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Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk and Defence Minister Peter MacKay attend a ramp ceremony for a fallen soldier at Kandahar airfield, Afghanistan, on Dec. 27, 2008.

Steve Rennie/The Canadian Press

The defence of Canada in all respects – the nation's overseas interests, and the welfare of our military – are not bounded by partisanship. Meeting these vitally important obligations demands a degree of accountability required from few others in government.

Recently, there has been public criticism about the use of Challenger jets by the Chief of Defence Staff and the Minister of National Defence, often comparing their use of these military aircraft to that by other ministers and senior department officials. A common theme has been the apparently high cost of these flights. Presented in a dramatic and sensational way, the criticism ignores some simple yet incontrovertible facts.

The obligations of the Department of National Defence, the Canadian Forces, the minister and the chief of defence exist regardless of the prevailing economic environment or the requirement for austerity. They cannot be waved off by those who, with an incomplete appreciation of their importance and context, consider commercial flights as being the only appropriate alternative. Many ministers have important national and international obligations, but whilst a finance minister may miss a market closure and a foreign minister might be delayed for an international meeting, the chief of defence staff and defence minister cannot miss or delay decisions where lives are frequently at stake. And, when lives are lost, as happened so often in Afghanistan, Canadians surely understand that the presence of these two senior officials is a most appropriate way to commemorate the return of our fallen to Canadian soil.

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To perform their duties effectively, both the minister and the chief of defence must continually be at the end of a secure communications facility, permitting them to respond quickly to emerging situations affecting national security. This is especially true give Canada's huge size and our military's worldwide footprint. Both the minister and his military chief need to travel great distances to connect with those who, through military service, defend and protect our land and our people. The Canadian Forces are constantly involved in widely disparate services, ranging from dangerous search and rescue missions over our vast territory and sea approaches, conducting anti-piracy missions on the high seas, defending Canadian sovereignty, blocking human and narcotics smugglers, undertaking allied operations in foreign lands, and responding to natural disasters. These distinct activities frequently require quick decision making at the level of the minister and the chief of defence, of the kind carried out aboard government Challenger aircraft on numerous occasions over the years.

As a sovereign nation, a G8 member and a major NATO ally, Canada has responsibilities at home and abroad that are commensurate with that standing. With these responsibilities comes a cost. Certainly during this time of economic uncertainty all expenditures must be carefully scrutinized for their legitimacy, but it should be done in a fashion that is both rational and objective.

We the undersigned, having served in the past respectively as ministers or chiefs of defence, view with concern the recent attacks regarding the use of government jets by the current incumbents. Alarming the Canadian public with dollar figures that dramatically inflate the real cost of using the Challengers, while misconstruing the context and realities of that use, does a disservice to the Minister of National Defence, the Chief of Defence Staff and the people they serve.

Bill Graham and David Pratt were ministers of national defence; retired generals Paul Manson Ray Henault served as chiefs of defence staff

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