The genesis of Air Command

By Lieutenant-General (retired) William Keir “Bill” Carr

Lieutenant-General Bill Carr is known as “the father of Air Command”. Here is his account of how Air Command came to be.

Integration of the Forces took firm root on August 1, 1964 and Unification, the completion of the thrust to consolidate, became fact with the passing of the Canadian Forces reorganization Act on February 1, 1968. The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), the Canadian Army (CA) and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) were abolished, and became a single service called the Canadian Armed Forces.

Integration of the Forces was long overdue and came very much to a head because of two things: political common sense and budget squeeze. The Minister of National Defence (MND), Paul Hellyer, on assuming office in 1963, quickly became frustrated with the “Rule by Committee” within National Defence Headquarters, the lack of coordination between the three service chiefs, the impotency of the chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, and the obvious triplication of military support activities across the board. While his subsequent moves were labeled to be mainly political, there is a lot of evidence suggesting they were logical evolutionary steps at the time of very tight budgets and a waning public perception of the military needs.

The new ‘unified’ organization of 1968 consisted of a National Defence Headquarters and six functional commands. This structure replaced the previous three separate national headquarters and eleven field commands. The Royal Canadian Air Force’s five functional commands – Air Defence, Air Transport, The Air Division, Training, and Air Materiel – disappeared, as did the office of the chief of the air staff. From then forward, Air Defence and Air Transport Commands continued more or less as before, except that they had no superior air authority to whom they could respond or appeal.

The rest of the former RCAF, Fleet Air Arm and Army Air resources were divvied up between Mobile and Maritime Commands. The resultant lack of an air authority in the new national headquarters structure persisted for several years and history shows it was a costly deficiency. The senior environmental officer identified as such was the director general air forces. It was an air commodore slot.

The commander of Mobile Command was a three-star general, while the commanders of Maritime, Air Defence, Air Transport and Training Commands remained two-star appointments. The chief of operations and reserves within the headquarters was a two-star, but the vice chief was a three-star. It became obvious that access enjoyed by the commander of Mobile Command to the chief of the defence staff, now a four-star, was automatic when he chose to disagree with the vice chief, as he often did, whereas any attempt by the two-star commanders seldom got past the turf-protecting vice chief.

The inherent weakness of the new command structure, though, wherein no single head could speak for the “Air”, soon became painfully obvious, and the adverse impact of the deficiency on operational efficiency couldn’t be hidden or denied. Air operational support to all the activities of the Maritime and Mobile Commands was as essential as ever. However, with the Mobile Command tactical air transport and fighters, and tactical helicopter resources, under its command and split away from a central doctrinal and operational air standards authority – as was also the case with the maritime air resources – many problems surfaced, accident rates increased, and morale suffered severely.

By early 1974, it was obvious that we could no longer ignore the need to face up to the dismembered and abused state of the Canadian Forces military air assets. Aircraft were being misused, some units were not maintaining acceptable levels of proficiency and, in several instances, it was discovered that local commanders had grounded aircraft so as to use the money which was budgeted for aviation fuel, for purposes which were more suitable to their preoccupations and priorities. This self-inflicted lack of funds caused telling cutbacks in ongoing essential continuation- and proficiency-flying training. At the same time, it automatically reduced the amount of support which their air operations units could provide them.

When I became deputy chief of the defence staff in 1973, I knew I was finally in a position to do something about the air operations problems. Colleagues, too, were not shy to remind me of this and, indeed, pressed me to make a move. Those with whom I discussed the plan agreed that the main challenge would be to ensure that the timing of any moves to change things had to be precisely orchestrated to ensure that we avoided making our logic vulnerable to emotionally generated and subjective objections. Who sat in what chair in the hierarchy would be a factor and, too, we had to make sure we didn’t ask questions which might generate a high-level veto that could easily stall further progress.

Moreover, as successful as organizational structural changes had to be in their own right, they would need to contain other clear benefits besides the improvements in the management of our air resources. With a budget squeeze which, among other things, planned to cut the Canadian Forces manpower from 83,000 to 79,000, any manpower reductions we could come up with would be an added bonus to our efforts.

We were convinced that to show how the improvements we were recommending would result in cost reductions would make our opponents’ attempts to derail our efforts much tougher. As well, we rationalized that it would be doubtful that the chief of the defence staff and the deputy minister would go along with objections, which could indicate they preferred the status quo to change that would generate certain cost savings and almost assured improved operational efficiencies and capabilities.

Having weighed these factors, and before tackling the command-level problem, it was my opinion that it would be necessary to pull together the disparate and competing staff agencies within the environmental chiefs organizations in National Defence Headquarters. My first step, therefore, was the consolidation of National Defence Headquarters’ maritime and land air staffs under the control of the chief of air operations. It had been talked about before I became involved, but my predecessor as deputy chief of the defence staff, an Army lieutenant-general, was totally opposed to the idea because he saw it as an underhanded attempt to weaken the control which the commander of Mobile Command exercised over his fixed- and rotary-wing air components.

This staff restructuring caused some internal heat and emotion, but it stuck. The air staff of all stripes in the deputy chief of the defence staff organization were openly enthusiastic about the change, even though their environmental chiefs weren’t necessarily so. I also got some flak from on high, but after being scolded for implementing the move before bringing him into the picture, the chief of the defence staff gave me his quiet support on condition that I avoid open confrontation with those who would take some convincing to become objective about the decision and the fears of where it might be heading. My neck was out, but now at least I had the chiefs’ tacit support. The vice chief of the defence staff was not in on this discussion and I was directed by the chief to tell him we were to give it a try. After I relayed the message it was obvious the vice chief of the defence staff would find ways to forestall any further moves to resolve the air operations problems through major organizational changes. From then on, I “watched my back’ and was not totally forthcoming to him as we moved ahead.

As the dust settled over this air staff realignment, we were able to think seriously about the next step, which would affect how air operations were to be organized and controlled in the future. My background of recent “unified” service in Mobile Command as chief of staff of operations and training and later as commander of Training Command, where I was responsible for all the military training schools, helped me anticipate where much of the opposition would come from – and why.

At this stage, it was obvious to me that there were now three major hurdles to be overcome. First, I had to convince the chief of the defence staff that the time was ripe to make a major and open move. Second, I had to get acceptance of the need from the other two elements, land and sea. Third, I had to engineer government approval of this major step in the reorganization of the Canadian Forces by whatever means I could find.

After much quiet discussion and undercover planning, the chief of the defence staff agreed privately that Major-General Ken Lewis, the commander of Transport Command and one of the best briefers I had ever encountered, and Major-General Hugh Mclaughlin, the incumbent chief of air operations and the most astute and politically sensitive officer in Canadian Forces headquarters, could be assigned part-time to the project to develop the goals and establish the timetable for the ultimate implementation of a unified Air Command.

My instructions were clear. The project was to be handled discreetly and without attracting emotional criticism from those who could be forecast to try to prevent any major change in the current command and control structure of the Canadian Forces. There would be many potential road blocks. However, I believed that if we did our homework well and understood our opponents and their reasoning, we could avoid premature conflict by avoiding their hobby-horses.

At the outset, we would focus first, instead, on the pressing need to repair obvious things which, like motherhood, no one, not even the most biased, could argue against. For starters, the putting together of the Air Defence and Air Transport Commands, and the aircrew training from Training Command, into an Air Command of sorts, would cause little stir from either of the two major environmental commands.

Indeed, I was amazed that the idea gained some support. The reason, we found out later, was that to some it seemed to reduce the image of airmen having two commands and sailors and soldiers only one each. My cohorts agreed that our preferred method of operation would be to ensure that “the opposition” knew from the outset where we were heading.

At the same time, knowing that information was power which was not given away freely, we handled much inside dope with discretion, and kept our final plan close-controlled among a very few key players. While our agenda was available for all to see, how we planned to achieve our goals was revealed only as each piece of the puzzle slipped firmly into place. My personal preference to avoid long protracted discussions at conferences proved useful, and we were able to rebut many objections in one-on-one discussions.

Our strategy was to move ahead on a block-by-block basis, one step at a time. At the outset, we would stay away from those emotional subjects of command and control, uniforms, rank structure and nomenclature, and the airman’s (and Royal Canadian Air Force Staff College) much-loved Principles of Air Power. We would instead concentrate on those areas in obvious need of repair and which, without correction, would continue to waste money and adversely impact operations. For example, even the commander of Mobile Command knew that a bad air accident rate reflected poorly on how he ran his organization, and such image deflators caused by “airmen” were inexcusable regardless of the basic reasons.

Timing was equally important, and, as noted above, who occupied what senior slot in the hierarchy, their preoccupations about things Air Force, and their relationships to each other, could make or break our project. Were we to avoid addressing the views of those who were our potential critics, or, on the other hand, fail to exploit the views of those who agreed in principle with where we planned to go, could make us vulnerable to confrontation by a strong and noisy coalesced voice which would draw unwanted attention and debate at this stage in our work.

I also firmly believe that my personal credibility with those who could create obstructions to what we hoped to do, while difficult to measure, probably helped to reduce potential problems which might arise. Most of my other environment colleagues remembered and reminded me how totally exposed I was to obstructive forces when I commanded Training Command as a major-general from ’68 to ’71. In the late sixties and early seventies, Training Command was not an admired formation for two reasons. First, it was the Canadian Forces’ biggest command in terms of manpower and budget, and second, it was modeled on the old Royal Canadian Air Force Air Training Command.

On assuming command, I became the guy who had to consolidate training resources for all three environments and eliminate the overlaps which existed between the traditional trades and professional schools. Three schools for cooks, three for military police, three for administration, three for supply, etc. – each three had to be amalgamated into one.

I also ran the military bases that hosted most of the training, including such historic locations as Cornwallis, Nova Scotia; St. Jean, Quebec; Chilliwack, British Columbia, the home of the Royal Canadian Engineers; Shilo, Manitoba, the home of the Royal Canadian Artillery; and Canadian Forces Bases Rivers, Manitoba, Gimli, Manitoba, Portage, Manitoba, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Cold Lake, Alberta, and so on. The combat arms schools of the Army at Camp Borden, Ontario, and the fleet schools of the Navy on both coasts were also part of my empire.

I was a “light-blue suiter” charged with slaying the dragons of tradition and emotion. One event which helped establish my “unbiased” credibility concerned the cleaning up of the “aircrew training empire”, which no one had dared to tackle since the Second World War. To the professional “air trainers” I was a “foreigner” with no air training background and could not possibly therefore appreciate the subject.

In my efforts to learn more about the set-up, I uncovered in the system, the biggest “closed shop” in the Canadian Forces. It was overblown, extravagant, old-fashioned and subjective. In short order, we were able to tell headquarters that we needed two fewer air training bases, fewer people and aircraft, and far less money. The non-training airmen cackled, and the Army and Navy dropped their suspicions of a centralized Training Command run by an airman.

The icing on this cake was thickened further by my having an infantry brigadier-general as a chief of staff and two Navy captains running all general training (Okros and Collier). My service in Mobile Command helped, too. From this background came my friendship with various senior officers in Maritime Command and Mobile Command. I came to know many personally and professionally, more so even than I did some of our senior airmen. I was comfortable, therefore, that I knew what would wash with them and when, and what would need to be put aside until other parts of the puzzle were in place.

Earlier attempts to “reunify” Air Force assets had failed for a number of reasons and, indeed, may have delayed its ultimate evolution. In their efforts, however, Major-General Dave Adamson and Major-General Norm Magnussen drew attention to the problems and caused some senior people to listen. Perhaps, too, this gave others the time they needed to prepare their defence against any major change.

In addition, the evidence to support a change had lacked a clear, objective analysis and, certainly from the political point of view, few politicians of the day were about to admit that the not-too-old unification policy was not working as well as Defence Minister Paul Hellyer had guaranteed. General Jacques Dextraze’s predecessor as chief of the defence staff, General Fred Sharpe, an airman, was not prepared to even listen to the idea of a “unified” Air Command.

I also believed, from my personal contacts with him when I was commander of Winnipeg-based Training Command, that our Liberal minister, James Richardson, a Second World War bomber pilot, would openly support our efforts if I were first able to reveal to him on a private basis, a well-reasoned, timely and discrete plan (which, coincidentally, would include some benefits also for “the West”), he could become a very potent ally. Subsequent events proved this a valid expectation.

The project’s potentially high visibility put an overriding control on how we did our homework. It would have to be air-tight, devoid of emotion, and totally logical and cost-effective. As well, obviously, there could be no outward appearance of in-service rancor.

The chief of the defence staff, affectionately (?) known as “JADEX”, who put me in the deputy chief of the defence staff chair, and I “scratched each other’s backs” regularly. I knew him well, honestly admired his outstanding record in the Second World War and Korea, and his charismatic leadership, and I was conscious, too, of his justified pride in his career as a professional soldier. Yet, had I not been sensitive to his hair-trigger temper, I would never have gotten off first base. His attitudes to certain policies and ideas held few mysteries or surprises for me. He trusted me and I gave him no reason ever to question my loyalty.

When I first briefed him on how thoroughly dismembered the air element was, his reactions were those of a chief of the defence staff who was genuinely dedicated to the welfare and capabilities of “his” Canadian Forces. He was greatly annoyed to be informed and convinced of just how inefficiently “his” air assets were distributed and scattered, and how the Forces’ professional and very costly airmen, helicopters and aircraft were being abused and misused.

After telling me (once again) to be careful about “wearing my heart on my sleeve”, with a twinkle in his eye, he had agreed we could no longer avoid facing up to the problem, and I could now bring the project into the open. He directed me to prepare a proposal to solve our problems and be prepared to present it to Defence Council by October 1974, the final date for presentation of the Department of National Defence budget cuts proposal to meet ministerial direction. I was to avoid in-house confrontations.

Soon after this blessing, the chief of the defence staff told me that the minister had also agreed informally to the formation of an Air Command. But, crafty as he was, the chief then dropped the other shoe and said there was a cost for his having secured this okay from the minister. His price to me, believe it or not, for his selling job was to direct that I, in return, as deputy chief and “obviously” an airman, would put an immediate priority on getting new tanks for the Army. He was almost paranoid that he not be seen to be anything but a perfectly “green” officer, and to seem to be pushing one environment’s program harder than those of the other two would be unacceptable. Thus, the Army replacement tanks project was to go to the top of my “to do” list.

(In the light of day these many years later, this deal sounds almost unbelievable even to me. But, on reflection, “the old boy network” worked to achieve goals which official channels and procedures could not.)

With a lot of behind-the-scenes manipulation and horse-trading, both of these deals eventually fell successfully into place. The Army got its Leopard tanks and the airmen got their new Air Force.

In retrospect, along the way to the rebirth of an Air Force, there were more than a few noteworthy impediments to our progress. The two main opponents were the commander of Mobile Command and the vice chief of the defence staff. Our strength in confronting the obstruction these represented rested, among other things, in my personal knowledge of their professional antipathy to each other. It made them vulnerable to being blind-sided by us.

In due course, the commander of Mobile Command reluctantly agreed with the chief of the defence staff to the need for some consolidation of the Canadian Forces air assets, but with “ownership’” and operational control of the helicopters and F-5 fighters clearly part of his command. The vice chief of the defence staff, on the other hand, seemed to have no opinion on who owned those assets, but was adamant that Maritime fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft were fundamental and inseparable parts of Maritime Command, lock, stock and barrel.

As our work progressed, the personalities and the sometimes subjective preoccupations of the “dark blue” and “khaki” increasingly caused us a lot of headaches. On the other hand, their disinterest in each other’s problems and fears worked in our favor because they failed to generate a united front against the advancement of our project and its strategy, which for some reason they never became aware of.

Personalities also affected how we developed our plan and got its elements nailed down bit by bit. The commander of Maritime Command, who was not a bosom-buddy of the vice chief of the defence staff even though a fellow admiral, had already been convinced by his senior airman, Brigadier-General Al MacKenzie, that he would be well served to shuck off every aspect of Maritime Air except its operational employment. The vice chief was very upset that his “dark-blue” cohort would take such a position.

Our final presentation to Defence Council avoided pointing fingers but subtly made the point that some of the compromises in it, while acceptable in the short-term, were not the best answer. The chief of the defence staff had already detected this. At this key meeting, Lieutenant-General Stanley Waters, the commander of Mobile Command, unfortunately chose to argue with the chief that the whole idea of an Air Command was unnecessary and would only reduce the effectiveness of his command and further ham-string his ability to do his job. He did this despite his awareness of the minister’s preliminary support as well as that of the chief.

This intervention back-fired when a much-annoyed chief of the defence staff ruled that our proposal to Cabinet would place ALL Canadian Forces air assets into the new Air Command. Lieutenant-General Waters had unwittingly – and much ahead of our planned schedule – given us the command structure we hoped we would eventually acquire.

While I could suggest we had geared the presentation to create this reaction (and Brigadier-General Jim West, a brilliant, astute, crafty and key member of our small group, had assembled the material in this way), the chief of the defence staff’s temper added to the well-known lack of warmth between him and the commander of Mobile Command, saw the latter be rebuked and denied even the diluting adjustments we had made to keep him happy. Everyone at the meeting again realized that no one ever, not ever, argued with JADEX in an open forum, and especially not in front of senior civilians including the deputy minister.

We departed the meeting with approval to present to the minister an organization proposal which we as airmen had aspired to achieve ultimately, but had never expected to have approved without modification right off the bat. Indeed, we had prepared some back-up compromises for consideration were the final goal in need of more evolution.

As I implied earlier, the vice chief of the defence staff was never a keen supporter of our project. He disagreed with much of the concept of an Air Command such as we had conceived, and his disagreement seemed partly to be related to a fundamental antipathy to many things “Air Force”. His motivation for this attitude may have been related to his failure to be selected for service in the interim Air Force of 1945-47. He was more than hurt; it was an insult, and he seemingly was never able to bury what he felt was an affront to his pride and self-image.

While he had not served overseas as had most of us who were selected, it was clear to me that he believed his qualifications to continue to serve in the Royal Canadian Air Force were as good or better than many of us who were kept on. While I agreed with this thought, I could not understand, if in fact this was the case, that carrying a chip on one’s shoulder over a perceived challenge of long ago did much to help project the image I would have thought he would like, especially when holding down the second most senior slot in the Canadian Forces.

When we received the direction to prepare the final documents for presentation to the minister, it was necessary they be “coordinated’ across the staffs which would become involved with the implementation of the decision we hoped for and expected. Accordingly, one of the final steps in its preparation for delivery was to have it initialed by the vice chief of the defence staff, who was de facto the manager of all National Defence Headquarters policy-level activities.

Shortly after its by-hand delivery from the vice chief of the defence staff’s office, to the minister’s office, his senior military executive, (then) Brigadier-General Gus Cloutier, called me. In his studying of the document preparatory to presenting it to his boss, he had detected a major change from the concept and structure for Air Command which our previous informal contacts with the minister had proposed and with which he had agreed.

Instead of all Air Force assets becoming part of the Air Command structure, someone had amended the body of the proposal to include the phrase “except that specific to Maritime Command and Mobile Command”. While there is no proof as to who made the change, the vice chief of the defence staff had signed the version with that change incorporated into it. The chief of the defence staff had not been consulted, and to top off the effort, vice chief of the defence staff staff had overlooked amending the appendices, which still reflected the decision and direction given us by the chief of the defence staff.

Gus Cloutier’s alertness and his very close friendship with Jim West avoided what could have been a very embarrassing situation for the chief of the defence staff and the Canadian Forces. As we had progressed along the route to success, it had been obvious who would support our efforts and who would hinder our progress. As immature, in retrospect as it seems, personal relationships and preoccupations played a big role.

For example, the commander of Maritime Command and the vice chief, both admirals, did not exhibit the warmth that one would expect of “bosom buddies”. Some of us had noted previously that admirals in open discussions each often seemed to want to have the last word. As well, the commander of Mobile Command at that time was no great buddy of the chief of the defence staff. The former was an emotionally and strongly opinionated Army officer, and the latter a soldier – with a unique war record – who was very conscious of his position at the peak of the hierarchy. Indeed, at Defence Council meetings, the splits between the various senior “brass” were so obvious as to reveal to me where the “armour chinks” were, which, with planning, we were able exploit to our advantage as events unfolded. With a vice-chief whose ideas were often at variance with those of the field commanders, yet over whom he as the manager of the headquarters had no real power; a chief of the defence staff who under it all was a “wannabe” airman in many ways; and a minister who was a war-time aircrew member of the Royal Canadian Air Force whom I personally had come to know well during my stint in Winnipeg as the commander of Training Command; it was obvious that each of these key players could be used to our advantage if we played our cards right.

And, apparently, we did. The outcome of it all was an Air Command that, unlike its much revered predecessor, the Royal Canadian Air Force, had its own motto, approved crest, rank structure, uniform and service symbols. The Royal Canadian Air Force had earlier borrowed all of these from the Royal Air Force and, as historically respected as they all were, only the Airman’s Prayer and the March-past remained.

Finally, also unlike the Royal Canadian Air Force, the new organization commanded all of the air resources of the Canadian Forces, including the previously separate Navy and Army aviation branches.

The document finally approved by the minister (and noted by Cabinet) and to be effective from the 2 September 1975, read as follows: “The Role of AIRCOM is to provide operationally ready Regular and Reserve Air Forces to meet Canadian, Continental and International Defence Commitments and to carry out Regional Commitments within the Prairie Region*.”

* The Prairie Region extended from Thunder Bay to Vancouver, and existed along with Atlantic, Central and Pacific Regions for purposes of assigning responsibility for National assistance by the military in events such as floods, ice storms and forest fires where civilian resources were overwhelmed. The responsibility also included “Aid to the Civil Authority” and “Aid of the Civil Power”. Regardless of who “owned” the military resources in a Region, the designated commander was authorized to use whatever military forces he needed to meet the emergency.

Without a “wannabe airman” who was a charismatic, patriotic and gutsy chief of the defence staff, and a minister who really dedicated himself to the efficacy of the Canadian Forces, Air Command, as it was finally created, could never have come to pass.

And, without the thoroughly objective professional colleagues I had on my team, I could never have succeeded in pulling it off.

There are two worthwhile historical sources for detailed information of the creation of Air Command. They are The formation of Air Command: A struggle for survival, by Major Stephen L. James, published by the Department of History, Royal Military College, April 1989; and The Organization of Air Command 1973–1976, by Catherine Eyre, issued within the Department of National Defence, issued November 7, 1979 (Contains much statistical detail, and organizational charts).

Written December 20, 2005; revised January 20 and February 28, 2006.

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