Department of National Defence briefing papers reveal a flurry of behind-the-scenes activity last year to find a new purpose for CFB 5 Wing Goose Bay, even while the facility was identified as the lowest-priority base in the country from a military operational perspective.
The loss of 25 jobs at the base last week has again stoked fears about Ottawa's long-term plans for 5 Wing.
The DND briefing papers — obtained through access-to-information, and covering the first six months of 2013 — appear to offer conflicting messages over the future of the base.
Two top officials — Gen. Tom Lawson, the chief of the defence staff, and Robert Fonberg, the deputy minister of National Defence — signed off on a briefing note and presentation prepared for the associate minister in January 2013.
“This brief will confirm that the [Canadian Armed Forces] and DND are committed to ensuring an enduring presence in Goose Bay,” they wrote.
'In the current context … it is increasingly difficult to justify current expenditure levels as they draw resources from higher priority operational activities.' - March 2013 DND briefing note
But a briefing note sent two months later, in March 2013, painted a less optimistic picture, highlighting a number of “challenges” with 5 Wing.
“You should be aware that DND/CAF has identified Goose Bay as the lowest priority base from a military operational perspective,” the briefing note advised.
The document, provided to then-associate minister of National Defence Kerry-Lynne Findlay, outlined a number of issues:
- the cost to support personnel in Goose Bay is more than five times the average for other Canadian locations — $129,500, compared to $24,000.
- the difficulty of staffing positions in the area because “there are few opportunities for spousal employment.”
- while 85 per cent of DND’s Goose Bay resources are devoted to maintaining and operating the airfield, only five per cent of the flights at the airport are military.
“In the current context … it is increasingly difficult to justify current expenditure levels as they draw resources from higher priority operational activities,” the document notes.
There is one line redacted in the middle of that sentence, for reasons related to cabinet secrecy.
A further six pages were also withheld, for the same reason.
Conservative promises in 2006
The federal Conservatives made bolstering the Labrador base one of their array of promises in the 2006 election campaign that brought them to power.
But they never followed through on those initial pledges, which would have seen a new, 650-member rapid reaction army battalion and a new long-range unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) squadron at the base.
In 2012, according to the Ottawa Citizen, Prime Minister Stephen Harper pressed then-Defence Minister Peter MacKay to find a bigger role for 5 Wing.
Briefing papers obtained by CBC News show that work was underway in 2012 and early 2013 to establish a new operational mandate for the base.
The work was being planned in two phases, according to the briefing papers.
The first phase involved doubling the Canadian Ranger presence in Labrador to 600 positions; upgrades to the training area and related infrastructure; and expanding maritime and coastal surveillance. In June 2013, the Citizen reported that those plans were being implemented.
All information related to the second phase is redacted in the documents provided to CBC News.
In November, the office of Defence Minister Rob Nicholson steered initial CBC News inquiries to military officials, who declined interview requests.
“As a matter of policy, the content of meetings with the minister, his deputy and/or associates is confidential and not released publicly,” Maj. James Simiana wrote in a Nov. 8, 2013, e-mail after being first asked about the briefings by CBC News.
'As a matter of policy, the content of meetings with the minister, his deputy and/or associates is confidential and not released publicly.' - Maj. James Simiana
“At this time, the 5 Wing Goose Bay facility continues to serve the requirements of the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Canadian Armed Forces, and its mission remains to support Allied, NORAD and Canadian training and operations.”
Last week, Simiana indicated there was nothing further to add at this point, re-issuing a boilerplate statement dealing with recent job cuts by site service provider Serco in Goose Bay.
“The Royal Canadian Air Force and 5 Wing remain focused on 5 Wing’s mission to operate the Goose Bay airfield, support Canada’s sovereignty through NORAD, and the provision of an outstanding venue for military training,” it noted.
Serco’s service contract for 5 Wing was extended for just two years, until March 2016, sparking questions about the long-term future of the base.