Only three of seven F-18 fighter jets purchased from Australia by the Canadian government have been integrated into the air force so far, and the Department of National Defence says key upgrades to as much as one-third of Canada’s fighter force will take up to five years, according to documents recently tabled in the House of Commons.
The slow introduction of the used warplanes — meant to bolster Canada’s existing CF-18s squadrons — and the long timeline for radar refurbishment have the opposition Conservatives questioning the value of the interim fleet.
A written government response to questions posed by the Conservatives last October was put before MPs recently. It said that the older fighters will continue to join the Canadian air force “at regular intervals” but did not lay out a precise timeline.
“National Defence will continue to work to integrate Australian F-18 Hornet aircraft into its current fleet of CF-18s, as it completes the necessary modifications and upgrades to these aircraft,” said the document.
New radar, old planes
The Liberal government purchased 18 used fighter jets from Australia. The last of them won’t be delivered until the summer of 2021. When it first announced the plan three years ago, the government said it expected to keep most of the existing CF-18 fleet flying until 2032.
The order paper question also noted that three dozen existing CF-18s will get upgraded radar and the air force is currently deciding which of its fighters — which were built in the 1980s — will get the highly advanced new system.
Engineers still need to sort out the obstacles involved in combining the new equipment with the older airframe.
“Within the next months, National Defence will select two aircraft to test the installation process for the APG-79 (v) 4 radar,” said the government reply. “The remaining 34 aircraft will be selected over the next 24 months.”
The upgrades will not be completed until June 2025 — which is why Conservative defence critic James Bezan is questioning the wisdom of buying the extra fighters, a purchase the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer says will cost $1.09 billion over the life of the program.
An ‘exercise in futility’
The end date for the upgrades is significant, Bezan said, because that’s when the Liberal government expects the first of a brand new fleet of fighters to arrive. Three aerospace companies have submitted bids to manufacture Canada’s next generation of warplanes, but the government has yet to decide on a winner.
“This is strictly an exercise in futility,” said Bezan. “Here they are buying 18 rusted-out, old Aussie fighter jets, ones that the auditor general said not to buy … So why are we wasting taxpayer money and the resources of the Canadian Armed Forces to put these old planes into service?”
In a hard-hitting report released in the fall of 2018, then-auditor general Michael Ferguson did not offer advice to the Liberal government — but he did pick apart the plan to augment the existing CF-18 fleet to fill what Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has called a “capability gap.”
Not long after they were elected, the Trudeau Liberals said Canada does not have enough fighters to handle both its commitments to NATO and its duty to protect North American airspace.
The Conservatives have called that a political dodge. They argue the capability gap does not exist and was concocted by the Liberals in order to delay buying new jets — a process that might end up selecting the F-35 stealth fighter the Liberals vowed in 2015 never to purchase.
A spokesperson for the defence minister said the Interim Fighter Capability Project ensures that “the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) can meet our commitments to our partners and allies.”
Floriane Bonneville also took a shot at the opposition: “Unlike the Conservatives, we will not neglect Canada’s commitment to our partners and allies.”
She was referring to the former government’s claim that the air force could do with fewer fighters and “risk-manage” the fleet.
“Having the Australian fighter jets also allows the RCAF to complete an open and transparent future fighter competition in the meantime,” Bonneville said. “That being said, the integration of the Hornet aircraft from Australia requires a number of modifications, which we make to the fleet on a regular basis.
“Doing so allows us to meet the RCAF’s standards, including for communications and operational effectiveness. We also do extensive safety checks to ensure that it is safe and effective for the women and men of the Royal Canadian Air Force.”
The auditor general’s report said the purchase of Australian aircraft will not help to solve the biggest problems facing the air force: a pilot shortage and an “aging fleet” of CF-18s.
Bezan said that, rather than continuing to integrate the Australian planes, it would make much more sense to accelerate the purchase of new fighters.