The average age of the Canadian air force’s CF-18 jet fighters is now 27 1/2 years old, which means an operating life dating back to the fall of 1986 when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev held Cold War talks in Iceland.
Figures released by Defence Minister Rob Nicholson’s office this month reveal precisely how aged Canada’s fleet of jet fighters has become as the federal government grapples with decisions over how to replace them.
Canada’s remaining CF-18 Hornets have on average racked up about 5,733 hours of flying time, according to a Globe and Mail analysis of information provided by the Defence Minister’s office.
Sources say cabinet is expected to discuss the latest advice on options for new fighter planes before the end of June. Public Works Minister Diane Finley is expected to repeat a pledge to eventually make an internal options analysis public when she speaks at the CANSEC defence trade show in Ottawa this week.
The federal government originally purchased nearly 140 CF-18 fighters but now only 77 remain in operation, the latest figures show. The first CF-18s formally entered service in 1982.
The new snapshot of Canada’s aging CF-18 fleet shows that 27 – or more than one third of the jets – have logged more than 6,000 flying hours and one has exceeded 7,000 hours. All these figures were released by Mr. Nicholson’s office after an order-paper question from the opposition.
Ottawa spent billions of dollars upgrading 80 of the Hornets over the past decade on the assumption they’d be required to fly until 2017, but delays and difficulties in picking a replacement fighter mean the jets will now be needed until at least 2020.
Those extra years could cost Ottawa more money in life-extension costs.
When it released the age and usage figures for the CF-18s this month, the minister’s office said as part of the evaluation of options for new planes, the Department of National Defence would be studying “the cost of necessary upgrades to maintain safe and effective operations.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of National Defence on Monday declined to answer a question on how much the government would be required to spend to keep the CF-18s flying. She also declined to say how many planes are nearing the point where structural fatigue is too great.
Ashley Lemire said only that efficient management of the jets “have provided the flexibility for the CF-18 to operate safely and effectively into the 2020s.”
One former CF-18 pilot, speaking not for attribution, told The Globe and Mail on Monday that projections he was familiar with said that fatigue really starts to cut into the jets’ effectiveness beyond 2017 and that by 2020 estimates suggested there’d be “only about 40 airplanes that you'd still want to fly.”
The ex-pilot said the CF-18 body suffers more fatigue from training exercises than high-profile military operations, such as Kosovo in 1999 or Libya in 2011. “Training is very abusive on the airframe because the guys are pushing the envelope … flying the airplane to the edge.”
He said pilots could scale back harder training manoeuvres to spare the CF-18 more fatigue.
Recent budget squeezes may have bought the aging jets more life. David Perry, a senior analyst with the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, said the CF-18s have had flying hours cut in recent years due to the austerity program imposed by the Conservatives, who want to balance the federal budget by 2015.
“As I understand it the restraint measure restricted the hours by something like 20 per cent. In theory, all other things being equal, that should buy you another two years,” Mr. Perry said.