A new study funded by the Department of National Defence says Canada’s CF-18 fighter aircraft force “is in crisis” and suffering from low morale, high rates of departure among instructor pilots and a shortage of maintenance technicians, impairing its ability to meet defence obligations to allies.
The report, by Justin Bronk, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, a 192-year-old British think tank, points to a number of underlying causes.
Those include the aging aircraft themselves, a “very inefficient” spare-parts supply process, “poor aircraft availability,” “unsustainable pilot workload” and a marked “trust gap” in how captain- and major-ranked pilots regard their leadership.
“Resignation and retirement rates among experienced instructor pilots and weapons instructors have been unsustainably high for years, and in such a small fighter force, have now become an immediate threat to its viability,” the report says.
“Urgent action must be taken now, before the decline becomes completely irreversible.”
The CF-188 Hornet, better known as the CF-18, is Canada’s multirole fighter aircraft. It first entered service in the 1980s. Canada is buying new F-35 Lightning aircraft, but Ottawa is taking delivery of the new fighters slowly, beginning in 2026, and won’t phase out CF-18s completely until about 2032. The operating life of the Hornets has been extended through a refurbishment initiative known as the Hornet Extension Program, or HEP.
Prof. Bronk warns that this state of affairs could jeopardize Canada’s shift to new aircraft.
Among the remedies he recommends are the addition of more maintenance and support equipment, and the hiring of civilian contractors to reduce the administrative workload for air crew.
He cautions that, without action, “there will be insufficient experienced pilots to effectively transition the force onto the F-35 whilst maintaining any meaningful combat capabilities in the remaining two CF-18 HEP II squadrons out to 2032.”
The report, obtained by The Globe and Mail, is labelled “Not for Public Release” and was produced with funding from National Defence’s MINDS program, which pays for research and analysis by scholars.
Another driver of pilot disaffection, particularly among experienced instructors, the report says, “is the fact that they do not see themselves as being adequately trained or equipped for many of the missions that they are notionally liable to be deployed on.”
These same instructors feel they can’t train people to the standards they know to be necessary and “are increasingly frustrated and worried by the prospect of what will happen if they have to go into combat poorly prepared,” the report adds.
Canada is a member of both the 31-member NATO military alliance and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a joint agreement with the United States. The country has obligations to supply resources to both partnerships.
The RUSI report says near-term geopolitical concerns, including risks in Asia, mean the Royal Canadian Air Force’s fighter capability can’t be allowed to decline.
“With the maximum risk period for a clash between China and the United States in the Indo-Pacific assessed as being 2026-2028 by the Pentagon and wider U.S. intelligence community, and no end in sight to either the ongoing war in Ukraine or increasing Russian military production and recruitment, the global security outlook is far too dangerous to let the CF-18 fighter force continue to degrade,” the report says.
Prof. Bronk warns that Canada’s CF-18 force “is not credible in a NATO context against many of the higher-end mission sets” that pilots are currently being trained for, both from a mission readiness and equipment perspective.
He cites NATO’s Article 5, the collective defence pact at the heart of the alliance, which says that an attack against one member is considered as an attack against all. Such an attack could trigger military action by NATO countries against the aggressor.
“The CF-18 as a 40 year old aircraft, and the limited set of pilot competency achievable within the flying hours available, greatly limit what Canadian Hornet crews would be able to achieve against a peer adversary in a NATO Article Five contingency,” Prof. Bronk writes.
The report says Canada is wasting flying time and money training for high-risk scenarios that “no NATO commander would ever allocate RCAF CF-18s to.”
Prof. Bronk recommends that Canada refocus its aircraft training and resources on missions for which it “could credibly be employed,” such as NORAD air interceptions, NATO air policing and other scenarios.
Prof. Bronk declined to comment on his work, saying in an e-mailed statement that it was “for official use only.”
Conservative defence critic James Bezan blamed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government for what he called the “state of disrepair” of the Canadian Armed Forces. He cited the years it took the government to procure a replacement for the CF-18s, and what he described as billions in the defence budget that have gone unspent. The government calls this “lapsed spending.” It is often caused by procurement delays.
He accused Mr. Trudeau of “playing politics” with fighter jets by promising in his 2015 election platform not to buy F-35s, then running a selection process that years later ended in a decision to buy F-35s.
Andrea Charron, director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, said the report has identified key problems for Canada’s air force. “But I am not certain it is as stark as painted,” she said.
She noted that Chief of the Defence Staff Wayne Eyre “has been very upfront that recruitment and retention is a focus area” in the military.
She said the report may nevertheless galvanize concern. “The shock value, however, may help expedite changes,” she said.
Daniel Le Bouthillier, head of media relations at National Defence, said in a statement that the department and the military “are aware of the many issues highlighted” by Prof. Bronk and “are actively engaged, alongside our DND colleagues, in looking into these issues, and seeking solutions to them.”
But he said the air force “remains able to meet our NORAD commitments for the defence of Canada and the security of North American airspace.”
David Perry, president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said he is concerned about the ability of the air force to keep its fighter force intact until Canada begins to receive F-35s.
He said the military should look at setting up an air national guard, as the U.S. has, to ensure trained pilots are ready for the new fighters. ”It’s time to get creative, because this is a really serious situation,” he said.