AIR DEFENCE IS A MESS
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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