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Two years after the government acknowledged that the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) did not have the fighter assets needed to meet all operational requirements, Auditor General Michael Ferguson said the government not only seems no closer to acquiring replacements for its Boeing CF-188 Hornets but also faces a critical shortage of pilots and support personnel.
“National Defence has not done enough to manage risks related to Canada’s fighter aircraft fleet so that it can meet commitments . . . until a replacement fleet is in place,” Ferguson said in his Nov. 20 report to Parliament, which covers from January 2014 to July 2018.
The government’s stated need to fulfil its North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) commitments in addition to domestic roles–notably flying training–had created what Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan described as a “capability gap” in Canada’s defence policy.
That was in November 2016 when Sajjan was explaining a US$5 billion “interim” purchase of Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets to fill the “gap” until the government finally chooses a new fleet of 88 aircraft. The deal with Boeing was eventually scrapped when the U.S. Department of Commerce imposed tariffs of nearly 300 per cent on Bombardier C-Series commercial aircraft after Boeing complained that government subsidies had enabled the Quebec-based company to discount orders by U.S. buyers.
Calling Boeing an “unreliable” contracting partner, the government opted to spend an estimated $500 million on buying an initial 18 (subsequently increased to 25) used F-18s from Australia, which is replacing them with Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs. The deal with Australia was only recently signed off by the U.S., paving the way for completion by year’s end.
Although Ferguson reserves most of his criticism for the Department of National Defence, he also faults “factors outside its control.” Officials in his office confirmed to Skies that those factors included defence policy shifts that came with the 2015 change in government as well as problems within the financial and procurement bureaucracies.
“Uncertainty around when a replacement fighter fleet would be in place and increased operational requirements established by the government in 2016 put National Defence in a position that will make it difficult to manage risks until a replacement fighter fleet is in place,” Ferguson said.
With more than 1,450 military and civilian personnel supporting its remaining 76 CF-188 Hornets, the RCAF says it plans to recruit and retain more pilots and technicians. The ongoing cost of keeping the fleet operational is put at some $3 billion, but Ferguson said “the investment decisions will not be enough to ensure that National Defence can have the number of aircraft available daily to meet the highest NORAD alert level and Canada’s NATO commitment at the same time.
DND’s response, included in the report as a long-standing practice, is that its plans would keep the current fleet operational until 2032–when many of the aircraft will be a half-century old–and that the RCAF “is conducting [an] analysis to assess necessary combat upgrades that could be implemented to address the growing challenges presented by evolving threats.” The DND said that analysis, which it expects to complete by next spring, “will take into consideration plans to transition to a future fighter capability in the mid-2020s.”
As for personnel shortfalls, DND says its current Fighter Capability Maintenance Renewal (FCMR) program “will add over 200 technicians to front-line squadrons” and additional recruitment/retention efforts will be completed by next fall. “In addition . . . Canada’s new defence policy includes an initiative to increase the fighter force by an additional 200 positions.”
Ferguson says that as of last April, eight per cent of technician positions in Hornet squadrons were vacant and 14 per cent were filled by personnel who were not fully qualified. The result was that between December 2016 and April 2018, an average of 13 aircraft were not operationally ready at any given time.
Departures of experienced CF-188 technicians since 2014 has meant that average maintenance hours per flight hour increased to 24 from 21. The report points out that as the fleet continues to age, maintenance will become even more of a challenge and the number of pilot flying hours will decrease.
CF-188 pilots are expected to fly 140 hours annually to maintain proficiency, but Ferguson’s audit team found 28 per cent of pilots fell short in the last fiscal year because of, among other things, the shortage of technicians.
Moreover, the RCAF has admitted it has less than two-thirds the number of CF-188 pilots needed to meet the government’s requirements, and Ferguson’s report warns that the problem is likely to increase as the current flying training stream cannot even keep pace with retirements, including moves to domestic and foreign airlines.
“Between April 2016 and March 2018, the RCAF lost 40 trained fighter pilots and produced only 30 new ones,” Ferguson said, adding that a further 17 have since left or stated their intention to leave. “If CF-18 pilots continue to leave at the current rate, there will not be enough experienced pilots to train the next generation of fighter pilots, and National Defence will not have enough pilots to be able to meet . . . the new operational requirement for many years.”
On the broader question of the current Hornet fleet, and echoing earlier criticisms by his office, he notes that “Canada’s only fighter aircraft used in military operations at home and abroad . . . must be able to identify, track, and defeat threats and survive in combat situations.”
He adds that as threats evolve, particularly with new technology, investments must be made for the fighters to maintain combat capability. “Apart from integrating some new weapons during Canada’s involvement in Libya in 2011, National Defence has not significantly upgraded the CF-18 for combat since 2008. It has not done so, in part because it expected that a replacement fleet would be in place by 2020.”
He said DND has conceded that the current fleet “will be disadvantaged against many potential adversaries, and its combat capability will further erode through the 2020s and into the 2030s. Threats to the CF-18 would have to be reduced or destroyed by allies before the CF-18 could operate in certain environments, which would limit Canada’s contribution to NORAD and NATO.”
In response to the latest audit, Sajjan said in an email that the government is committed to giving the RCAF “the investments and equipment it needs . . . to meet both its NORAD and NATO commitments without risk-managing one or the other.”
In addition to the personnel initiatives, which includes contracted second-line maintenance, the minister the current fighter fleet is being upgraded “to meet regulatory and interoperability requirements, and ensure they can operate within North American and international airspace past 2025. . . .
“Canadians can rest assured that–thanks to the incredible efforts of our RCAF aviators–our CF-18s will continue to capably conduct missions in defence of Canadian airspace until the future fighter is fully operational.”