The Royal Canadian Air Force’s current fleet of CF-18 fighter jets is no longer sufficient to fulfill the force’s domestic and overseas responsibilities, according to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

“Our fleet of CF-18s needs to be replaced now,” Sajjan said is his speech last Thursday before members of Canada’s defence industry during the Cansec 2016 conference in Ottawa. “The fact they have not been replaced means we are facing a capability gap in the years ahead.”

The defence chief did not provide any specific timeline for military’s CF-18 replacement program but stressed that the government risks losing its window of opportunity to modernize its fighter fleet.

“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.”


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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.”

Actually, it was the Liberals under then Prime Minister Jean Chretien that signed up Canada to the “concept demonstration” first phase of the JSF program back in January 1998. The Liberals agreed to contribute US$10.6 million as an observer of the program’s management innovations. However, Canadian officials stated they were not making any commitment to buy the aircraft and that Canada does not expect the JSF to replace its fighter jet, the CF-18.

This enabled Canadian defence contractors to win contracts for the international production line of the Lockheed Martin-built aircraft.

In July 2010, the Conservative government under then Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced its intentions to purchase for $16 billion, 65 F-35 jet to replace the Air Force’s fleet of 80 CF-18 Hornets. The Conservatives intended to sign a sole-sourced, untendered contract with Lockheed Martin.

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.