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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Liberals Consider Moving AETE to Ottawa as part of Defence Review

By: David Pugliese, Ottawa Citizen

As part of efforts to cut costs, the Canadian Forces is looking at options to revamp its Alberta-based aerospace test facilities, including transferring some of the work to private industry or moving the organization to a more accessible location, such as the Ottawa area.

The process, dubbed the Engineering Flight Test Rationalization Initiative, is part of continuing efforts at the Department of National Defence to create a lean, more efficient organization while freeing up money or staff to support other military capabilities. It was started last year under the Conservative government but has continued under the Liberals.

The focus is on the services offered by the Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment, or AETE, in Cold Lake, Alta.
A jet flies past AETE in 2004. The services currently offered by AETE may be moved near Ottawa.
An CF-18 attached to the AETE  for testing, flies over the AETE in 2004. 
Defence industry representatives have been told the military believes substantial savings can be made at AETE while keeping essential flight test capabilities intact.

Several options are being considered, including increased co-operation with industry, allies or other government departments or changing how the staff is structured — 175 of its 200 employees belong to the military.

Other possibilities are moving the facility to the Ottawa region or contracting out some of the work. Areas where industry might play a role include aircraft maintenance, providing planes for flight testing and operating ranges.

“We’re still gathering information to build up our options,” said Col. Mike Barker, AETE’s commanding officer. “Once we figure out the ‘what,’ then the ‘how’ or the ‘when’ all falls from that.”

AETE tests everything from new seatbelts for military planes to radars to aircraft. Some of its recent work included testing gun systems on helicopters and the new guided bombs for the CF-18 fighter jets.

“Nobody is talking about shutting down what we do,” Barker said. “It’s a core capability. (But) are there opportunities to do it smarter or better?”

The military has already gathered information from industry on what services it could offer and there have been back-and-forth discussions.

Whether AETE moves from Cold Lake depends on the options being examined.

But the military has told industry representatives the remote Cold Lake location makes it challenging to attract or retain people. AETE employs test pilots, engineers, and other specialists and support staff.

Whatever option is selected, there will still be the need for the bombing ranges at Cold Lake. But other parts of AETE could be located near regional airports aerospace industry hubs, or in the national capital region.

“You don’t have to go very far north of Ottawa before there is a lot of nothing,” Barker said when asked about what airspace could be used for testing near the capital city.

You don’t have to go very far north of Ottawa before there is a lot of nothing

AETE staff have been kept in the loop about the process and why it is being done, he said.

John MacLennan, national president of the Union of National Defence Employees, said one potential location in the national capital region is in Gatineau, Que., where there is another military testing organization.

AETE began operating at Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake in 1971.

Barker said he does not have a specific timetable for the options to be completed or acted upon if necessary.

But the Liberal government recently launched a defence review that is expected to be made public in early 2017. The Liberals said during the election campaign they would move ahead with developing an “agile and lean” Canadian Forces and the review of defence capabilities is part of that process.