Canadian air force running short of pilots, jets: watchdog

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Canadian air force is increasingly running short of combat-capable fighter jets and pilots and government attempts to address the problem have only made it worse, the nation’s top watchdog said on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: A CF-18 Hornet performs at the Royal Canadian International Air Show, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, September 3, 2016. REUTERS/Louis Nastro/File Photo

The report by Auditor General Michael Ferguson is another blow to a decade-long, trouble-plagued attempt by successive administrations to replace Canada’s CF-18 jets, some of which have been flying for almost 40 years.

“National Defence (defense ministry) has not done enough to manage risks related to Canada’s fighter aircraft fleet ... until a replacement fleet is in place,” said Ferguson.

Defense officials are set to issue final specifications for a new fleet of 88 jets next May. The contract will be worth between C$15 billion ($11.3 billion) and C$19 billion.

Repeated delays mean some CF-18s will have to fly until 2032, much later than expected. Ferguson said the planes had not been significantly upgraded for combat since 2008 - in part because officials thought the new jets would be operating by 2020 - and were therefore increasingly vulnerable.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a statement that Ottawa would launch new initiatives to recruit and retain pilots and was also moving to upgrade the CF-18s.

In 2016, at a time when qualified pilots and technicians were leaving in growing numbers, the ruling Liberals ordered the air force to increase the number of fighters available for operations by a quarter.

To help overcome the shortage of planes, the government vowed to buy 18 Boeing Co F-18 Super Hornet jets. Ferguson said it did so even though the defense ministry indicated the move would worsen the personnel shortage by taking pilots away from an already stretched CF-18 fleet.

Ottawa later scrapped the plan after a dispute with Boeing and moved to buy used CF-18s from Australia.

James Bezan, defense spokesman for the opposition Conservatives, accused the government of creating the crisis and urged it not to buy “rusted-out Australian jets.”

Ferguson said the military would have to spend an extra C$3 billion to extend the lifespan of the CF-18s and buy and operate the Australian jets “without a plan to deal with its biggest obstacles to meeting the new operational requirement: a shortage of pilots and declining combat capability.”

Ferguson said the defense ministry did not have a plan to boost the number of CF-18 pilots. If they continue to leave at the current rate, there will not be enough left to train the next generation, he added.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by David Gregorio and Peter Cooney