OTTAWA - Military planners are concerned the Harper government is buying too few F-35 fighters with almost no room for any loss of the stealth jets throughout their projected lifetimes, according to internal Defence Department briefings.
"Canada is the only country that did not account (for) attrition aircraft" in its proposal, said an undated capability-and-sustainment briefing given to senior officers late last year.
The eye-popping pricetag for individual joint strike fighters — ranging from $75 million to $150 million, depending upon the estimate — has limited the purchase to 65 aircraft.
Access-to-information records, obtained by The Canadian Press, show that when the joint strike fighter was proposed almost a decade ago the air force had recommended a fleet of 80.
Nevertheless, Defence Minister Peter MacKay has insisted 65 is adequate to meet Canada's military needs.
But a separate information briefing from earlier in 2010 shows that the country is purchasing "the minimum acceptable fleet size" and that the air force has been told it should "be prepared to manage the operational risk should the fleet drop below 65 due to attrition."
The F-35s are replacing roughly 77 CF-18s — just over half the original number of 138 purchased almost 30 years ago.
Some of the existing fleet was retired by the Chretien government to save money in the 1990s, while others were lost due to accidents.
Air force planners began to sweat after crunching attrition numbers for the new stealth jet last fall. They looked at the CF-18's accident rate per 100,000 hours of flying time and determined the F-35 might be able to evade radar, but it can't escape fate.
"Canada will lose aircraft; not a question of 'if' but 'when,'" said a Sept. 14, 2010, report.
On the upside, the planners believe that the highly automated F-35s will likely lead to fewer human-error — or "pilot-distraction" — crashes.
There was a spike in CF-18 accidents shortly after they were introduced as aircrew became familiar with them — something the air force worries will happen with the new jets.
The concern has been flagged to the attention of the Harper government, which "will consider the acquisition of replacement attrition aircraft," said the briefing.
But there's a problem there with that. Lockheed Martin is expecting to shut down its production line in 2035, while Canada is committed to flying the stealth fighter until at least 2050.
No one at the Defence Department was immediately available for comment on Tuesday.
But the executive director of the Air Force Association of Canada said it's understood the Harper government is buying what it can afford.
"The cost drives anything and everything, every time," said Dean Black, a retired lieutenant-colonel. "The folks in the highest offices in the country balance all of the considerations and we happen to be living in a tough economy. It is understood these are dire times."
Given the economic times and since the issue is routinely rocketed into the political stratosphere, the chances of the Harper government convincing anyone it needs more stealth jets is next to unlikely, he said.
Black said it's long been accepted that in the event of war or serious emergency, even with CF-18s, the Royal Canadian Air Force does not have enough fighters to maintain continuous air cover over each of the country's major cities.
A U.S. diplomatic cable recently highlighted Washington's concern about that fact and complained about the necessity of the U.S. Air Force stepping in to defend Canadian airspace.
"I'm hoping this report will focus the attention of our elected officials and most senior military officials on what it is we have to do to protect Canadians in Canada."
The air force report noted that Lockheed Martin will test-fly planes while building production models — a risky proposition according to critics.
The first Canadian F-35 is expected to be delivered in 2016 to the pilot training centre in the U.S.
It will take another three years before the first stealth plane makes it to an operational squadron, 4 Wing at CFB Cold Lake, Alta. Bagotville, Que., the other new home, won't see its first plane until 2020, according to internal documents.
The delivery schedule is pushing the current CF-18s to the very limit of their operational life. Even after a multibillion-dollar facelift, the workhorse of the fighter community, designed in the 1980s, is projected to be retired in 2020.