Canada's top soldier has written a memo to his troops defending flights he and Defence Minister Peter MacKay take on the government's executive jets and criticizing media coverage of the matter as "sensational" and "misguided."
Chief of the Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk and Mr. MacKay came under fire after recent stories about their use of Ottawa's Challenger VIP jets.
The reports also left players in the Harper government and military wondering whether each side had played a role in getting the Challenger flight stories into the press.
General Natynczyk emailed a special message on the jets to soldiers Thursday, accusing Canadian journalists of having "clouded the facts as I see them."
The senior commander explained in the note that he wasn't writing to protect himself – but because he was upset at what he considered unfair criticism of Mr. MacKay.
"As a public figure, I expect and welcome scrutiny, and stand prepared to be held accountable for my decisions," the general wrote.
"Nevertheless, I have been dismayed to see our Minister being unjustifiably criticized for the fine work he has been doing on behalf of the men and women of the Canadian Forces and the Department."
He called media reporting on Challenger flights "frustrating" but said he was confident the civilian and military staff at National Defence and the Forces would keep working in harmony on matters such as budget cost-cutting.
A copy of the letter was provided to The Globe and Mail upon request.
The VIP Challenger jets are back in the spotlight after it was revealed that Gen. Natynczyk used the planes 21 times in recent years to attend Forces-related pro sports events, fundraisers and – in one case – a family holiday in St. Martin.
Then, a Globe investigation found that Mr. MacKay outranked almost all his cabinet colleagues when it comes to using federal government executive jets, racking up more than $2.9-million in flights on the Challenger planes in the past four years.
No other Tory politician aside from Stephen Harper has accumulated as much time on the VIP jets since Mr. MacKay took over the defence portfolio in the late summer of 2007. Not former foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon or Ottawa's jet-setting Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, who frequently travels abroad for economic meetings.
The controversy comes at a terrible time for Gen. Natynczyk and Mr. MacKay, both of whom are leading efforts to chop spending at the Canadian Forces to help the Harper government tame the deficit by 2015.
The jets cost more than $10,000 per hour to operate but this figure – provided by the military – includes fixed expenses that are incurred whether the planes leave the tarmac or not. The incremental costs alone, such as fuel, spare parts and maintenance, add up to $3,285 an hour.
In his letter, Gen. Natynczyk said Canadian Forces staff use commercial aircraft for the bulk of their travel but said sometimes military-operated jets such as the Challengers come in handy.
"In many cases, military aircraft offer security, scheduling, command and control, and flexibility advantages that cannot be matched at any price," he wrote.
"Whether doing the nation's business abroad, or trying to squeeze additional productive time out of a tight schedule, being able to move senior leaders and their support staff quickly and efficiently to their destination is one of the reasons we operate command and liaison fleets such as the Challenger," he said.
"When one considers the clear operational advantages these aircraft offer in terms of their ability to enable command and liaison, medical evacuation, VIP transport, and short-notice delivery of high-value military equipment and personnel into operational theatres, I am confident that the Challengers continue to represent good value for money."
Gen. Natynczyk said Department of National Defence staff and the chain of command weighed costs and benefits carefully before deciding the best way to transport people.
"In many cases, the decision is made to simply go commercial. But where a sound cost-benefit argument can be made, particularly when there is the opportunity to provide the airlift at little or no incremental cost (by combining it with required training, for example), I consider use of military aircraft to be an appropriate and prudent expenditure of resources."
The general told his fellow servicemen and women that Mr. MacKay is an honourable man.
"The Canadian Forces [are]one of Canada's most trusted institutions because of the high standards of conduct and integrity shown by our men and women," he wrote.
"When I observe the Minister's tireless engagement in operations and the modernization of the Canadian Forces his genuine concern for military families, and the respect he pays to our fallen comrades, it is obvious to all that he shares this sense of personal honour. As Chief of the Defence Staff, I hold myself and my senior commanders to a high ethical standard, and I know that the Minister is equally uncompromising in regards his office and responsibilities."
He ended by saying he believed that "bonds of mutual respect" would keep both the civilians at National Defence and the military working on what really mattered.
"While this issue may linger over the coming weeks and months, I note with pride that Canadian Forces members are currently serving with distinction in two major conflicts, and continue to support our Nation in operational theatres around the globe and here at home," the general wrote.
"However frustrating the reports of the past weeks may have been, I know that as we work with our civilian partners in the Department to find efficiencies and cost savings, and to continue modernizing the CF while enabling operations, it is bonds of trust and mutual respect that will sustain our efforts."