The government has to move quickly in replacing its fleet of aging CF-18 jets because it is rapidly losing the opportunity to modernize its fighter aircraft fleet, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said.
“Our fleet of CF-18s needs to be replaced now,” Sajjan said is his speech during the recently concluded the Cansec 2016 defence industry conference in Ottawa. “The fact they have not been replaced means we are facing a capability gap in the years ahead.”
The defence chief 34-year-old CF-18s are no longer sufficient to fulfill the air force’s domestic and overseas responsibilities.
“Today, we are risk-managing a gap between our NORAD and NATO commitments and the number of fighters available for operations,” Sajjan said. “In the 2020s, we can foresee a growing capability gap, and this, I find unacceptable and it’s one thing that we plan to fix.”
The replacement aircraft will be protecting Canada’s sovereignty up to the 2050s.
“Now, we did not create this issue,” Sajjan pointed out, putting the blame instead on the Conservatives for failing to secure a replacement for the CF-18s.”Unfortunately, I inherited it, but it needs to be dealt with quickly.”
During the Harper administration, Canada became a signatory to the F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter Program. This enabled Canadian defence contractors to win contracts for the international production line of the Lockheed Martin-built aircraft.
The single-seat, single engine, all-weather, stealth multi-role F-35 is a fifth-generation combat aircraft. The aircraft took its first flight back in 2006 and by July 2015, the first squadron was declared ready for deployment after intensive testing.
However, the aircraft has been plagued by design flaws that caused production delays. By 2014, the program was said to be US$167 billion over-budget and seven years behind schedule.
The former Conservative government’s 2010 plan called for the purchase of 65 units of the radar-evading F-35 warplanes for $16 billion over a period of 20 years was just too expensive. After the auditor general and parliamentary budget officer figured in operations and sustainable costs it was estimated that the price of ownership over 42 years would be $44.6 billion.
However, the Liberal government put the brakes on the F-35 program. During his campaign, now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that his government “will not buy the F-35 fighter jet” and instead procure a more “affordable” alternative.
The Liberals have since backtracked on this position and the F-35 appears to remain a contender in the CF-18 replacement program.
At Cansec, Sajjan would not categorically say if any manufacturer will not be allowed to bid in the multi-billion dollar program.
“As I said from the get-go, right now my focus is on making sure that our men and women in the Air Force have the right capabilities and my focus is replacing the F-18s,” the defence chief said.