DAVID PUGLIESE, OTTAWA CITIZEN
The Royal Canadian Air Force will be showing off its first two used Australian fighter jets on Sunday at 4 Wing Cold Lake in Alberta.
Representatives from the Royal Australian Air Force and the RCAF will mark the arrival of the F-18 jets that morning. Only local media have been invited to cover the event.
The aircraft will be used to bolster the RCAF’s CF-18 fleet.
Pat Finn, assistant deputy minister for materiel at the Department of National Defence, told Postmedia in a recent interview that he expected the first two jets in the spring but there was hope they could arrive earlier. The two aircraft will be prepared for flying as quickly as possible.
“I would say it could be by the summer the first couple are on the flight line and painted with the maple leaf,” Finn said.
A second group of planes would arrive later this year. Eighteen of the Australian F-18 aircraft will eventually be flying for the Canadian Forces, while another seven will be used for testing and spare parts.
Canada is paying Australia $90 million for the aircraft. The federal government originally estimated the purchase of the Australian jets would cost around $500 million, but Finn said that price reflected every aspect of the associated deal, not just the cost of purchasing the jets. Canada is also acquiring extra spare parts, the Australian jets will have to be outfitted with specific Canadian equipment and software and testing will be needed.
The $500-million project estimate also included $50 million in contingency funds to cover any problems and another $35 million for the salaries of all civilian and military personnel involved over the life of the project. An additional $30 million will be spent on new infrastructure needed to accommodate the aircraft.
Those costs add up to $360 million, Finn said. But DND also plans to upgrade its existing fleet of CF-18s with new communications gear and equipment required to meet regulations to operate in civilian airspace, improvements which the Australian jets will also eventually receive at a cost of around $110 million, an amount that brought the original estimate to nearly $500 million.
The Liberal government had planned to buy 18 new Super Hornet fighter jets from U.S. aerospace giant Boeing to augment the Royal Canadian Air Force’s CF-18s until new aircraft can be purchased in the coming years.
But in 2017 Boeing complained to the U.S. Commerce Department that Canadian subsidies for Quebec-based Bombardier allowed it to sell its C-series civilian passenger aircraft in the U.S. at cut-rate prices. As a result, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump enacted a tariff of almost 300 per cent against the Bombardier aircraft sold in the U.S. In retaliation, Canada cancelled the deal to buy the 18 Super Hornets, which would have cost more than US$5 billion.
Instead of buying the new Super Hornets, the Liberals decided to acquire the used Australian jets.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has said the extra jets are needed to deal with a “capability gap,” as Canada does not have enough fighters to handle its commitments to NATO as well as protecting North America.
But Conservative MPs say the capability gap doesn’t exist and was concocted by the government to delay a larger project to buy new jets, a competition that might end up selecting the F-35 stealth fighter that during the 2015 election campaign the Liberals vowed never to purchase.
In the fall of 2016, then-Royal Canadian Air Force commander Lt.-Gen. Mike Hood told senators that the Liberal government brought in a policy change which required the RCAF to be able to meet both its NATO and North American air defence commitments at the same time. That, in turn, created the capability gap, he said. Hood said he was not told about the reasons for the policy change.
In November 2018 Auditor General Michael Ferguson issued a report noting that the purchase of the extra aircraft would not fix the fundamental weaknesses with the CF-18 fleet which is the aircraft’s declining combat capability and a shortage of pilots and maintenance personnel.
“The Australian F/A-18s will need modifications and upgrades to allow them to fly until 2032,” the report said. “These modifications will bring the F/A-18s to the same level as the CF-18s but will not improve the CF-18’s combat capability.”
“In our opinion, purchasing interim aircraft does not bring National Defence closer to consistently meeting the new operational requirement introduced in 2016,” the report added.
The Canadian Forces says it is bringing in new initiatives to boost the numbers of pilots and maintenance staff.