Six years after blowing up the Harper government’s plans to buy the F-35 stealth fighter without a competition, auditor general Michael Ferguson is preparing to release a new report on Canada’s tumultuous attempts to buy new fighter jets. (MATT DUNHAM / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Air force getting more planes but has no one to fly them, auditor warns

The report follows several years of criticism over the Trudeau government’s decision not to launch an immediate competition to replace the CF-18s.

Auditor general Michael Ferguson fired a bullet at the Trudeau government’s plan to buy second-hand Australian fighter jets on Tuesday, revealing the air force doesn’t have enough people to fly the planes it already has.

Ferguson said military commanders first alerted the government to the personnel shortage in 2016, when the Liberals were planning to spend billions of dollars on 18 new Super Hornet jets to supplement Canada’s aging CF-18 fleet.

But the government brushed aside those concerns and pressed ahead with the purchase while providing only minimal increases to training and other measures to make sure the Canadian Forces had the pilots and technicians to use the new planes, Ferguson said.

The Liberals eventually scuttled the Super Hornet plan due to a trade dispute between Super Hornet-maker Boeing and Montreal rival Bombardier, and are now planning to buy 25 used Australian jets for $500 million.

But the auditor general’s report said the military’s firm assessment – and his own – is that the result will be the same: planes we can’t use.

“The (Defence) Department stated that it needed more qualified technicians and pilots, not more fighter aircraft,” the report reads: “In our opinion … without more technicians and pilots, the effect on fighter-force operations will be small.”

Ferguson, whose previous report on fighter jets in 2012 helped blow up the Harper government’s plan to buy a fleet of F-35 jets without a competition, backed up his most recent assessment with some stark numbers.

For example, in the last fiscal year, 28 per cent of fighter pilots flew fewer than the minimum number of hours needed to keep their skills and 22 per cent of technician positions in CF-18 squadrons were empty or filled by inexperienced staff.

And between April 2016 and March 2018, the air force lost 40 trained fighter pilots and produced only 30 new ones. Since then, another 17 have left or said that they planned to leave.

Related: Auditor general takes aim at Liberals’ fighter-jet plan

Related: Canadian air force short 275 pilots

The auditor general’s findings are likely to add fuel to the fire that has been smoldering around the Liberals when it comes to fighter jets, with opposition parties and defence analysts criticizing how the government has handled the file.

Many have been calling for years for the Liberals to launch an immediate competition to replace Canada’s CF-18s, which are already 35 years old, but the government has insisted on taking its time.

The government is expected to formally launch a $19-billion competition for 88 new fighter jets next spring, but a winner won’t be picked until 2021 or 2022. The first new fighter jet won’t arrive until 2025.

In the meantime, despite plans to spend upwards of $3 billion over the next decade to keep them in the air, Ferguson warned the CF-18s and used Australian fighter jets will become increasingly obsolete.

The $3 billion does not include any actual upgrades to the planes’ combat systems, which have not had significant overhauls since 2008.

“Without combat upgrades, the CF-18 will be less effective against adversaries in domestic and international operations,” the auditor general’s report reads.

“Flying the CF-18 until 2032 without a plan to upgrade combat capability will result in less important roles for the fighter force and will pose a risk to Canada’s ability to contribute to NORAD and NATO operations.”

Unlike in his previous report, in which he raked defence officials over the coals for misleading parliamentarians and ministers about the F-35, Ferguson said most of the current problems are out of the military’s hands.

That includes the government’s controversial decision in September 2016 to increase the number of aircraft the air force needs to keep ready for missions.

“It was a significant change as it came at a time when the Royal Canadian Air Force was already facing low personnel levels, was managing an aging fleet and had not yet identified a replacement fleet,” the auditor general’s report reads.

“The change reduced operational flexibility and would require National Defence to increase the number of available aircraft by 23 per cent.”

The Liberals have defended the move as necessary to ensure Canada meets its domestic and international obligations, but critics have said it just provided policy cover for the planned purchase of Super Hornets without a competition.

Ferguson’s report did not delve into the justification for the policy change nor did it review the competition to replace the CF-18s.

The Canadian Press

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