Liberals Cite CF-18 'Capability Gap' As Upgrades In Limbo

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A nearly $500-million upgrade to the country's CF-18 jet fighters, ordered by the Harper government almost two years ago, is still under study by the military, an evaluation that won't be completed for another 16 months.

Capt. Alexandre Munoz, a spokesman for the air force, says the refurbishment, which is meant to keep the 1980s-vintage jets flying until 2025, is still in the "options analysis" phase.

The Conservatives directed the work be done in September 2014 as it released a series of independent reports on the failed bid to buy F-35 stealth fighters.

A Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornet breaks away after refueling with a KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014 over Iraq. (Photo: Handout/U.S. Air Force)

They deemed the program important and necessary to keep the jets out of retirement and to avoid a "capability gap" in the fighter fleet, which is considered a strategic military capability.

Despite that, Munoz conceded the process of analyzing how the extension would take place and what was required didn't get underway until September 2015.

International obligations lagging?

A spokesman for Procurement Services says no contract has been arranged for the work.

"As the Department of National Defence (DND) is working on requirements for the life extension of the CF-18s, no request for proposal has been issued and no contract has been awarded," said Jean-François Letourneau.

The new Liberal government recently resurrected the notion of a "capability gap" between fighter fleets and used it to justify their desire to take immediate action.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan stuck to that line on Wednesday, telling the House of Commons that the air force was "risk-managing a gap between our Norad and NATO commitments at this time."

That suggests Canada is struggling to meet its international obligations to both continental defence and overseas operations.

Up until just recently, both Liberal and Conservative governments, in tandem with the head of the air force, have insisted that the situation was under control, and a defence analyst said some tough questions need to be asked.

"It means the state of the fleet is far worse than has been described because the upgrades haven't happened," said retired colonel George Petrolekas, of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.

The Trudeau government has been under fire all week after a published report suggested that cabinet was prepared to sole-source the purchase of an unknown number of Boeing Super Hornets as an interim measure in order to address the gap.

'It can't be that hard'

"I don't see the value of an interim purchase," said Petrolekas, who noted that acquiring interim jets would likely take between two and three years.

If the condition of the CF-18 fleet is that dire, he said: "Why not just go straight to the competition right now. It can't be that hard."

It has been suggested publicly that Canada would follow Australia's example and acquire Super Hornets until its order of F-35s is ready.

Petrolekas says it's an irrelevant example, because the circumstances of both countries are not the same.

The CF-18s, originally purchased in the mid-1980s, were given a $2.6-billion facelift about a decade ago, receiving new electronics and up-to-date targeting technology.

Depending upon the age of the aircraft, the "capability gap" that Sajjan refers to could mean several things. It might be needed to update the avionics, strengthen the airframe, and reinforce different stress points on the fighter so it can make high-speed turns.

It could also mean the air force is having trouble mustering the required number of jets because so many are in the shop for maintenance.

Petrolekas says he's been told the air force has been "husbanding" and conscious of gently flying the jets over the last several months.


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