Canada short jets for NATO while some train in Pacific
Eight Canadian fighter jets have been deployed on a massive training exercise in the Pacific, despite Liberal government warnings the country does not have enough aircraft to defend North America and fulfil its obligations to NATO.
The government says the monthlong exercise is critical for training Canadian fighter pilots to work alongside allies — and the planes will return to Canada immediately if they are needed.
But the Conservatives say their involvement proves Liberal claims of a fighter-jet shortage aren’t true.
The eight CF-18s arrived in Hawaii at the beginning of July as part of Canada’s contribution to the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, or RIMPAC, which has been billed as one of the largest military exercises in the world. Canada is among 27 countries participating in the U.S.-led exercise, which takes place every two years.
The fighter jets are expected to remain in the region until July 29. Canada also has four naval ships, six helicopters, two refuelling aircraft, a surveillance plane and more than 1,500 military personnel participating in RIMPAC.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s spokesperson, Jordan Owens, said the air contingent is the largest ever for Canada in the Pacific. The exercise gives Canadian pilots the opportunity to operate together and also to work alongside counterparts from traditional and non-traditional allies throughout the Pacific region, she said.
“We need to train pilots, and they have this opportunity to train with more than 20 other countries,” Owens said. “This is essential for having a combat-capable air force.”
Yet Sajjan warned earlier this month that only about half of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 77 CF-18s are available for operations at any given time, which was not enough to meet Canada’s commitments to NATO and North American defence.
“Today, the number of missionready aircraft we can deploy on an average day is actually less than the number of planes we are committed to have ready,” Sajjan said on July 9, as he reiterated the need to purchase a replacement fighter jet quickly.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan said the CF-18s’ involvement at RIMPAC is evidence there are enough jets.
“It proves the fact Canada can do — not just our Norad and NATO missions — but we can do these exercises as well,” he said. “Anything Minister Sajjan is saying now about a capability gap is a complete fabrication.”
But Owens said the CF-18s’ involvement in RIMPAC highlights the difficult work the air force has been doing to manage that shortage of fighter jets. If the aircraft are needed somewhere else before RIMPAC ends, she added, “they would leave.”
The question of whether the military is really dealing with a shortage of fighter jets has become central to the debate that has raged for years over which aircraft Canada should buy to replace its aging CF-18s.
The Liberals say the problem is real and requires a quick solution to ensure Canada is able to meet all its international obligations. Critics, however, have accused the Liberals of manufacturing a crisis to justify buying a new fighter jet other than the F-35 stealth fighter without a competition. The Liberals promised in last year’s election they would hold an open competition to replace the CF-18s which Canada purchased beginning in 1982.
Royal Canadian Air Force ground crew perform post flight checks on a CF-18 fighter jet in Kuwait after a sortie in 2014. The reliable jets are near the end of their lifespan after more than 30 years, and replacement is needed soon.