboard operations using the smaller 7200' runway that is to be rebuilt but reduced to 3500'. The Sea Kings are due to be replaced by CH-148 Sikorsky Cyclones, starting in late 2008.

Parallel to the harbour, the longer runway (9200' with ORs), has been on a reduced maintenance schedule ever since CFB Shearwater’s fixed-wing operations were transferred to 14 Wing at Greenwood, 150 kilometres southwest of Halifax. Greenwood is home to 404 and 415 Maritime Patrol Squadrons (flying 13 Lockheed CP 140 Auroras), 404 Maritime Patrol & Training Squadron, and 413 Transport & Rescue Squadron (which flies four Lockheed CC-130 Hercules transports for army support, humanitarian and search and rescue work as well as a fleet of EHI CH-149 Cormorant SAR helicopters).

The fact that 14 Wing is a major economic driver in the Annapolis valley, with 2,050 regular and reserve military personnel and 550 civilian employees, would explain why Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly has been part of the campaign to preserve Shearwater. Last April, the provincial legislature unanimously endorsed a resolution in support of Shearwater as an ideal base for overseas expeditionary deployment.

Former CFB Shearwater commander John Cody, now Atlantic Canada representative for General Dynamics, whose current focus is getting the facility ready for the arrival of the new maritime helicopters, says that even after the late July land swap, opponents still don’t believe it’s a “done” deal. “There is still a lot of resistance,” he says, adding that while there is a case for keeping Shearwater in its original format, “inaccuracies and emotions” may have comprised the debate.

The main lobbying effort in Ottawa has fallen to Halifax-area Members of Parliament, notably Conservative backbencher Bill Casey and Peter Stoffer of the New Democratic Party. Stoffer has pressed for a review for years, and Casey succeeded last February in getting Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor to agree to such a review after the former army general had been in the portfolio only a few days. Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay, the political minister for all of Atlantic Canada, evidently also had been copied on various missives.

Opinions on both sides have been vigorous. Stoffer has argued for years that CFB Shearwater should be kept “intact” and points out that before he was elected to Parliament, he was on the frontlines of a successful movement to stop the base from being closed altogether. “I wish they would have kept the entire area as a strategic asset,” he says. “They’re making a mistake because if anything happens along the eastern seaboard of the United States, they’ll be looking for place to go.”

There is no disputing the fact that Shearwater, in its original format, would have been an ideal location for launching the Canadian Expeditionary Forces Command. For the better part of a century, Halifax has been the embarkation point for convoys, naval task forces and army units. With the new Chief of the Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, having reorganized and revitalized the military, the pro-Shearwater forces continue to insist that Halifax should remain the hub of East Coast military operations.

Late this summer, it was confirmed that DND was considering the virtually permanent charter of civilian shipping capacity to carry heavy equipment abroad rather than relying on aircraft charters. “Early indications suggest… that we could see this, at the very least, pay for itself inside of three years, possibly cost us an appreciable amount less and deliver stuff faster,” said Col. Mike Boomer, an air force project officer.

He explained that when the Canadian Forces wants to deploy a battalion-size presence into a theatre, other countries can be using the landing strips and runways. “That can become a limiting factor,” he said, adding that studies indicate “we can actually shave a day or two off of a very large movement by going by sea.”

DND recently confirmed that the Leopard tanks scheduled for deployment into Afghanistan can be carried only one at a time on the huge Antonov transports being considered for charter. The tanks’ utility, however, could be compromised because the Canadian Forces do not have enough tank-support vehicles for the mission.

“We are going to rotate a new unit every six months into Afghanistan,” said Col Boomer. “If they come with new equipment because they do slightly ­different jobs, then we can move that equipment by sea, which is much less expensive than by air.”

Deployment of strategic airlift capacity from Greenwood is possible in that its two runways are 8000' long. The Boeing C-17s can land inside of 4000' but requires 7600' for takeoff with full payload. Boeing Canada Vice-President Al DeQuetteville points out that the U.S. Air Force C-17, which ferried the first Canadian Battle Group to Afghanistan in 2002, landed in 4000', with a full load, on a crater-shortened Kandahar runway, at night, and at an altitude of some 3300'.

While the strategic airlift issue seems essentially moot now, the fact that Greenwood’s port facilities are 40km away from the airbase (Shearwater’s deepwater port was an immediate part of the original base) has been seized on by critics as evidence that Greenwood will not be as effective in meeting newly minted “Joint” Canadian Forces emphasis.

MGen Lewis MacKenzie, a Nova Scotia native who earned a reputation for candor long before retiring from the Canadian Forces in 1993, has been pressing for the creation of a Marine Corps-style capability for years. Acknowledging in an interview that he never had the rank to make it happen, he notes that he and like-minded former officers were “delighted” by former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin’s agreement to consider the notion, and that the Conservative Party (for which he ran unsuccessfully as an Ontario candidate in 1997) also “seemed to have come aboard.”

After the property swap had been finalized, MacKenzie dismissed the decision to “chop up” Shearwater as a “travesty,” particularly in light of the proximity of one of the best harbours in Canada being adjacent to the long runway and the ready accessibility of troops at Gagetown.

Others in the “Save-Shearwater” alliance claim that since the change of government in Ottawa, there has been an increase in non-partisan support for “the recognition and need to exploit Shearwater’s immediate and long-term utility.” However, they also lament the Conservative minority government’s “strangely prolonged delay and silence” in the months leading up to the low-key announcement of the property swap that effectively sealed Shearwater’s fate.

Their declaration that the “immediate and long-term consequences” of losing the long runway “will be far-reaching and disastrous” will only be proven or disproved with time.
Ken Pole, the National Correspondent for Wings and Helicopters magazines, is a freelance aviation writer based in Ottawa.
©  Frontline Defence 2006