By Scott Taylor
There was a lot of buzz last week following the release of the auditor general’s report. Of particular note was his conclusion about the present state of the Royal Canadian Air Force, which noted; there is a chronic shortage of pilots and technicians, and the advanced age of our CF-18 combat planes will soon render the entire fleet obsolete.
The current shortage of personnel means that there are not enough pilots or mechanics to operate the 76 CF-18’s presently in Canadian service. The government’s answer to this shortfall in personnel was to seek the acquisition of additional fighter planes.
First it was the November, 2016 announcement of a sole-source purchase of 18 new Boeing Super Hornets. This deal fell apart over Boeing’s unrelated trade tribunal challenge against Bombardier, which led the Liberal government to claim Boeing was no longer a ‘trusted partner’.
To justify the sole sourcing of the Super Hornets, the government had to announce there was an urgent ‘capability gap’ within the RCAF which they needed to address pronto, hence there was no time to stage a competition for the new fighters.
Access to information searches have since failed to produce a single Air Force briefing note mentioning any ‘capability gap’ within the RCAF in the two years prior to the announcement of the Super Hornet deal.
However, once committed, the Liberals had to come up with an alternative solution to fill in the RCAF ‘capability gap’ which they had claimed they needed to fix ASAP.
Instead of buying 18 new, more capable Super Hornets, Canada has now negotiated a deal to acquire 25 used Australian Air force F-18’s of the same vintage as the ones currently in Canadian service.
Buying the mothballed Aussie fighters comes with a $500 million price tag, and that does not include the cost to upgrade them or to give them a life extension overhaul.
According to the auditor general, this half-billion dollar expenditure will do nothing to solve the current problems of the RCAF. The audit noted, “The department stated that it needed more qualified technicians and pilots, not more fighter aircraft.”
So, the government buys them 25 more, used fighter jets instead.
The root problem for the personnel shortage is retention. With commercial airlines paying lucrative salaries, not to mention well paid training positions with Middle Eastern air forces, Canadian pilots and technicians are leaving the service faster than new personnel can be trained.
On a frightening note, the auditor general concludes that “If CF-18 pilots continue to leave at the current rate, there will not be enough pilots to train the next generation of fighter pilots.”
Last December it was announced by the Liberal government that Canada would hold a competition to purchase 88 fighters to eventually replace the aging CF-18 fleet. However, given the timelines on that project, the new jets would not enter frontline service until around 2032.
One Canadian pundit keeps opining that Canada’s failure to quickly replace the old CF’18’s is a contributing factor in the RCAF’s failure to retain enough experienced pilots.
In a recent paper published by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, Fellow Matt Fisher wrote “Some Canadian pilots have been considering whether to join the Royal Australian Air force because it would give them a chance to fly highly advanced F-35 fighter jets.”
From my experience those Canadian men and women who enlist in the RCAF share the same service-before-self patriotism as those in the Navy, and Army. While there may in fact be the odd individual who would rather wear an Australian uniform just so they could fly a different model of aircraft. I believe the vast majority of our pilots proudly wear the maple leaf on their flight suits.
It is also worth noting that the CF-18 has more than proved it’s worth over it’s three decades of service.
Since 1990, our Hornets have flown in four conflicts – the First Gulf War (1990-91), the 78-day bombing of Serbia and Kosovo (1999), the intervention in Libya (2011) and the campaign against Daesh (aka ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria (2014-2016).
In all of those thousands of combat sorties, which were flown in those four wars, our CF-18’s emerged without a single scratch.
The may be aging, but if we are employing them against semi-defenseless opponents they remain more than up to the task.
If we ever have to employ them against a first-rate, nuclear equipped enemy, then god help us all.