OTTAWA—The air force is desperately short pilots and technicians, and, with no strategy to tackle the shortfall, Canada’s fleet of fighter jets will be hobbled for years to come, the auditor general warns.
Michael Ferguson cautions that the aging CF-18 fighters are fast becoming toothless tigers as it’s been a decade since any significant upgrade to their combat capabilities.
In a new report released Tuesday, Ferguson takes aim at the $3-billion plan to augment Canada’s aging CF-18s, and bluntly concludes it will do little good, because of air force personnel shortages.
That’s because the defence department lacks a plan to deal with the “biggest obstacles” in meeting the demands on the fighter fleet: a shortage of pilots and the declining capabilities of jets that are three decades old.
“Although National Defence has plans to address some risks, these investment decisions will not be enough to ensure that it can have the number of aircraft available daily to meet the highest NORAD alert level and Canada’s NATO commitment at the same time,” the auditor said in the report.
Yet that is the very reason why the defence department earmarked $3 billion to extend the life of the fighters it has and to buy and operate an interim fleet of used jets.
In 2016, the federal government directed the military to have enough fighters to meet its obligations to both NORAD and NATO at once.
Prior to this, the military put a priority on its NORAD commitment and when alert levels were low, used the flexibility to deploy on NATO roles.
The new requirement meant a 23-per-cent increase in the number of fighter jets that had to be ready for operations.
“It was a significant change, as it came at a time when the Royal Canadian Air Force was already facing low personnel levels, was managing an aging fleet, and had not yet identified a replacement fleet,” the report found.
In December 2017, the government announced that it intended to use a competitive process to buy 88 new fighter aircraft.
That means the fighters in service now will have to keep flying until 2032.
To help bridge the shortfall, the federal government initially sought to buy 18 new Super Hornet jets, an upgraded version of the fighter now flying, even though the defence department’s own analysis indicated it would not help the operational gap and would only make the personnel shortage worse, the audit found.
“The department stated that it needed more qualified technicians and pilots, not more fighter aircraft,” the audit said.
That plan was abandoned and the government has now decided to buy second-hand F-18s from Australia that are the “same age and have the same operational limitations” as the jets now flown by the air force.
But that costly expenditure won’t fix the problems.
“National Defence still does not have enough technicians to maintain and pilots to fly the aircraft,” the report concluded.
In April, 2018, 22 per cent of technician positions in CF-18 squadrons were vacant while the 76 fighters left in the fleet are prone to breakdowns and are getting harder to maintain. And the department has just two-thirds of the pilots it needs and they are leaving the air force more quickly than new ones can be trained.
Between April 2016 and March 2018, 40 fighter pilots quit and only 30 were trained as replacements. Since then, 17 more have left or said they are leaving.
“If CF-18 pilots continue to leave at the current rate, there will not be enough experienced pilots to train the next generation of fighter pilots,” the report found.
For each hour they fly, the CF-18s require, on average, 24 hours of maintenance, an increase of three hours since 2014.
“As the fleet ages, it will become more difficult and take longer for technicians to maintain the CF-18s,” the report found.
The maintenance woes are affecting operations. CF-18 pilots are expected to fly 140 hours per year, but, in the last fiscal year, 28 per cent flew fewer hours, in part, because of maintenance woes.
The audit also raises serious questions about the combat capabilities of the CF-18s in service, which are now more than 30 years old, noting they haven’t had a significant upgrade since 2008.
That’s because air force planners expected they would be replaced by 2020.
“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.
With plans to keep the jets flying until 2032, that problem will only get worse.
“Flying the CF-18 until 2032 without a plan to upgrade combat capability will result in less important roles for the fighter force and will pose a risk to Canada’s ability to contribute to NORAD and NATO operations,” the auditor found.
The audit urged the air force to develop a strategy to recruit and retain technicians and pilots.
The military said a plan is already underway to add 200 additional technicians to squadrons.
The audit also recommended an analysis of what upgrades are required to ensure the CF-18 remains “operationally relevant” over the next 14 years until its replacement arrives.
The air force said it is assessing combat upgrades to “address the growing challenges presented by evolving threats.”
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier