The federal government has failed to put Canada’s fleet of CF-18s back into fighting shape, leaving the fighter jets unable to meet the country’s military requirements at home and abroad with no quick solution in sight, the Auditor-General said.
Auditor-General Michael Ferguson first criticized the previous Conservative government in 2012 for its failure to follow the appropriate process to replace Canada’s CF-18s, which were bought in the early 1980s and were set to be retired in 2020.
The Liberal government did not fare better in a new audit Mr. Ferguson released on Tuesday, given the fleet is now set to fly until 2032 despite shortages of aircraft, pilots and technicians. In its current state, the country’s fighter fleet is unable to meet Canada’s obligations under the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the report said.
In addition, the report said the Canadian fleet has not received any major upgrades in combat capabilities since 2008, leaving CF-18s lagging far behind foreign fleets.
“We found that National Defence has not kept the CF-18’s capability up to date with most modern combat aircraft and air defence systems,” the report said. “According to National Defence, the CF-18 will be disadvantaged against many potential adversaries, and its combat capability will further erode through the 2020s and into the 2030s.”
Four years ago, the department decided that with appropriate upgrades, the CF-18s could continue to fly until 2025.
The current government now plans to launch a competition for new fighter jets next year, under which replacement aircraft will start arriving only in the mid-2020s. That timeline will force the Canadian Armed Forces to continue flying CF-18s until 2032 to provide for an orderly transition to the new fleet.
Keeping the CF-18s in the air until then will cost $1.2-billion.
“This amount includes the cost for spare parts and upgrades to the structure and avionics and electrical systems, but not any combat capability upgrades. Without combat upgrades, the CF-18 will be less effective against adversaries in domestic and international operations,” the report said.
The Auditor-General criticized the planned purchase in 2016 of an interim fleet of new Boeing fighter jets, which has since been cancelled. According to the report, the acquisition would have exacerbated long-standing problems.
“[National Defence] stated that the Super Hornet would initially decrease, not increase, the daily number of aircraft available because technicians and pilots would have to be pulled away from the CF-18s to train on the new aircraft,” the report said.
The government has since decided to buy 18 used F/A-18 fighter jets from Australia for $500-million, but the acquisition will not solve the military’s basic challenges. Nearly a quarter of technician positions on CF-18 squadrons were vacant or staffed with personnel who were not fully qualified, while new pilots are hard to hire.
“The purchase will not fix the fundamental weaknesses with the fleet: the aircraft’s declining combat capability and the shortage of personnel,” the report said.
The federal government said it has spent the past three years getting ready to buy 88 new fighter jets that will be able to meet Canada’s NORAD and NATO requirements. This will be a bigger fleet than the 65 aircraft that the previous Conservative government had planned to acquire.
“The Harper Conservatives mismanaged the fighter jet file and misled Canadians for over a decade,” Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said. “Unlike the Harper Conservatives, we will not compromise on our ability to meet our NATO and NORAD commitments.”
The Conservatives responded by urging Mr. Sajjan to accelerate the purchase of new fighter jets.
“He is willing to spend billions trying to upgrade jets that are falling apart instead of investing that money into a new fighter fleet, and the Air Force cannot even recruit enough pilots, because they do not want to fly these old Australian fighter jets," Conservative MP James Bezan said in the House. "When will the Prime Minister be honest with Canadians and with the Air Force members and cancel this purchase of obsolete Australian jets?”