Friday, April 15, 2016

Time Running out for CF-18 Upgrades as Jets continue to Age

By: David Pugliese, National Post 

Improvements to Canada’s CF-18 jets — which could cost almost $500 million — have to be done within five years or the upgrades to the aging planes won’t make economic sense, according to the officer in charge of determining how to modernize the fighters.

Two aircraft from 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron, 3 Wing Bagotville fly over l’arrondissement
Chicoutimi of ville de Saguenay. Photo: CAF Combat Camera (Feb, 2006)
Whether the Canadian government’s notoriously slow procurement process can push ahead such a project to keep the jets flying until 2025 remains to be seen.

Options on how to upgrade the CF-18s are being looked at, said Lt.-Col. Jean-Marc Brzezinski, who is leading the process in the RCAF’s fighter capability office.

The project officially kicked off last September.

“My mandate has been given roughly about one year to look at what we need to do to make sure the aircraft is airworthy (and) interoperable,” Brzezinski said in an interview.

The Conservatives originally announced the modernization project to keep the fighters flying until 2025 because they hadn’t yet determined how to replace the CF-18s. The project has continued under the Liberals.

Brzezinski said the upgrades have to be on the aircraft by 2021 if the project is to make financial sense. That means decisions have to be made and contracts placed within the next two years.

The air force will continue to monitor the state of the airframes so the planes can keep flying safely. Improvements could be made to the communications equipment to keep up with changes in aviation regulations in civil airspace. Other upgrades could be made to weapons and how the planes communicate and operate with allied fighter jets.

“We have to be able to spend money (so) that everything is ready on the aircraft so that it can used by 2021,” Brzezinski said. “If you start spending a lot of money in 2023 or 2024, and the aircraft is no longer being supported past 2025, then it doesn’t become economically viable.”

Once the air force figures out what it needs, the process shifts and approvals are required from upper levels in the Department of National Defence, Treasury Board and government. Public Services and Procurement Canada also gets involved at a later stage.

Canada’s military procurement system is extremely slow and whether it can accommodate quickly setting up the needed contacts is out of the hands of Brzezinski and the air force.

“We are on a very, very aggressive shortened timeline,” Brzezinski said.

The modernization will keep the planes flying but that doesn’t necessarily mean the fleet will be shut down at the end of 2025. Brzezinski said a smaller number of planes could keep operating for a couple of years after, but that support for the CF-18s will begin to taper off in 2025.

The DND has listed the estimated cost for the modernization as between $250 million and $499 million.

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Brzezinski said the precise cost is not known because his office has yet to determine what needs to be done to the planes, and the government and the military have not made any decisions on how to proceed.

“It really depends on where the department wants to go,” he said. “One of the options could very well be status quo which means we do nothing. We just carry on the maintenance practices.”

Canada previously spent $2.6 billion modernizing the CF-18s in a program that started in 2002. The planes were purchased in 1982.

The Conservative government had planned to buy 65 F-35 stealth fighters to replace the CF-18s. But they put that on hold as the cost of the program significantly increased and technical problems affecting the F-35 emerged.

During the federal election last year, the Liberals said they would not purchase the F-35 if they came to power. Instead a less expensive fighter jet would be bought, they said in their defence platform.

But since then, that promise has been thrown into question by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan who has claimed that any competition would be open to all jets, suggesting the F-35 could end up being purchased.