11/03/2011 12:00 EDT | Updated 01/03/2012 05:12 EST

F-35 Fighters: Top General Walt Natynczyk Says 65 Is 'Minimum' Number Of Jets Needed By Air Force

AFP/Getty Images

OTTAWA - Canadian pilots are expected to receive training for the F-35 stealth jet at a U.S. Air Force base in Florida, a plan that raises questions about the future of the country's existing advanced fighter training school.

Internal Defence Department documents show that a fee-for-service plan involving an international training centre, already constructed at Eglin Air Force Base by manufacturer Lockheed Martin, has been the main option under consideration.

Several air force briefings compiled last year and obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information laws show that not only is there "potential for NO pilot training in Canada," but that "pooled" training with international partners is likely the most cost-effective plan.

The country's top military commander, Gen. Walt Natynczyk, deferred questions about the training plan to the head of the air force on Thursday.

A spokeswoman for National Defence says the military is in the early stages of figuring out how training will be conducted and a final decision about using the U.S. base has not been made.

The country's fighter pilots are currently trained to fly the CF-18 at an advanced school at Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake, Alta. Changes to the arrangement would be a political headache for the Conservatives.

When it announced last year where the new F-35s would be based, the Harper government was silent on the training aspect.

"We anticipate that once initial conversion training has taken place, the majority of training for Canadian Forces members will take place in Canada," said Lisa Evong in an email response to The Canadian Press late Thursday.

"Any final decision must achieve the best result for training for Canadian Forces members. As the RCAF continues to develop its concepts of operation and training for the F-35, the optimum training solution for Canada will be further refined."

She did not address questions about the future of the Cold Lake training centre.

Her statement is at odds, however, with the expectations of the F-35 program and the way Lockheed Martin has conducted training on other advanced aircraft, such as the C-130-J Hercules transport.

All of the countries buying the radar-evading jet were expected to use the company's high-tech centre in Florida, where pilots will learn to fly the plane and aircraft maintainers receive similar expert instruction, according to reports in the U.S.

Once the crews have been qualified, each squadron receives a simulator that allows for follow-up exercises where pilots refresh their skills and conduct dry-runs of operational missions.

The questions over training come as the Pentagon's chief weapons tester raises concerns about whether the F-35 is ready for pilots to use. A memo leaked to the U.S. media and penned by Michael Gilmore describes the F-35 as an "immature aircraft" and that hands-on instruction should be delayed.

Canada does not take delivery of its first F-35 until 2016-17.

Natynczyk, appearing before the House of Commons defence committee Thursday, defended the multi-billion dollar fighter purchase and supported the government's decision to buy only 65 planes.

That number is the "minimum requirement," the defence chief told the all-party committee. His comments, while not directly contradicting Defence Minister Peter MacKay, provided clarification on the military's position.

MacKay told the Commons on Wednesday that the military was satisfied with the number of planes.

"The short answer is that's the number the air force asked for and they have clearly indicated that is the right balance," MacKay said in answer to the NDP. "They have clearly indicated this will allow our pilots in the air force to carry out the important work that we ask of them."

The controversial fighter — with a price tag of between $75 million and $150 million per plane — has been a political lightning rod since the Conservatives announced their intention to buy it in July 2010.

But internal briefings show one of the reasons the air force wants to farm out training to the U.S., is because it is worried not enough aircraft can be set aside to satisfy both instruction and operations.

Canada is committed to providing at least 36 fighters for North American air defence and when normal maintenance cycles are included, the government's purchase leaves few jets available for overseas missions.

The Americans have long complained that even with the current fleet of 77 CF-18s, Ottawa does not have enough aircraft to defend all of the country's major cities in the event of war — or major emergency, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The air force briefings note that Canada is the only country involved in the joint strike fighter program that does not account for the potential loss of aircraft due to accident.

Natynczyk said not buying so-called "attrition aircraft" is a long-standing policy of the Canadian government.

Liberal defence critic John McKay questioned whether unmanned aerial vehicles could fill the gap in manned fighters, but Natynczyk says he doesn't believe the technology is mature enough to allow for that.

The general wouldn't say what number of fighters would be comfortable, but when Canada signed a memorandum for development of the F-35 it indicated it was buying 80 planes.