THE WEEK

WEAPONS THAT WORK

The U.S., like Canada, still uses old equipment—but with a key difference

Peter Mansbridge March 17 2003
THE WEEK

WEAPONS THAT WORK

The U.S., like Canada, still uses old equipment—but with a key difference

Peter Mansbridge March 17 2003

WEAPONS THAT WORK

Mansbridge on the Record

The U.S., like Canada, still uses old equipment—but with a key difference

THE MOST POWERFUL fighting force in the world is ready to be unleashed by its political master. But for all the sophisticated and high-tech weaponry that the United States can boast, some of the main pillars supporting its military arsenal are decades old.

Let’s start with the U-2 spy plane, which has been photographing all of Iraq’s known strategic installations. It’s a crucial tool of military planners—as it has been on repeated occasions since the late 1950s, when it was first put into action for the Cold War. Remember Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot who had to bail out during a spying mission over the Soviet Union in 1960? He was captured and spent 21 months in a Soviet prison. And how about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962? Those famous pictures Adlai Stevenson waved at the UN came from a U-2.

Then there’s the eight-engined B-52 bomber: it can launch cruise missiles and conventional bombs, as it flies high above battlefields—which it’s been doing since 1954. The last B-52 came off the assembly line in 1962, but the Pentagon proudly states that the big bombers will be a mainstay at least until 2045. There are other examples of technology lasting well past its apparent due date—and here’s a particularly striking one. Since the 1960s, the aircraft used by the U.S. commander-in-chief (meaning, of course, the President) for quick exits from the White House has been the Sikorsky VH-3D helicopter. The Americans call it Marine One: on this side of the border, we call the same piece of machinery a... Sea King.

Which brings us to the sorry image of that crumpled Sea King on the deck of HMCS Iroquois as it limped back into Halifax Harbour recently. That picture seemed to sum up how a lot of people feel about the current state of the Canadian Forces: out of date and ill-equipped to fulfill its constantly changing mandate.

The exact details of what happened that morning in the Atlantic are still pending from

an investigation, but some things can be pieced together. This was no gentle sightseeing flight: rather, it was the beginning of a mission already hampered by severe high winds. Less than 10 m off the deck of the Iroquois, one of the helicopter’s engines apparently failed. At this stage of flight, the pilots have less time than it takes you to read this sentence to make the decisions that will save their machine and its crew.

These pilots did both by somehow dropping the Sea King back onto the flight deck, instead of into the raging sea alongside. In another country, they would be heroes. In Canada, we link their story to the long, bitter debate over the age and airworthiness of the machines they fly. There is a problem with Canada’s Sea King force—the fact that there wasn’t a replacement for the damaged one when Iroquois restarted its mission is proof of that. And Ottawa seems to now admit that we’re beyond the point of updating them with modem technology, as the Americans have done with Marine One, the U-2s and the B-52s: a replacement should finally be available by the end of this decade.

Meanwhile, Canada’s pilots, the men and women who have always been the pointed end of this country’s capabilities, continue to do their jobs. I have some small understanding of the skills required: when I was barely out of high school, I joined the navy because I wanted to be a pilot. I went through training in British Columbia, Ontario and Manitoba: it was tough, demanding excellence and extraordinary dedication. I lasted about a year; as it turned out, I wasn’t good enough. If I had been, I would have almost certainly been sent to fly one of what was then a fairly new addition to the force’s destroyer fleet—the Sea King. Now, 36 years later, I’m reminded again how challenging that would have been.

Peter Mansbridge

Peter Mansbridge is Chief Correspondent of CBC Television News and Anchor of The National.

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