AT A CEREMONY IN LATE SEPTEMBER, LIEUTENANT-GENERAL YVAN BLONDIN ASSUMED COMMAND OF THE ROYAL CANADIAN AIR FORCE. A FIGHTER PILOT WITH OVER 3,000 FLYING HOURS IN HIS 32-YEAR CAREER, BLONDIN HAS SERVED IN BOTH NATO and NORAD COMMANDS AND MOST RECENTLY AS DEPUTY COMMANDER OF THE RCAF. HE SAT DOWN WITH VANGUARD TO DISCUSS PRIORITIES, BUDGETS AND FUTURE PROGRAMS.

On his top priority:

For the two years between 2009 to 2011 that I was commander of 1 Canadian Air Division in Winnipeg, it was probably the busiest period we had seen in many decades, with the air force deploying all over the world. I saw firsthand how good our people are when you challenge them. In Jacmel in Haiti, on an airfield the Americans had looked at and said, "we can't operate out of there with our Hercs," my guys said, "well, it's tight but take a few trees down, boss, and we can do it"; we operated for four months out of there without a glitch. In Afghanistan with the Griffon helicopter that we knew was near its limits with respect to altitude and summer temperatures, and yet the guys did great work. And in Libya, where the commanding officer took nine young pilots – in fact, because only two had a second tour and the other seven were less than a couple of years in, I decided to send a few older guys, not to fly but at least for the first couple of weeks to help them plan – and they did absolutely great. Although we had 150 people in Sicily, those nine in the end had to make difficult decisions from 25,000 feet based on what they saw on a small eight-inch screen. I was impressed with everything I saw on those operations. So whatever we have done to create this – the training system, how we maintain our operations, how we pick our people, how we grow them and take care of them – this needs to be protected. That's my first priority.

On his immediate agenda:

We've worked for the last five years on developing a plan on the capabilities we are going to need for the next 20 years. I need to review those capability requirements because the environment has changed. The economy has put pressure on the government and every department is being asked to figure out a new plan. I don't necessarily see this as a problem. I've got a chance to question some of the programs that we are looking at, to look at what is available out there and say, maybe this is not the way I want to do it, maybe I would like to go 10 degrees right with this one and change some things. I see us taking advantage of technology and being able to still delver the same capabilities, but do it differently, do it cheaper, and still maintain operational excellence.

On potential programs for review:

Fighter training is one. At the moment we are 10 years into a 20-year contract with the NATO Flying Training Centre, which takes us to 2021-22. That's about the time when we expect to have the Next Generation Fighter (NGF). So this is an opportunity to look at that training and do it differently to better train for the NGF. The way we train now for the F-18, once pilots finish their generic pilot training I send them on the fighter lead in trainer on the CT-155 Hawk – Bombardier does this in Cold Lake – for about four months. They learn the basics of flying a fighter but not necessarily the tactics because I don't have the radar systems on the Hawk; they have to learn those tactics on the F-18. They do seven months of training on the F-18, about three learning to fly the airplane and about four of tactical training, learning to use the airplane now with the radar to be able to do intercept, bombing runs, air-to-ground deliveries. With a NGF, training is going to be different. That three months of training that we now do on the F-18 with an instructor flying with you, that will be done in a simulator. The tactical training part with NFTC will be coming to a close about the same time. If I had a Hawk-like airplane, not necessarily with the radar systems but with emulators and a NGF cockpit, I could do my tactical training on that smaller platform and not have to do it on a more expensive NGF platform. The course would be a bit longer but not more expensive because more of it would be in simulators. So with the same kind of airplane for about the same relative cost and the same operational hours, I can have a pilot who is trained tactically for fighters, very familiar with the NGF cockpit, who learns to fly the airplane in a simulator, and knows the fundamentals of how to fly it tactically during the first solo flight.

That then raises the question, do I need an operational training unit? Of my 77 F-18s, I have an operational capability of only 50-51 airplanes because 27 are on the OTU. If I didn't need airplanes for training pilots because I could do most of it in simulators, then my requirement would be less or I'd have more of an operational capability. It opens opportunities. My intent is to go away from operational training units and create virtual training units. When pilots finish today on the OTU, they go through a three-month period of combat ready training to gain some seasoning, some experience. We can use the same concept with the future fighter.

The original plan for the 65 F-35s was to have 13 airplanes for training, either in the States or by building an OTU in Canada. With this concept, I could spread my 13 airplanes within the operational squadrons and have airplanes to use for the combat ready training. It would be a bit of a load passed to the squadrons but it would certainly give me greater capability. This technology gives me a better operational training asset in the end, so I want to pursue this. I need to start now on a new way of training and adapt this to the way I want to train 10-15 years from now.

Another example is the CP-140 replacement. We've had a big, four-engine plane because it needs range, it needs to fly for 12-14 hours, it needs to carry people in the back, it needs to carry torpedoes and all the sensors. Does the replacement also have to be big? If you look at what is available, you've got the Boeing P-8 and Lockheed Martin's C-130J adapted for maritime operations, but all of these are big airplanes that cost a lot of money. And that puts pressure on the entire air force. What if I could do business differently in 20-30 years? What if I could use a smaller, cheaper airplane to carry just a few people with some equipment in the back, and combine it with a UAV, or even a couple of UAVs, controlled by the mother ship, that would be carrying the torpedoes and the sensors. We can see this coming on our horizon. The technology is not there yet but it may be there in 20-25 years. And if I buy a big airplane now to perpetuate the way I am doing business, I may not be able to take advantage of this. If I could extend the Auroras for another 15-20 years and maintain the capability I have, that would buy me time. I want to turn this into an opportunity to look at concepts for the future.

These are just two examples of potential future concepts that could achieve the operational effects required, and leverage technological advances and reduce costs. I see opportunities. I see technology providing me with some solutions.

On balancing current budget projections with urgent capability requirements:

The department has not gone into heavy discussions to try and balance this, but we can see it coming, we can see the pressures. My intent is to prepare the discussion for this. I do not want to be discussing this with the army and the navy and trying to protect everything that is air force, and putting the pressure on them. I want to come to the table with solutions and be able to say, "this is how I can reduce the pressure from my side, how I can help and be part of the team?"

On what next generation fighter technology offers:

I've operated F-15s, F-16s, F-18s. The next generation of fighters – the F-22, F-35, what the Russians and the Chinese are developing – will have real advantages. The F-22, as an example, is an interceptor with the speed, manoeuvrability and systems to make it superior to other airplanes. I can put an F-22 and eight F-18s against each other and the F-22 is probably going to end up winning. The F-35 has systems to make it superior to what we've got. Every fighter is a compromise – you don't have an ideal fighter. The F-18s were a compromise on certain features; even the F-22 is only an air-to-air interceptor. When you develop a fighter, you want it small to reduce visibility and increase manoeuvrability, but at the same time you want it big to be able to carry a lot of bombs and multiple engines so that if I lose one to a missile I still have one or two to get home safe. So you make it small, but not so small that you can't carry at least a minimum amount of bombs; you make it big enough to carry fuel for the mission, but you include a probe to refuel in flight; you reduce the number of engines to hide your heat and radar signature. And you end up with something that is a compromise.

But the F-35 also brings a fusion of technology, a fusion of sensors. And for me, this is the biggest advantage over the current class of airplanes. This is not '90s technology, this is tomorrow's technology. The fact that they are having a problem with the helmet means, for me, that it is not a helmet that was developed 10 years ago. It's a new concept and to make it work is difficult. But I have no doubt that this helmet is going to work, and when it does it is going to be the technology for the next 20 years. When I flew the F-18, I spent 90 percent of my time trying to figure out what the different screens were telling me, to build situational awareness: you've got all kinds of information coming at you but it's coming from different places and the fusion is in your brain. Having a concept where the airplane is sensing everything and providing information that is easily digested – for me, this is a revolution. If I can reduce that 90 percent to somewhere closer to 20-25 percent, it's a huge advantage.

The F-35 represents where the western world is going. I'm going to be flying the F-18 for another 12-15 years – we will have flown it for close to 50 years by the time we shut off the engine of the last F-18. They were built for about 8,000 hours each and right now about 90 percent of flying is done on operations and 10 percent in a simulator. The F-35 will also be built for about 8,000 hours each, but we're looking at a concept of about 50 percent on operations. That will extend its life. And since I'm looking for a plane that can fly 50 years plus – I'm going to start flying it in the 2020s and fly it into the 2070s – I want an aircraft in 2050-2060 that will still be modern. If that airplane is being operated by the Americans, the Brits, the Australians and others, they will share the modernization costs. The reason we were able to cost-effectively modernize our F-18s, and it is still a good airplane after 40 years, is because somebody else had built out the systems. When the U.S. modernized their F-18s, we had access to the same technology. So with the F-35, if this is going to be the American's main jet for the next 50 years, we will have access to the technology that is going to be around this airplane to keep it modern. At the time we bought the F-18, the Tornado was a new airplane. We considered it. Well, today the F-18 recently flew in operations over Libya and was one of the most effective airplanes there; the Tornado is an old airplane and doesn't have the systems to play in the same games. It was developed by a few countries, has a much smaller fleet and doesn't have the same modernization programs and processes to keep it modern. This is an advantage we have with the F-18 and we would like to have it with the next platform.

On next gen fighter capability as a more sophisticated ISR platform:

Right now I rely on the F-18 pilot to tell me what's happening; I don't necessarily see what is out there. With the technology of more modern fighters, it's going to be my eyes, my ears: I can see what is happening on the ground, in the air, and I can see it from an ops centre. I'm using all the airplanes sensors to extend the reach of my ops centre. It's going to change the way I do operations, especially in the Arctic.

On developing connectivity between air force platforms:

We've put some emphasis on this in the last couple of years. I don't see it as a huge challenge but maybe we need to ensure we are connecting the dots. With recent operations, I think some of it has come naturally. In Libya, the CP-140 was supposed to be there for the navy but ended up doing ISR operations and eventually fire control for the fighters over land. I actually had controllers in the back on an Aurora with the ISR assets looking at the situation on the ground and being able to call in and direct fighters. This was a new concept that we had never used before, and the guys worked really well together. Now we are looking for opportunities to build on this and get them together more often.

On the JUSTAS (Joint Unmanned Surveillance and Target Acquisition System) program and the possibility of a family of UAVs or other alternatives:

JUSTAS has gone through a few chapters. The first requirement was in Afghanistan but there was recognition that once Afghanistan is over, we'd like something to help in Canada. But the MALEs (medium altitude, long endurance) we were considering at that time operated at speeds that were fine for Afghanistan but not for long distances in Canada. If I have to fly to the Arctic or out over the Atlantic at 30,000 feet and I've got a 100-knot wind on the nose and I'm flying 150 knots, it's going to take a long time to reach the Arctic, do something and try to come back. A HALE can fly at 60,000 feet, faster, and with more range, but it's very, very expensive. So what about a combination of MALEs for maritime patrol and a few HALEs for the Arctic? You can operate two fleets, but it costs a lot more money than we initially figured. And I'd like to get away from the very expensive HALEs.

The fact that we didn't move quickly into UAVs is probably a good thing; the technology is moving toward where we may have something in between. There are a few MALEs coming with a jet engine that gives you better speed. If you have a 250-knots MALE with close to the same endurance, you've got a compromise. Personally, this is what I would like to have: something in between that gives me reach to the Arctic but something that I can use tactically as well. Given how fast technology is evolving, there are going to be some much better airplanes that you wish you'd waited for. So I wouldn't want to go too far into a very expensive platform. We're starting to see a couple of platforms. The Europeans are developing one, the Americans are developing a new generation of a follow-on to the Predator, which could have potential. So for me it is worthwhile to wait a bit and look at what is coming out.

On the capability of the recently stood up Expeditionary Wing in Bagotville:

We're up to around 115 people. The plan is to get it up to 250 by next summer, and eventually to 550. At 250 we are going to start to have an operational capability. I'm actually pressuring the 115 to have an initial capability right now. I want to be able to support an operation if I have to with a nucleus of people. We are looking at this concept as the key enabler to any kind of air operation outside of Canada. It's something that is scalable, a team of people that can go with the first airplanes to set up an operational camp and support the commander. It's tactical command support and fast deployable. And at 550 people, we'll be able to support a couple of operations at the same time. We'll be able to support in austere locations like Jacmel, where we had to bring our own air traffic control, our own ways to refuel the airplane, the tents for people to sleep, everything.

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