Royal Canadian Air Force Faces Challenge of Fighter Pilot Shortage

By Ken Pole

The Royal Canadian Air Force’s fighter community is facing a personnel crisis in the air and on the ground and while the Department of National Defence is moving aggressively to address the issue, Auditor General Michael Ferguson is not optimistic.

In a Nov. 20 report to Parliament, he notes that the RCAF has admitted it has less than two-thirds the number of CF-18 Hornet pilots needed to fulfill assigned missions and warns that the problem is likely to increase because current flight training cannot even keep up with retirements, including moves to domestic and foreign airlines.

“Between April 2016 and March 2018, the RCAF lost 40 trained fighter pilots and produced only 30 new ones,” Henderson says, adding that 17 more have since left or stated their intention to leave. “If CF-18 pilots continue to leave at the current rate, there will not be enough experienced pilots to train the next generation of fighter pilots, and National Defence will not have enough pilots to be able to meet . . . the new operational requirement for many years.”

Moreover, CF-18 pilots are expected to fly 140 hours annually to maintain proficiency but Ferguson’s audit team found 28 per cent of pilots fell short of that in the 2017-2018 fiscal year because of, among other things, the shortage of the technician shortage.

In its response, which is included in Ferguson’s report, DND says its Fighter Capability Maintenance Renewal (FCMR) program “will add over 200 technicians to front-line squadrons” and additional recruitment/retention efforts will be completed by next fall. It further notes that “Canada’s new defence policy includes an initiative to increase the fighter force by an additional 200 positions.”

Ferguson says that, as of last April, eight percent of technician positions in Hornet squadrons were vacant and 14 percent were filled by personnel who were not fully qualified. The result was that between December 2016 and April 2018, an average of 13 aircraft were not operationally ready at any given time.

The loss of experienced CF-18 technicians since 2014 has meant that the maintenance-to-flying hours ratio has increased to 24:1 from 21:1. prompting a warning that as the fleet of 76 Hornets continues to age, maintenance will become even more of a challenge and the number of flying hours will decrease.

As for the aircraft themselves, Ferguson says DND “has not done enough to manage risks related to Canada’s fighter aircraft fleet so that it can meet commitments . . . until a replacement fleet is in place.” That was a reference to a “capability gap” mentioned by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, specifically the RCAF’s capacity to fulfill its North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) obligations in addition to domestic roles, notably flight training.

That was to years ago when Sajjan was justifying a US$5-billion “interim” purchase of Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets to fill the “gap” until a new fleet of 88 aircraft had been selected. The deal with Boeing was eventually scrapped when the United States Commerce Department imposed tariffs of nearly 300 per cent on Bombardier commercial aircraft in response to a Boeing complaint that government subsidies had enabled the Quebec company to discount orders by U.S. buyers.

Calling Boeing an “unreliable” contracting partner, the government opted to spend an estimated $500 million on buying 25 used F-18s from Australia, which is replacing them with Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs. Expected to be completed by year’s end, the deal with Australia was only recently signed off by the U.S., which is required by its International Trade in Arms Regulations for technology developed and manufactured in the U.S.

Ferguson reserves most of his criticism for DND, but also faults “factors outside its control.” Officials in his office confirmed in a media lockup that those factors included defence policy shifts that came with the 2015 change in government as well as problems within the Treasury Board Secretariat and Public Works & Procurement Canada.

“Uncertainty around when a replacement fighter fleet would be in place and increased operational requirements established by the government in 2016 put National Defence in a position that will make it difficult to manage risks until a replacement fighter fleet is in place,” Ferguson says.

With DND planning to keep the current 1980s-vintage Hornet fleet operational until 2032, Ferguson notes that the RCAF “is conducting analysis to assess necessary combat upgrades that could be implemented to address the growing challenges presented by evolving threats.” DND says that analysis, which it expects to complete by next spring, “will take into consideration plans to transition to a future fighter capability in the mid-2020s.”

That goal also is challenged in a sense by the Auditor General. “Apart from integrating some new weapons during Canada’s involvement in Libya in 2011, National Defence has not significantly upgraded the CF-18 for combat since 2008. It has not done so, in part because it expected that a replacement fleet would be in place by 2020.”

He says DND has acknowledged that the CF-18s “will be disadvantaged against many potential adversaries, and its combat capability will further erode through the 2020s and into the 2030s.” He also says CF-18s participating in international alliances would need to have threats reduced or destroyed before the ageing RCAF platforms could operate in some theatres, a need he says “CF-18 “would limit Canada’s contribution to NORAD and NATO.”

In response to the latest audit, Sajjan says in an emailed statement that the government is committed to giving the RCAF “the investments and equipment it needs […] to meet both its NORAD and NATO commitments without risk-managing one or the other.”

In addition to the personnel initiatives, the minister says the current fighter fleet is being upgraded “to meet regulatory and interoperability requirements, and ensure they can operate within North American and international airspace past 2025” and that “Canadians can rest assured that […] our CF-18s will continue to capably conduct missions in defence of Canadian airspace until the future fighter is fully operational.”

This piece was first published by our partner Front Line Defence.

For a look at the findings of the report discussed in this article, see the following: