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Feds to move military aircraft testing from Alberta to Ottawa, but Cold Lake politicians say they’re in the dark

Feds to move military aircraft testing from Alberta to Ottawa, but Cold Lake politicians say they’re in the dark
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The federal government will create a new centre of excellence in Ottawa to support aircraft testing, but it will come at the cost of relocating staff and shutting down existing military facilities in Alberta.

The move affects the Canadian military’s Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment, or AETE, which has been at Cold Lake, Alta. since 1971. Under the new plan AETE would be relocated to the international airport in Ottawa and partnered with the National Research Council Flight Research Laboratory and Transport Canada Aircraft Services Directorate to create a centre of excellence for flight testing and evaluation. The move would affect almost one-third of the unit, which employs 166 military personnel and 22 public servants. The remaining two-thirds would be reassigned to other air force functions, said Department of National Defence spokesman Dan Le Bouthillier.

Moving AETE will save $14 million a year and free up space for the arrival of more fighter jets at Cold Lake. Canada is in the process of purchasing used fighter aircraft from Australia and the federal government has committed to buying 88 new jets to replace the existing fleet of CF-18s.

“This partnership will streamline our flight testing and evaluation capability, while ensuring sufficient space is available for the arrival of additional fighter aircraft in Cold Lake,” Le Bouthillier said.

This partnership will streamline our flight testing and evaluation capability, while ensuring sufficient space is available for the arrival of additional fighter aircraft in Cold Lake

The move, however, is not sitting well with local politicians.

David Yurdiga, the Conservative MP for the area, said he’d heard about the move on Monday when it was raised at the House Commons Standing Committee on Public Accounts. DND officials briefing the committee said there had been consultation about the move with local politicians. “It’s totally not true,” said Yurdiga.

Craig Copeland, the mayor of Cold Lake, said the city hasn’t yet received a briefing from officials in Ottawa. “It’s been sort of verbally mentioned over the years that there would be a re-org,” he explained. “We’re hoping to get somebody to brief us.”

Details about the exact number of jobs that will be moved from Alberta are still not clear. It is not known how many of the air force personnel who will be reassigned to new jobs would continue to operate from Cold Lake.

Yurdiga said the loss of jobs would hit the community hard but he added that defence minister Harjit Sajjan had assured him there would be a “net benefit” to the community. “Cold Lake can’t afford to lose even one position,” Yurdiga said.

“There are so many unanswered questions and uncertainty is what the community is facing,” he added.

Copeland said he had heard an estimate of 50 jobs being lost. That would be a real blow to the area, already suffering from depressed oil prices, and with a home foreclosure rate, he said, of around 10 per cent. “That is concerning to me,” Copeland said. “On the one hand it’s tough to see people leave our community but on the other hands, we are hopeful — and expecting — that the Canadian military’s going to be investing (locally) for the new fighter jet program.”

AETE currently occupies the second-largest and newest hangar at Cold Lake, which will be repurposed for other air force needs, including the new fighter program.

CF-18 Hornet fighter jets takes off from 4 Wing Cold Lake on Tuesday, October 21, 2014. TREVOR ROBB/EDMONTON SUN/QMI AGENCY

The final details of the move are still being worked on, including costs, Le Bouthillier said. DND is in ongoing discussions with the Ottawa International Airport Authority regarding the location of the new centre, he added.

The costs for relocating AETE are included in the $470 million the Liberal government has set aside for buying the used Australian F-18 fighter jets, and would not take place before summer 2021.

The Cold Lake location was primarily selected for AETE because of the large evaluation range nearby and its favourable climate for flight testing. AETE employs test pilots, flight test engineers, qualified systems evaluators, specialist engineers, and technologists.

At the time, the military told defence industry representatives the remote Cold Lake location made it challenging to attract or retain people and that relocating could save money.

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