Canada short jets for NATO while some train in Pa­cific

The Hamilton Spectator - - CANADA & WORLD - LEE BERTHIAUME

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.

CANA­DIAN FORCES COMBAT CAM­ERA FILE PHOTO

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.

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