Strategic Lift Capacity for Canada

Tasneem Jamal

Peter Whelan

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2005 Volume 26 Issue 2

The Canadian Force’s (CF) recent deployment of the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to South Asia in the aftermath of the devastating tsunami highlighted Canada’s lack of strategic lift capacity. The CF relied upon chartered airlift to deliver the bulk of their equipment to the theatre of operations.

Several Department of National Defence (DND) policy documents have emphasized the need for Canada to develop a strategic lift capacity. Most recently, in the 2005 International Policy Statement, A Role of Pride and Influence in the World: Defence, it was noted that the CF will “acquire, or ensure access to, the right mix of capabilities to meet the increasing requirements for domestic, global [strategic] and in-theatre [tactical] airlift” (p. 14).

The Canadian Forces presently possess some strategic airlift capacity in a fleet of five CC-150 Polaris aircraft (A310-300 Airbus), which have the capability of traveling long distances without refueling. However, these aircraft are limited as strategic transporters by their inability to transport outsize equipment1 and a lack of defensive tools, which makes them easy targets in volatile areas. Moreover, one of these aircraft was converted to a VIP transporter in the early 1990s, and it was recently announced that two others would be converted to strategic air-to-air refueling aircraft.

Strategic airlift options

To strengthen the mobility of the CF, DND is currently exploring how to acquire strategic airlift capacity, both unilaterally and in collaboration with allies (it is not uncommon for forces, even the Americans, to use charter aircraft and ships for overseas deployment, but the focus here is on improving capacity for more rapid deployment).

Unilaterally, the Canadian Forces have three main options to gain strategic airlift equipment: short-term charter, longer-term lease, and outright purchase. Access to such equipment is least assured with charter arrangements and most assured with purchasing. Chief among the aircraft under consideration are the Ukrainian Antonov An-124-100, the US C-17, and the French-built Airbus A400M.2

The An-124 is the largest, capable of transporting 120 tons of equipment and/or cargo. Although least expensive at approximately US$50-million each (due in part to only used aircraft being available for purchase), the An-124 is a problematic choice. For example, it is no longer in production and there are a limited number (approximately 20) available worldwide, a number which continues to decrease, thereby making assured access agreements increasingly difficult to acquire and expensive.3 The An-124 was built during the Soviet regime and Transport Canada’s regulations on the purchase of Russian-built aircraft create complications. With no defensive aids, the aircraft is unfit to deliver personnel to hostile environments. Because of questions surrounding its reliability, it is not NATO-certified to carry passengers. And the sheer size of this aircraft prohibits its use on smaller and damaged airfields.

The US C-17 aircraft, the second largest carrier with a payload of 77 tons, is the most expensive of the three options being considered and would cost over US$250-million each to purchase and approximately US$45-million per plane, per year to lease – a price that would include training and maintenance costs. The extraordinary cost of this aircraft, which the Air Force had determined was the best fit for the CF in 2000, led then-Defence Minister McCallum to announce in 2003 that the CF would not be purchasing strategic lift aircraft.

Although Canada has occasionally chartered C-17 aircraft from the US (for example during Operation APOLLO), it is unlikely that Canada would be able to have guaranteed access to these aircraft whenever the need arose, given the present shortfall in strategic airlift capacity of the US Air Force. Additionally, some analysts have questioned whether the US would allow Canada to use its equipment, with or without a leasing arrangement, on missions it disapproved of.

The French Airbus A400M is the smallest aircraft, with a payload of 37 tons, and a purchase price of approximately US$90-million each. Although considered primarily a tactical airlifter, the A400M is capable of transporting outsize equipment over long distances, although not as efficiently as either the An-124 or the C-17. And the A400M is ideal for landing on short or dilapidated runways. However, the airbus has not yet been operationally tested and will not make its first flight until the end of the decade. It will be available for purchase after 2010.

Canada has also been exploring multilateral options to access strategic airlift. At the 2002 NATO summit in the Czech Republic, NATO nations agreed to the Prague Capabilities Commitment that outlined areas in which the alliance lacked sufficient capacity. One area of concern was strategic airlift. Since 2002, Canada, along with ten other NATO states, has been involved in the NATO strategic airlift pooling arrangement, which aims to lease strategic airlift equipment for collective use.

While it makes financial sense for Canada to pool its resources with NATO allies, the arrangement contains potential pitfalls. The pooling arrangement is considered an interim solution to the problem of NATO’s lack of strategic airlift capacity until six European states acquire a total of approximately 180 A400M aircraft that they may then lend to the alliance when required. There is no guarantee that any aircraft from the NATO pool will be based in Canada. Even if the aircraft are leased and one is based in Canada, it is unlikely that NATO states will allow the CF to use this equipment without restriction.

Strategic sealift: the way forward for the Canadian Forces?

In addition to strategic airlift, the Canadian Forces have made use of strategic sealift to deploy in recent years. Strategic sealift vessels are cheaper than rented airlift and have a greater carrying capacity (see Table 1). While the capacity of strategic airlifters is generally dictated by the maximum weight that a particular aircraft can carry, the carrying capacity of these ships is determined by the size of their cargo holds.

The one drawback of strategic sealift vessels is that they require weeks to deliver their payload to the area of operations, as opposed to the days or even hours required by strategic airlifters. Therefore sealift is not the ideal mode of transportation for operations requiring rapid deployment. As well, the CF does not possess any dedicated strategic sealift capacity. Canada has been exploring ways to develop its strategic sealift capacity, both unilaterally and in collaboration with its NATO allies.

In 2004, DND formally announced the launch of the Joint Support Ship (JSS) project. Three ships are to be constructed to replace the two retiring Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment ships as supply vessels, but also to provide the CF with other capabilities, including strategic sealift. These ships will provide the armed forces with a strategic sealift capacity, with each ship having 2,500 lane metres of deck space (1,500 covered and 1,000 on the upper deck)4 – enough combined capacity to transport an army battle group (approximately 600-750 troops).

Because strategic sealift capacity is expensive, Canada has also been working with NATO allies to acquire this capacity. The lack of strategic sealift capacity among NATO members was highlighted during the Prague Summit in 2002, resulting in the creation of a group of NATO states committed to collectively enhancing the alliance’s strategic sealift capacity. This group is tasked with acquiring strategic sealift capacity through a combination of full-time charter and assured access contracts that would guarantee NATO states access to strategic sealift vessels in return for an annual fee.

The short- to medium-term outlook for the CF’s strategic lift capacity

It seems unlikely that the CF will possess its own strategic lift capacity in the short term (five years). The CF will, however, have access to pooled NATO strategic sea- and airlift equipment. The level of access and the availability of such shared resources, and therefore the effectiveness of such arrangements, are yet to be determined.

In the medium term (five-10 years), the CF will likely have significant strategic sealift capabilities in the form of their three Joint Support Ships, possibly supplemented by an additional ship. On the flip side, within 10 years the NATO pool of strategic airlift equipment will likely no longer be intact.

Observations based on CF operations from 1999-2005

  • Most CF operations in the last seven years have been relatively small. Only 12 of the 36 new operations (33 per cent) had more than 100 personnel. Only eight (22 per cent) required the use of chartered strategic transporters for their deployment.
  • When the CF have required strategic lift equipment, it has been available to them, primarily through charter arrangements. Chartering is preferred by many countries, including on occasion those with their own strategic transporters, because it is relatively inexpensive, when compared to leasing or purchase. For example, during the recent DART deployment to Sri Lanka, chartering two An-124 aircraft to transport the Response Team’s equipment in five flights cost approximately $5.3-million Canadian. The total costs of sea- and airlift chartering for both deployment and redeployment of CF operations in Kosovo, East Timor, and Afghanistan (Operation APOLLO) was $75-million Canadian – less than one third of the cost of purchasing one C-17 aircraft (Government of Canada 2003).
  • Although the CF have chartered both strategic air and sea transporters for recent operations, an analysis suggests that in most cases sealift would have been sufficient to deliver the force to the theatre of operations. In spite of the shortcomings of the JSS as a strategic transporter, the carrying capacity of the proposed ships would have been sufficient for the majority of the force’s operations.5

Furthermore, the vast majority of recent CF operations did not require rapid deployment. The CF has not typically been a ‘first responder’ and usually deploys concurrently with other forces or where multinational operations are already underway. Moreover, several months of planning usually precede CF deployments, allowing ample time for sealift to be used. The recent DART deployment to Sri Lanka is arguably one example of an operation whose effectiveness rested on its rapid deployability. However, DART’s deployment to South Asia over a week after the devastation (a delay criticized by many) was not due to Canada’s lack of airlift but to political hesitation and to the sheer unexpectedness of the disaster.

Observations on Canada’s strategic lift situation

  • While the CF lacks strategic sea- and airlift capacity, there are several initiatives underway aimed at securing Canadian access to these capabilities. Unilateral purchasing and leasing options for strategic airlift are problematic.
  • The NATO air- and sealift projects should provide the CF with limited access to both types of equipment. Given the number of alliance member states, strategic lift demand could exceed supply. Nevertheless, the acquisition of these capacities is essential to the peace support work of the alliance and its members and so Canada should continue to support these initiatives. Once the Joint Support Ships are in the water and capable of meeting most of the strategic lift needs of the CF, the capacity provided by  the NATO pooled airlift equipment will likely be sufficient to cover Canada’s limited strategic airlift needs, i.e., rare operations requiring rapid deployment.
  • Rather than purchasing or leasing a fleet of strategic airlifters, the CF could better spend their money in    bolstering their fleet of tactical transport aircraft. Canada’s Hercules aircraft are aging and tactical aircraft (such as the A400M) are more versatile than their strategic counterparts.

Table 1: Examples of lifters’ capacity for transporting CF vehicles, both present and future, routinely used during international deployments

       Light Support Vehicle
     Wheeled (LSVW)
     Coyote Reconnaissance
     Light Armoured Vehicle
     LAV III(6)
     Stryker Mobile Gun
An-124      18      8      10      6
C-17      8      5      6      3
A400M      3      2      3      1
C-130H(7)      2      1      1      0
JSS(8)      329      234      197      >100



  1. Outsize cargo exceeds 83.3 feet (25.4 metres) in length, 9.75 feet (3 m) in width, or 8.75 feet (2.7 m) in height. CF vehicles and equipment that would be classified as outsize cargo include the LAV III, the Stryker Mobile Gun System, and several engineering vehicles.
  2. These options were considered by DND’s now-defunct ‘Future Strategic Airlifter’ project. Other aircraft, such as the Eastern European Ilyushin IL-76, have been touted as a potential acquisition for the CF.
  3. A 2002 DND briefing note stated that, based on the CF’s future strategic airlift needs, a charter company would have to guarantee access to two An-124s within 48 hours of a request, and two more within seven days. These aircraft would have to be available for approximately 1,000 flying hours per year. Such an arrangement would cost approximately $8.5-billion over a 30-year period ($280-million annually) – approximately the same cost as purchasing 12 A400M or six C-17 aircraft.
  4. Lane metres are the equivalent of 2.5 m width by 1 m length, so the covered deck space is 3,750 square metres. The 1,500 lane metres of covered space has a clear height of five metres. The 2,500 lane metres of deck space on each ship includes hangars and launch pads. Although the combined transport capacity of the three ships is significant, it is unlikely that the ships would be deployed in tandem as they will be docked on both the Eastern and Western Canadian coasts.
  5. According to the Defence Associations National Network, of 10 instances in which CF contracted sealift from 1996-2000, only three involved the use of over 1,500 lane metres.
  6. One LAV III Company is made up of 15 LAV vehicles.
  7. The C-130H currently used by the CF is a variant of the Hercules tactical aircraft.
  8. Only the 1,500 lane metres of covered deck space is considered here. The remaining 1,000 lane metres would be used for other purposes such as helicopter transportation.


Defence Associations National Network 2003, National Network News, Vol. X, No. 2, Summer.

Government of Canada 2003, 37th Parliament, 2nd Session of March 17.

Government of Canada 2005, A Role of Pride and Influence in the World: Defence.

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