Cold Lake base eyed as F-35 weapons training centre

Defence planners are examining a proposition that would see Canada run an advanced multi-national training course for the F-35 if the contentious stealth fighter program gets the go-ahead from the Harper government, industry sources say.

Defence planners are examining a proposition that would see Canada run an advanced multi-national training course for the F-35 if the contentious stealth fighter program gets the go-ahead from the Harper government, industry sources say.

Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake, a sprawling, isolated air force facility in northern Alberta, would serve as a training school for pilots already qualified on the aircraft to learn to use the plane’s weapons systems.

The airfield is already home to an air-to-ground weapons school for the country’s current fleet of CF-18s, but the proposition would see Canada transition to the F-35 and open up instruction to other countries that are part of the program.

“So this allows Canada to run a graduate level training centre, which brings resources into Canada, which brings countries in to fly; that brings revenue and a whole bunch of other things and capabilities that are augmented by these countries who don’t have this kind of airspace,” said a defence source with knowledge of the scenario.

“No plans are finalized yet, but I know (Canada’s Department of National Defence) knows what they have.

“The question is, what are they going to do?”

The fact that Cold Lake is situated in the middle of vast plain well inside Canadian airspace makes it attractive to defence planners and industry types who are eager to preserve the multi-role fighter’s more secret capabilities, said the source.

“If you’re a stealth airplane you’ve got to ask yourself, do you want to be fully stealth and show everybody your capabilities over water where people can measure that?” said the source, who spoke on condition of not being named.

“The only places you can do that is when you have a controlled space.”

Another aspect is that the current U.S. Air Force weapons school, at Nellis AFB, Calif., is apparently near capacity with F-22 Raptor training, the stealth predecessor to the F-35.

The “F-22 is completely saturating the Nellis complex, the western test ranges with just (187) airplanes. Imagine 2,400 plus (and) all the allies with the F-35,” the source added.

The Harper government insisted that any talk of a future training facility is speculative.

“The government of Canada has not yet purchased a replacement fleet of aircraft for the current CF-18 fighter jets,” said Michelle Bakos, communications director for Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose.

“As a result, no arrangements for pilot training for the replacement fleet have been finalized. It would be premature to discuss any possible training for potential replacements.”

The air force has acknowledged that it’s conducting a wide-ranging assessment of its future fast-jet training needs and options.

Last spring, defence planners approached an Italian aerospace company at the annual Ottawa defence exposition to get information about new training jets, ones that could be used in initial instruction before pilots would qualify on the F-35.

The jets under consideration would be better suited to the stealth fighter than the current trainers.

“We are in the process of consulting with the industry for information to gather general information on current/forecast training capabilities,” Capt. Lisa Evong said in response to questions about the discussions.

A former senior air force planner, who has questioned the wisdom of the F-35 purchase, was intrigued by the proposition and its timing.

But retired colonel Paul Maillet said it’s important to understand who is driving the Cold Lake proposal — the American and Canadian militaries, the Canadian government, or the industry.

“If it is simply a question of the U.S. Air Force looking for more (training) range space, then that’s one thing. But the question is, what’s the whole political thing here?” he said.

As part of the team of nations paying for the development of the jet fighter, Canada has said it is in line for as much as $9.8 billion in aerospace production and service contracts.

Maillet said an advanced training centre would clearly be outside of that memorandum and an additional benefit that the government could potentially boast about to a skeptical public.

And the possibility makes it tougher to say “no” to the program.

The proposition “would make it more and more difficult to have an objective re-look at this as the government is supposed to be doing,” said Maillet.

NDP procurement critic Matthew Kellway said he views the notion as “a reward to this government for their unwavering support” of the program.

“Every other (joint strike fighter) partner has been hemming and hawing for quite some time about delays, whereas this government seems to be in the midst of all sorts of political contortions to keep the purchase of this plane on track,” said Kellway.

Last spring, the auditor general released a scathing report that accused National Defence and Public Works of hiding the full cost of the multi-billion dollar program and of not following proper procedure — findings both departments vehemently disagreed with.

The Harper government’s response was to give the project to a secretariat under Public Works, which is mandated to deliver a more independent cost assessment and review other options to replace the CF-18s.

How training will conducted has been the subject of debate in the past. An initial cadre of F-35 pilots would have to be trained in the U.S., but to the soon-to-be-retiring commander of the Canadian air force said last year that initial flight instruction would eventually be “repatriated” to Canada.

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