Neither Canada’s top soldier nor the commander of the air force had or produced any records about a fighter jet “capability gap” in the year leading up to the Liberal government’s announcement that such a critical issue had to be dealt with by spending billions to buy aircraft.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan used the capability gap argument in November 2016 to justify a $5-billion program to buy new Super Hornet jets, a deal since scuttled, and later a $500-million program to purchase used F-18 planes from Australia.
But in the year leading up to Sajjan’s announcement about the urgent need to acquire such planes, neither Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jon Vance nor Lt.-Gen. Mike Hood, then head of the Royal Canadian Air Force, produced any documentation indicating there was ever a capability gap, according to Department of National Defence’s Access to Information branch. In addition, no such documents exist among the records of various members of Sajjan’s staff, according to the department.
|A Royal Australian Air Force F-18 Hornet performs during the Australian International Airshow in 2015.PAUL CROCK/AFP/GETTY IMAGES|
It would be normal practice to have hundreds, if not thousands of pages of records, discussing such a key defence issue or gap if it existed, military insiders tell Postmedia.
But records obtained by Postmedia through the Access law do show that just before Sajjan’s announcement that the 18 jets were needed in the “interim” to deal with the capability gap, the minister was told the existing fleet of CF-18s was in better shape than expected and could keep flying until 2032.
Conservative MPs allege the capability gap didn’t exist and was concocted by the government to delay a larger project to buy new jets, a competition that might end up selecting the F-35 stealth fighter the Liberals vowed never to purchase.
When asked about the lack of documentation about the capability gap, a DND official said the department could not comment.
Taxpayers may get more information Tuesday when the Auditor General’s office releases its examination of the fighter jet plan.
The deal to buy the 18 Super Hornets as “interim” jets eventually collapsed after the aircraft’s U.S. supplier, Boeing, angered the Liberals by complaining to the Trump administration that a Canadian firm was receiving unfair subsidies to build civilian aircraft. Because of that complaint, the government deemed Boeing an unreliable partner and instead struck a deal to buy used F-18 jets from Australia. That project is estimated to cost $500 million.
Those jets are needed on an interim basis not only to help fill the capability gap but because the current fleet of CF-18 fighters is too old, the government has stated.
But nine days before Sajjan held his November 2016 news conference to announce the original Super Hornet interim jet deal, the minister was told the CF-18 fleet was in better shape than expected.
“Analysis over the summer indicates that the structural damage is less than anticipated and that all aircraft can be flown and retired at a predicted rate beyond 2025 without additional investment in structural work,” Sajjan was told by deputy defence minister John Forster. “Doing so would require an investment to 2032 (when the last legacy aircraft would retire).”
Shortly after Sajjan’s news conference, Hood explained to a Senate committee it was the government that brought in a policy change that required the RCAF to meet both its NATO and North American air defence commitments at the same time. That, in turn, created the capability gap.
“That demands a certain number of aircraft that our present CF-18 fleet is unable to meet on its day-to-day serviceability rate,” said Hood, who has since retired. “They’ve (the Liberals) changed the policy of the number of aircraft I have to have.”
Hood said he didn’t know the reason for the change. “I’m not privy to the decisions behind the policy change,” added the general.
In addition, a 2014 report produced by Defence Research and Development Canada recommended against the purchase of such “bridging” aircraft to deal with gaps in capability. “The costs involved with bridging options make them unsuitable for filling capability gaps in the short term,” the report states. “Any short-term investment results in disproportionately high costs during the bridging period.”
That report, which had been in the public domain for years, was removed from the DND website. The DND claimed it was pulled down from its website because the report was found to contain classified information.