OTTAWA — The Trudeau government pressed ahead with its plan to buy second-hand fighter jets from Australia on Tuesday despite withering fire from the federal auditor general, who warned that the military might not have anybody to fly them.
Six years after blowing up the Harper government's plan to buy new F-35s without a competition, auditor general Michael Ferguson targeted the Liberals' own attempts to buy jets. He first picked apart the government's aborted plan to purchase "interim" Super Hornets to bolster Canada's aging CF-18 fleet, and then its current plan to buy used Australian fighters.
The government says those extra fighters are needed to address a shortage of CF-18s until a state-of-the-art replacement can be purchased and delivered — a lengthy process that will run through 2032, at which point the CF-18s will be 50 years old.
But the auditor general's office arrived at a very different conclusion: The military doesn't need more planes because it doesn't even have the pilots and mechanics to operate what it already has. What it really needs, the office found, is more people.
"The shortage of personnel in relation to technicians means that they don't have enough technicians to prepare and maintain the planes," Casey Thomas, the principal auditor on the fighter jets study, told reporters on Tuesday.
"And they have 64 per cent of the pilots that they need, so they don't have enough pilots to fly the planes. … What National Defence actually needed was to increase its personnel."
The auditor general's report also flagged concerns that the government's plan to sink $3 billion into the current CF-18s and additional Australian fighters to keep them flying to 2032 won't be enough, as the money won't actually improve the aircrafts' combat systems.
Without more money, which some analysts have suggested could mean hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars more, Canada's fighter-jet fleet will become even more obsolete, to the point where the plans might not be any use at home or overseas.
Yet only a few hours after the auditor general's report was released, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced that the Liberals had signed a contract to buy the 18 second-hand jets from Australia. Officials have pegged the cost at around $500 million.
Sajjan also said he had directed officials to look at options for upgrading the combat systems on the CF-18s and Australian fighters, which he acknowledged would mean investing more money into aging fighter jets.
Missing from the announcement: Any new funding or other initiative to increase recruiting and retention of pilots and technicians.
Instead, Sajjan said the government and military have already introduced several initiatives through the Liberals' defence policy last year, such as giving tax breaks to military personnel deployed on overseas missions, to give them reasons to stay.
At the same time, the minister sidestepped questions about recruitment, saying the military can't reduce its standards for new pilots. He noted that commercial airlines are also facing a significant pilot crunch.
Air-force commanders have previously said the current training system, which can only produce 115 new pilots each year, a fraction of whom are fighter pilots, is not fast enough to replace all those who move on to commercial opportunities.
The subtext to much of the auditor general's report on Tuesday was the question of how Canada ended up in a position where the military will be flying fighter jets until they are 50 years old.
The Liberals were urged early in their tenure to launch an immediate competition to replace the CF-18s. Instead they spent two years working to buy those stopgap Super Hornets before a trade dispute with the company that makes them, Boeing, saw the government move on to the used Australian jets.
The Trudeau government insists that it was doing its due diligence, but critics — including numerous retired air force and defence officials — have accused it of trying to bend procurement rules to avoid buying the F-35.
Yet even before the Liberals took the reins, the Harper government was having a hard time making any progress on buying new fighter jets. The Tories championed the F-35 before resetting the entire process in 2012.
That move was prompted by Ferguson's first report, which accused defence officials of misleading parliamentarians about the stealth fighter's costs and various technical issues. National Defence later pegged the full lifetime cost of the fighters at $46 billion.
"Lot of people had a hand in this," said defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, adding that the worst part is there is no easy or obvious solution to what has become a very troubling situation for Canada and its military.
"I think our fighter force is in trouble."
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Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press