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CF-18s line up on the tarmac in the Cold Lake, Alta., air-force base on Sept. 28, 2010.JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

Canada needs an interim fleet of fighter jets only because the Liberal government created a policy that increased the number of aircraft that must be available for NORAD and NATO missions at the same time, the head of the Royal Canadian Air Force says.

The Liberals invoked a long-standing "capability gap" last week to justify the sole-source purchase of 18 Boeing Super Hornets, but Lieutenant-General Michael Hood on Monday said the need for new jets was caused by the recent policy change.

"Previously … we were comfortable as an armed forces in meeting those [NORAD and NATO commitments] with our extant fleet," Lt.-Gen. Hood told reporters after appearing at a Senate committee.

"That policy has changed with a requirement to be able to meet both of those concurrently, as opposed to managing them together, thus the requirement to increase the number of fighters available," he said.

Lt.-Gen. Hood spoke shortly after a CF-18 from the current fleet crashed in Saskatchewan during a routine training mission near the air-force base in Cold Lake, Alta.

"The pilot did not survive the crash," the head of the RCAF said. "It's a very, very sad day for the Royal Canadian Air Force, and our hearts go out to the family of our fallen member."

The government has refused to put a firm price on its plans to acquire the 18 new fighter jets, stating it did not want to tip its hand before negotiations with Boeing and the U.S. government.

Still, Lt.-Gen. Hood said that in addition to the acquisition budget, he is trying to determine the costs related to expanding the number of air-force pilots and technicians. He added he has a commitment from Ottawa and the Chief of the Defence Staff for the resources necessary to achieve the government's goals.

"Certainly I will need more people and I will need more funding to deliver on the additional flight hours for an interim fleet," he told senators.

When it announced plans to buy the "interim" fleet of Super Hornets, the government also said it will launch an open competition next year for a full fleet of fighter jets to replace the 76 remaining CF-18s.

The competition is expected to last five years, with the fleet being fully operational in the late 2020s. The two main contenders are expected to be the Super Hornet and the Lockheed-Martin F-35 stealth fighter jet.

Lt.-Gen. Hood said the previous Conservative government's plan to buy 65 F-35s would not meet Canada's new policy in terms of international commitments.

Lt.-Gen. Hood refused to say how many aircraft will be needed, but indicated the number would exceed the current CF-18 fleet, which suggests that acquiring the new fleet will be much more expensive than expected.

"The policy of the government of Canada at present would mean that 65 aircraft aren't sufficient as the final size of the fleet," he told the committee. "Suffice to say that the [76] that we presently have are incapable of delivering that number."

Opposition critics and defence analysts have criticized the Liberals for invoking a capability gap, with Conservative MP James Bezan saying the government has a "credibility gap."

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has often said that if the capability gap widens, Canada would no longer have a functional fighter jet fleet. Last week, he gave the terrorist attacks of 2001 as an example of why the Super Hornets are needed.

"If anybody thinks we are not going to have any unforeseen situations, think about 9/11, when we had to put every single fighter up in the air," Mr. Sajjan said.

However, Ken Pennie, who was deputy commander of NORAD at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, said the plan will exacerbate the situation as the RCAF expends resources integrating the Super Hornets.

"It takes time to train people and put everything in place," said Mr. Pennie, a retired lieutenant-general and former head of the air force. "The capability gap is going to get bigger."

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