AIR DE­FENCE IS A MESS

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Let’s hope the Rus­sians have not read the au­di­tor general’s lat­est re­port into the cri­sis fac­ing Canada’s fighter jet fleet. If they have, per­haps they would be good enough to re­frain from in­vad­ing any­where else un­til around 2032, when the air force will take de­liv­ery of its new planes.That’s be­ing flip­pant, but the al­ter­na­tive is res­ig­na­tion and de­spair at the om­nisham­bles suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have made in pro­vid­ing for Canada’s air de­fences.In typ­i­cally metic­u­lous fash­ion, Michael Fer­gu­son’s depart­ment de­tailed how and why the air force is in a predica­ment where it does not have enough tech­ni­cians, pi­lots or com­bat-ready planes to ful­fil Canada’s op­er­a­tional com­mit­ments.The fleet only has 78 per cent of the num­ber of tech­ni­cians it needs, which means only 83 per cent of the air­craft needed are ready. That short­age has increased the num­ber of hours of main­te­nance needed to keep the ag­ing CF-18 fleet in the air to 24 for ev­ery hour of fly­ing time.Let that num­ber sink in. The CF-18s were bought in the early 1980s and were ex­pected to be re­tired 20 years later. Cur­rent plans are to keep them fly­ing un­til 2032, by which time they will be 50 years old — a bunch of rusted nuts, bolts, air­frames and en­gines sup­plied by the low­est bid­der.The short­age of tech­ni­cians means the hours flown by CF-18 pi­lots have de­creased. Pi­lots are ex­pected to fly 140 hours a year to keep their skills up to date, yet the au­di­tor general found 28 per cent of pi­lots flew fewer than 140 hours in 2017-18.In ad­di­tion to the short­age of tech­ni­cians, the air force has a dearth of trained pi­lots — only 64 per cent of the num­ber it needs to ful­fil the new com­mit­ments the govern­ment im­posed in 2016. That was when the Lib­er­als said they needed to make an “in­terim pur­chase” of 18 new Boe­ing Su­per Hor­nets so that the air force could meet a new op­er­a­tional re­quire­ment: enough planes to meet the high­est NORAD alert level and Canada’s NATO com­mit­ment at the same time.At the press con­fer­ence in Novem­ber 2016, Chief of the De­fence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance said Canada could not meet those obli­ga­tions si­mul­ta­ne­ously, far less do any­thing else. The im­pli­ca­tion was that the pur­chase of the new Su­per Hor­nets would al­low the air force to do so.Yet as Fer­gu­son’s re­port makes clear, the Depart­ment of Na­tional De­fence (and pre­sum­ably Vance) al­ready knew that buy­ing Su­per Hor­nets alone would not al­low it to meet the new op­er­a­tional re­quire­ment. In fact, the in­tro­duc­tion of the Su­per Hor­net would de­crease, not in­crease, the daily num­ber of air­craft avail­able be­cause tech­ni­cians and pi­lots would be pulled away from the CF-18 to train on the new air­craft. Even when op­er­a­tional, the new fleet would not have solved the prob­lem be­cause of the short­age of trained per­son­nel.“The depart­ment stated that it needed more qual­i­fied tech­ni­cians and pi­lots, not more fighter air­craft,” said the au­di­tor general’s re­port.That was not what Vance and De­fence Min­is­ter Har­jit Sa­j­jan said when they un­veiled the plan to buy the Su­per Hor­nets.“It’s dif­fi­cult to ra­tio­nal­ize pub­lic state­ments made by mil­i­tary mem­bers with that line in the au­di­tor general’s re­port,” said David Perry, vice-pres­i­dent at the Cana­dian Global Af­fairs In­sti­tute.DND said it is now try­ing to hire more tech­ni­cians and ad­dress de­clin­ing ex­pe­ri­ence lev­els among pi­lots. But the pic­ture is get­ting worse, not bet­ter. Be­tween April 2016 and March of this year, 40 pi­lots left while only 30 were hired. Since then an­other 17 have left or said they plan to leave.The per­son­nel cri­sis is just one ex­am­ple in a litany of fail­ures and mis­man­age­ment by gov­ern­ments of all stripes.The de­ci­sion to buy the Su­per Hor­nets has since been over­turned, af­ter a trade dis­pute with Boe­ing. Last De­cem­ber, the govern­ment said it now plans to buy 18 sur­plus-to-re­quire­ments Aus­tralian jets for a pur­chase price and main­te­nance cost of nearly $1 bil­lion. But the au­di­tor general found the new planes “will not im­prove the CF-18s com­bat ca­pa­bil­ity.”The screwups are multi-faceted and date back to at least the pre­vi­ous govern­ment.As Fer­gu­son noted, DND “has not done enough, in part be­cause of fac­tors out­side its con­trol.”In 2010, the Conservatives an­nounced their in­ten­tion to buy 65 Lock­heed Martin F-35 fight­ers to re­place the CF-18s by 2020. Af­ter a crit­i­cal au­di­tor general re­port that said DND and Pub­lic Works did not man­age the com­pet­i­tive process prop­erly, that pur­chase was put on hold. Na­tional De­fence sub­se­quently de­cided to ex­tend the life of the CF-18s un­til 2025.The Lib­er­als won the 2015 elec­tion on a plat­form that in­cluded the ap­par­ently con­tra­dic­tory com­mit­ments that they would hold an open com­pe­ti­tion to re­place the fighter jet fleet but would not buy the F-35.That com­pet­i­tive process has now been pushed off past the next elec­tion, with the plan to buy 88 new fighter jets by 2032. DND told the au­di­tor general it hopes to be­gin tran­si­tion­ing to the new fight­ers by the mid2020s but, as Perry noted, it can scarcely man­age the fleet it has, never mind think about adding an­other.The con­se­quence of govern­ment blun­ders is a fighter jet with se­vere lim­i­ta­tions to its com­bat ca­pa­bil­ity.The CF-18s have not been up­graded for com­bat since 2008, which means they are eas­ier to de­tect by radar than newer jets.Fer­gu­son’s re­port said DND be­lieves the ex­ist­ing fight­ers will be dis­ad­van­taged against po­ten­tial ad­ver­saries and that their com­bat abil­i­ties will con­tinue to erode over the next decade.As one pi­lot put it, a tus­sle be­tween a CF-18 and a fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighter would be “like rac­ing a 1970s Ford Pinto with a Tom­Tom GPS against a Tesla.”The depart­ment’s own anal­y­sis sug­gested the ex­ten­sion of the re­tire­ment date to 2032 will prove “risky and costly.” No one else in the world is plan­ning to fly this plane that far into the fu­ture.The au­di­tor general agreed with the risk as­sess­ment.“In our opin­ion, fly­ing the CF-18 un­til 2032, with­out a plan to up­grade its com­bat ca­pa­bil­ity, will re­sult in less im­por­tant roles for the fighter force and will pose a risk to Canada’s abil­ity to con­trib­ute to NORAD and NATO op­er­a­tions,” the re­port said.Thanks to all the hem­ming and haw­ing and hes­i­ta­tion, we are still 13 years away from de­liv­ery of a new fleet.Sa­j­jan is­sued a state­ment Tues­day say­ing the air force is in the mean­time as­sess­ing com­bat sys­tem up­grades for the CF-18.One pi­lot said the cost will likely prove “sober­ing” and will open the govern­ment up to crit­i­cism for de­lay­ing the fighter-jet re­place­ment com­pe­ti­tion.Sa­j­jan ac­knowl­edged the “en­dur­ing so­lu­tion” to the fighter prob­lems will not be achieved un­til the new jet has been de­liv­ered and more tech­ni­cians and pi­lots have been hired. This will take time, he said. No kid­ding.It need not be that way. In­dus­try sources sug­gest a com­pe­ti­tion could be com­pleted in two years and new jets de­liv­ered three years af­ter that. Who knows, maybe the prom­ise of a shiny new plane might solve the pi­lot re­cruit­ment prob­lem?There is no con­ceal­ing the fact that Canada’s fighter jet pro­gram is in trou­ble. For a G7 coun­try and a found­ing mem­ber of NATO, that is not good enough.LIKE RAC­ING A 1970s FORD PINTO WITH A TOM­TOM GPS AGAINST A TESLA.

A Cana­dian CF-18 jet pi­lot from 3 Wing Bagotville, Que., sits in his plane upon ar­rival from a mis­sion. The au­di­tor general’s re­port warned Tues­day that Canada’s fighter jet ca­pa­bil­i­ties are be­ing lim­ited by a lack of trained pi­lots.

Au­di­tor General Michael Fer­gu­son warned of a crit­i­cal short­age of fighter jet tech­ni­cians in his re­port Tues­day.

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