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The first of 88 new advanced fighter jets will be in service by 2025 and the fleet will be operational by 2026, according to officials from the Department of National Defence (DND).
Facing a barrage of questions about the department’s ability to sustain the current fleet of 76 CF-188 Hornets through to their planned retirement in 2032, Jody Thomas, deputy minister of DND, assured members of the House Commons Standing Committee on Public Accounts on Dec. 3 that the aircraft would begin phasing out much sooner.
“The first advanced fighter will arrive in 2025. And the number of mission-ready aircraft will increase quickly to address our NATO and NORAD commitments,” she said. “In fact, we expect to achieve initial operating capability by 2026 with nine advanced fighters ready to fulfil the NORAD mission.”
While the 30-year-old Hornets will remain operational with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) until 2032, “we will not be flying all of the CF-188s until 2032,” she emphasized. “We will only fly as many as we need to support the transition to the advanced fighter fleet.”
Thomas and other senior officials were called to appear before the Public Accounts committee in the wake of a harsh report from the Auditor General on DND’s risk management of the fighter aircraft fleet and the government’s decision to acquire 18 operational Boeing-built F/A-18A/B Hornets from Australia to bridge a so-called capability gap resulting from a change in policy.
In 2016, the newly elected Liberal government directed the department to ensure it had enough fighter aircraft available at all times to meet the highest NORAD alert level and Canada’s concurrent commitment to NATO. Previously, DND had placed a greater priority on meeting its NORAD obligation.
The Auditor’s report found that in order to meet the new operational requirement, the department determined it needed to increase the fighter fleet by 23 per cent, and the government launched an interim project to augment the fleet.
Initially, the Liberals sought to negotiate with the United States government for 18 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, but cancelled that following a commercial dispute between Boeing and Montreal-based Bombardier, instead opting for 18 Australian Hornets, and up to seven more for spare parts, of the same model and age as the RCAF fleet.
With the RCAF facing “a growing shortage of trained and experienced pilots and technicians,” the Auditor found that DND’s own analysis showed the interim plan would not help “meet the new operational requirement and would make the personnel shortage worse.”
In fact, although the government has earmarked almost $3 billion to extend the life of the CF-188s and acquire and upgrade interim aircraft, it failed to deal with the two “biggest obstacles to meeting the new operational requirement: a shortage of pilots and the declining combat capability of its aircraft,” the Auditor concluded.
In explaining the report to the committee, Jerome Berthelette, assistant auditor general, noted that the RCAF had only 64 per cent of the trained pilots needed to meet the government’s new requirement and “as of April 2018, 22 per cent of technician positions in CF-188 squadrons were vacant or filled by techs not yet fully qualified to do maintenance.”
Several committee members expressed surprise that modernization of the Hornet’s combat readiness had not been incorporated into the upgrade plan, an indication of the “political nature” of many of the decisions involving the fighter preplacement program, said David Christopherson, the New Democratic MP from Hamilton. He suggested the department had only focused on what was needed to keep the jets flying, and not on the combat systems, because the department had expected “a replacement to be in place” by now.
Thomas said the Hornets and interim aircraft would be upgraded “to meet regulatory requirements” and an analysis was underway to assess “additional options to upgrade combat capability.” It is expected to be ready by spring 2019.
RCAF commander LGen Al Meinzinger said the analysis would “include looking at sensors, weapons, self-protection capabilities and … mission support.”
Among the more worrisome findings for the committee were the department’s plans to address the shortage of pilots and technicians. The Auditor noted that departures and the age of the jets was compounding a series of issues. Fewer experienced technicians has meant the “average maintenance hours needed for every hour that a CF-188 flew increased from 21 to 24 [between 2014 and 2018].”
For pilots who are expected to fly 140 hours per year to maintain and develop new skills, “we found that in the 2017-18 fiscal year, 28 per cent of pilots flew fewer than the minimum 140 hours. According to National Defence, one reason for these fewer hours was the shortage of technicians to maintain the aircraft,” the said the Auditor.
Both Thomas and Meinzinger emphasized new strategies and programs in place or being developed to steadily improve retention and recruitment, but committee members questioned whether they would be sufficient to meet the need for pilots and technicians.
Meinzinger highlighted the Fighter Capability Maintenance Renewal initiative, intended to add over 200 technicians to frontline squadrons, and a greater effort to encourage retiring or departing pilots to remain in service with the Reserves. He also noted a new air reserve occupation at the Wings intended to alleviate work that would normally be filled by active pilots, allowing “more pilots to fly at the squadron level.”
But he said it would take five to seven years to grow the Air Force enough to close much of the gap in experienced air crews.
“With the fighter renewal initiative, what will happen is, with the contracting of second line maintenance, we are going to be moving approximately 200 serving members forward into first line [maintenance],” explained Patrick Finn, assistant deputy minister of Materiel. “So you are going to see a significant increase in technicians on the flight line fixing aircraft, and we believe that is going to lead to more mission-ready aircraft for our pilots to fly.”
Kelowna MP Steven Fuhr, an acting member on the committee and a former CF-188 pilot, noted the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps were offering pilots increased salaries and retention bonuses for a certain number of obligatory years of service, something Canada did in the mid 1990s.
“We have a precedent of doing it,” he said. “I would suggest that if that is not already being considered, … that you seriously consider it because this pilot shortage is not going to get any easier, it’s going to get harder.”
The House of Commons recently passed a private members’ motion by Fuhr to study flight training schools and the challenges of producing sufficient trained pilots for the aviation industry.
He also urged the department to look for ways to leverage the contracts it already has with industry for pilot training and aggressor or red air, many of which are being delivered by former RCAF pilots who could provide more direct training.
As the department moves forward with the Hornet upgrades and an interim acquisition, it is also progressing on the project to select a replacement. The government issued a draft of the request for proposals in October, and the four contenders–the Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, Boeing Super Hornet, Saab JAS 39 Gripen, and Eurofighter Typhoon–have until mid-December to provide feedback. A second draft will be supplied in early 2019, followed by the formal RFP in the spring.
The government will then down select to two aircraft to begin “a competitive dialogue process” before awarding a contract in 2022, said Finn.
Several MPs questioned whether a contract could be signed sooner. Finn argued the timeline was realistic based on the complexity of the negotiations.
“We are running a request for proposal that could result in a number of scenarios. Depending on the successful bidder, we could have a direct commercial sales contract, we could have a foreign military sales application, we could have an acquisition under a memorandum of understanding,” he told the committee. “Negotiating those contracts and getting agreement, just on things like intellectual property, it is an area of complexity in this day and age where original equipment manufacturers guard this like the crown jewels.”
Finn noted that the department has tended to be overly optimistic about schedule and cost, so it is being very careful with its numbers. “There is a lot of risk at play here,” he acknowledged. “We would rather be judicious about the schedule … and if [it] can be accelerated, all the better.”