OTTAWA — Opposition critics accused the Liberal government of trying to manufacture a crisis Monday after the commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force pulled back the curtain on Canada's apparent fighter-jet shortage.
Lt.-Gen. Michael Hood told the Senate defence committee the Liberals recently changed the number of jet fighters he is required to have ready at any given time for NATO missions and to defend North America.
The change was made after he testified in April that he was "comfortable'' with the air force's current fleet of CF-18s, Hood said, which he affirmed are able to fly to 2025 and even beyond.
As a result, Hood said, the current number of CF-18s available is insufficient and Canada will also need to buy more new planes than originally expected.
Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force Lieutenant-General Michael Hood salutes at the Canadian War Museum on Feb. 27, 2016.
The previous Conservative government had planned to purchase 65 F-35 stealth fighters.
"Certainly the policy of the government of Canada would mean that 65 is not sufficient,'' Hood said, later adding: "They've changed the policy of the number of aircraft I have to have.''
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan had hinted at a change in policy when he announced last week that Canada planned to buy 18 Super Hornet jets as an "interim'' solution to the air force's "capacity gap'' until a competition to replace the CF-18s could be held.
"They've changed the policy of the number of aircraft I have to have.''
But Hood's comments marked the first time an official had come out and clearly stated that the Liberal government had increased the number of jets the air force is required to have available at a moment's notice.
Sajjan's office did not immediately respond to questions about the change.
Critics immediately latched onto Hood's comments as proof the Liberal decision to buy Hornets now and punt a competition to replace the CF-18s for five years is part of a larger plan to avoid buying the F-35.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan attends a news conference on fighter jets in Ottawa on Nov. 22, 2016.
"He's confirmed the numbers required was a political decision,'' said Conservative defence critic James Bezan. "This is a hoax and completely politically driven.''
Defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute questioned why the government would change the policy when it was still in the midst of a comprehensive defence review.
"The change in policy makes what they're doing on fighters seem a lot more rational,'' he said.
"But it's interesting that change happened outside of the defence policy review, which is looking at all of our defence policies.''