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Locked, loaded and lucrative Print
 Overlooked in the cost of rebuilding Afghanistan is the cost of the bullets
Mike Blanchfield and Andrew Mayeda - The Ottawa Citizen - November 21, 2007

KITCHENER, Ont. -- The gleaming steel cylinder is almost half as long as the average billiard cue, but feels 10 times heavier. It will be dulled to black when it is transformed into an essential component of the basic weapon of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan -- the barrel of the C7 assault rifle, through which about 20,000 bullets will flash before the weapon outlives its usefulness.

Canadian soldiers in southern Afghanistan are making record use of guns and bullets as they face some of their heaviest fighting since the Korean War. The Conservative government has tried to soften the rhetoric surrounding the war in Afghanistan this year, pressing messages of reconstruction and development, while downplaying the combat role of the military.

But a CanWest News Service analysis tells another story: the Defence Department has also embarked this year on a record purchase of guns and ammunition.

In late February, Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried to shift the focus away from the violence that has so far claimed the lives of 73 Canadian soldiers and one diplomat by announcing an additional $200 million in development aid.

But then, between February and late June, Canada spent almost $54 million on guns, ammunition, explosives, grenades and other weapons -- more than in all of 2005 and 2006 combined.

Colt Canada, the Kitchener, Ont.-based company that manufactures the C7 assault rifle and the shorter-barrelled C8 carbine exclusively for the Defence Department, says the escalation in fighting has not created a windfall for them.

"People think we're in this business to make money," says Francis Bleeker, Colt's director of sales. "If you want to make a bundle, go do something else."

The real money, says Mr. Bleeker, is in ammunition.

An analysis of Defence Department data shows that while Colt has sold $2.4 million worth of guns, spare parts and maintenance to the military so far this year, those numbers are dwarfed by the $46 million worth of bullets and mortars that General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems Canada sold to the Canadian Forces during just five months in 2007.

Colt opened its factory for a short tour by CanWest News Service and allowed Mr. Bleeker to sit for an hour-long interview, but General Dynamics Ordnance, of Le Gardeur, Que., did not return calls for comment.

By contrast, its corporate cousin, General Dynamics Land Systems, has been effusive about promoting another product: the LAV III armoured vehicle that is designed to protect troops in Afghanistan.

While the Conservative government has been largely silent about guns and bullets, it, too, has been anxious to publicize its purchases of $20 billion worth of new hardware.

In the summer of 2006, then-defence minister Gordon O'Connor spent a week touring Canada to announce contracts to purchase armoured trucks, supply ships and large aircraft, including the $10 billion worth of transport planes and helicopters it planned to buy from the two major U.S. military contractors, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Colt and General Dynamics Ordnance are subsidiaries of their larger American parent companies, Colt Defence and General Dynamics.

The U.S. army has also been a significant supplier of the Canadian army's weapons needs, selling Canadians $14 million worth of ammunition in late 2006.

Since Canadian troops were stationed in Kandahar in August 2005, Colt has sold almost $7.7 million worth of weapons and services to the Canadian Forces.

But Mr. Bleeker says a spike in fighting on the ground does not necessarily lead to a sudden rise in the purchase of guns.

"There's no such thing as impulse purchases in this case because there's so much involved," he argues. "Introducing something like a rifle takes training, logistics, organization. This is not something you just do overnight."

While Colt won't provide exact figures, Mr. Bleeker says the Forces stockpiled large quantities of rifles in the mid-'80s, toward the end of the Cold War.

"Don't forget, when they were building up their stocks, they were preparing for the great Soviet onslaught," says Mr. Bleeker.

"The rifles that they're using in Afghanistan are as good as new," he adds. "They have been completely taken apart. Everything has been tested and, where necessary, bits and pieces have been replaced."

The need to upgrade the weaponry is also being driven by the fundamental shift in modern warfare from the Cold War to the post-9/11 world. Colt has had to adapt the C7 and its cousins through nearly two dozen design changes.

That means creating a lighter weapon onto which targeting equipment can be attached, such as a laser pointer or a red-dot site. Such features are essential in a modern counterinsurgency when fighting an enemy in the grape fields and mud-walled compounds of southern Afghanistan.

"There are various red-dot sites that allow you to move your head, keep one eye open to look around and keep one dot on the target," says Mr. Bleeker. "With two eyes open, you've got a lot more peripheral vision, checking what's around you."

Even though the training and equipping of tens of thousands of indigenous Afghan security forces is seen as the ticket home for Canadian troops and their western allies, it doesn't look as though Colt will be selling its products to the Afghan National Army anytime soon.

Mr. Bleeker says that unless his company enters into a new agreement with the federal government, the Afghans will have to make do with their Kalashnikovs or whatever other weapons they can get their hands on now.

Thursday: Guarding the troops. Mercenaries and private contractors securing Canadian bases.

War by the Numbers

Number of Canadian troops deployed in southern Afghanistan: 2,500

Number of troops killed in Afghanistan since 2002: 73

Number of Canadian diplomats killed: One

Number of Afghan interpreters killed while working with Canadian troops: Two

Millions of dollars spent on small arms, guns, ammunition and other ordnance between February and June 2007: 54

Millions of dollars in spent spent on small arms, guns, ammunition and other ordnance in 2006: 18.4

In 2005: 32.3

Billions of dollars Canada will spend on foreign aid in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011: 1.2
 
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