Thursday, February 23, 2017

Retired Air Chiefs Urge Liberals to Ditch Super Hornet Buy

By: John Ivison

OTTAWA — Former chief of the defence staff Paul Manson and 12 other retired senior air force commanders have written to the prime minister asking the government to abandon the $5-7 billion interim purchase of Super Hornet fighter jets.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower on Oct. 23, 2016 in the Gulf.
An F/A-18E Super Hornet on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower on Oct. 23, 2016 in the Gulf. AFP/US NAVY/PETTY OFFICER 3RD CLASS NATHAN T. BEARD
Gen. Manson, who held Canada’s top military role between 1986 and 1989, said the government’s plan to buy an interim fleet to replace the current CF-18 fighters is “ill-advised, costly and unnecessary.”

“I’m 82 years old and I may not see the outcome of all this but I want the facts put before the public,” he said in an interview.

“The main point right now is that the government seems determined to go ahead with a plan that those of us with countless decades of experience running the air force think would take decades to correct. It makes no sense.”

Manson and the 12 former air force lieutenant-generals say they have serious misgivings about the government’s claim that a “capability gap” exists, justifying the need for an interim fleet of 18 Super Hornets.

“Your government’s newly created policy calling for the Royal Canadian Air Force to meet its NATO and NORAD treaty commitments concurrently does not reflect a real and sudden change in the strategic situation. In our experience, it has been decades since Canada had sufficient aircraft to meet all our commitments simultaneously. Over the years, the air force, by judiciously balancing strategic risks and available resources, has managed its operational contributions reasonably well,” the letter states.

Rather than increasing fighter availability, the air force commanders claim the interim fleet would tax resources, because it would require training for pilots and technicians, plus new flight simulators, logistics support and maintenance operations.

Even that would not be enough, the authors say. “It would be necessary to recruit, train and qualify several hundred new technicians and dozens of pilots. Recent experience suggests the RCAF would face difficulty in achieving this … We forsee that bringing in an interim flight would create serious practical problems of this kind.”

If the government is intent on an interim purchase, the letter says, it should examine the prospect of buying so-called legacy Hornets, which are similar to the existing CF-18 and are increasingly becoming available as such partner nations as Australia and the United States replace their Hornet fleets with the F-35 fighter.

“The acquisition cost would be a fraction of a Super Hornet buy,” the air commanders say, pointing out that all the training, logistics and infrastructure needs are already in place.

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The letter also urges the government to proceed to the open and fair competition for a permanent replacement for the CF-18s promised by the Liberals during the past election.

During the campaign, Justin Trudeau said the Liberals would not buy the F-35, a statement Manson called “outrageous.”

He said he remains a strong proponent of the F-35, even if that is not the focus of the letter sent to the Trudeau government. He is a former chairman of Lockheed Martin Canada, manufacturer of the F-35, but said he left the company 20 years ago and today has no commercial interest in Lockheed.

Manson admitted that with the Liberals having just backed down on their electoral reform proposal, the prospect of a reversal on the interim purchase is slim.

“There is not an awful lot of hope they’ll do the right thing,” he said.

But, he added that if the interim purchase is being made by the Liberals to ingratiate the government with the incoming Trump administration, it is a superficial solution.

“The point needs to be made that it may add to the one per cent of GDP (spent on defence) but if it doesn’t improve operational effectiveness, it won’t fool our NATO allies,” he said.

According to Jordan Owens, spokesman for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, the government has no intention of reversing its decision on the interim purchase.

“The Royal Canadian Air Force faces a significant challenge because it does not have the number of fighter aircraft available to meet Canada’s NORAD and NATO obligations if called to do so simultaneously,” Owens said.

“Our government believes that we owe it to our women and men in uniform to provide them with the equipment needed to do their jobs. By acquiring an interim fighter fleet and proceeding to an open and transparent competition to procure the full replacement fleet, we will be providing the Royal Canadian Air Force with the resources necessary to meet this challenge.

“We have full confidence in their ability to do so.”

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