By: Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA - The head of the Royal Canadian Air Force has refuted suggestions, including from more than a dozen of his predecessors, that the Trudeau government is needlessly dragging its feet on new fighter jets.
Lt.-Gen. Mike Hood instead said the Liberals are taking "a prudent amount of time," as choosing Canada's next fighter is a big decision — especially since it will likely be in use for decades.
"The timelines the government and the minister have articulated will let them be absolutely sure that they're making the right choice for a final fighter that will probably be flying when I'm going to the grave."
The Liberals' new defence policy includes a promise to replace Canada's 76 aging CF-18s with 88 new warplanes, which is an increase from the 65 previously promised by the Harper Conservatives.
The policy estimates the new fighters will cost between $15 billion and $19 billion, up from the $9 billion previously budgeted by the Tories.
The Liberals say the extra fighter jets are required to meet a new policy, adopted in September, that increased the number of warplanes that must always be ready for operations.
But fighter-jet companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing, which make the F-35 and Super Hornet, respectively, won't be asked to submit formal bids until next year at the earliest.
That is despite many defence experts, including 13 retired Air Force commanders in February, saying a competition to replace the CF-18 fleet can and should be launched immediately.
They say doing so would negate the need for 18 "interim" Super Hornets, which would save taxpayer dollars and keep from diverting personnel and resources away from other areas of the Air Force.
But Hood played down those concerns, saying that he'll have no trouble operating an interim fighter fleet if "I'm given the resources and the priority that I need."
That doesn't mean there won't be challenges in growing the size of Canada's fighter fleet, he admitted, notably in terms of having enough pilots and technicians to fly and fix the new jets.
The problem has been exacerbated by the fact that while airlines are currently on a hiring binge, Hood said, the Air Force can't ramp up the number of pilots it puts through flight school each year.
"We brought in a pilot-training system in the early 2000s that had a maximum capacity to deliver about 115 pilots a year. With attrition going up, I'd probably want to produce 140 this year, but I can't."
However, Hood is hoping planned changes to the training regime and new initiatives such as recruiting potential technicians directly out of community college will help grow his ranks.
At the same time, the military is looking at ways to improve working conditions across the board to keep experienced personnel in uniform and not lose them.
The plan to grow the number of fighter jets is only one area in which the Air Force is slated to grow in the coming years, with new armed drones, search-and-rescue aircraft and other equipment having also been promised.
Hood said that represents a significant and welcome turn of events after the service was dramatically weakened by years of cuts.
"When General (Rick) Hillier talked about the 'Decade of Darkness,'" Hood said, "the lion's share of that was done on the back of the Air Force in the '90s."