As the former Conservative government was leading the charge to bomb ISIS almost two years ago, the Royal Canadian Air Force was warning that its CF-18 pilots were not getting enough training time and that "resource reductions" were squeezing maintenance budgets.

Documents obtained by CBC News make clear the military was concerned the combat readiness of its front-line fighter fleet was declining — a revelation that might help explain the new Liberal government's haste in buying up to 18 new Super Hornet jets. 

The documents are dated Dec.17, 2014, just over one month after six CF-18s began conducting combat strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq. The presentation was delivered to Rob Nicholson, the minister of national defence at the time. 

'Readiness is declining,' report says

It warns that CF-18 pilots were not getting "sufficient hours to maintain normal fighter pilot progression" and because of "resource reductions to RCAF readiness" — including flying hours and parts for maintenance — fewer pilots were ready to support operations.  

"Readiness is declining," said the report, obtained by CBC News under access to information legislation.

The documents are heavily censored, but the last page of the presentation is titled "Key Readiness Points." It says the "RCAF requires both time to train, and resources to ensure availability of pilots for deployment, and to sustain that deployment." 

The warning is stark in light of the fact the jets were engaged in combat operations, but it also provides a rare glimpse at the wear-and-tear to which the fighters have been subjected. 

Capability gap

Last week the Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan announced the government will begin the process of buying as many as 18 Boeing Super Hornet jet fighters to supplement the existing fleet of CF-18s.

Question Period 20160216

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says there is a growing capability gap in Canada's air force. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

It is a stopgap measure until the government launches an open procurement process to replace the entire fleet.

Sajjan has insisted there is a "capability gap" — meaning the air force doesn't have the jets it needs to carry out all of its duties.

Public debate has focused on the number of aircraft, but the documents make clear that the condition of the fleet — both in terms of aircrew and maintenance — is in question.

Flying hours

The other issue at play is the time pilots need spend in the air. Pilots are required to fly a minimum number of hours every year and while much of that time can be spent in a simulator, pilots still need to train in the aircraft. 

Retired vice-chief of the defence staff lieutenant-general George MacDonald says the availability of planes and the pressures associated with maintaining the number of qualified pilots has been a challenge for the air force.  

"It's a long process to fly, some people don't make it, some people take longer [to get through the program]," said MacDonald, who now works as a consultant and whose firm has supported Lockheed Martin, the maker of the rival F-35, on the fighter file. 

"And even once a pilot is qualified there are levels of leadership training they can obtain."  

There are lots of pressures on the fleet and CF-18 pilots are always in demand. MacDonald said qualified pilots often get good offers from commercial airlines and end up leaving, which can be a problem for the air force. 

Pilots getting enough hours, air force says

In an email, a spokesperson for the air force said the readiness issue identified in 2014 "was the result of a one-year reduction of flying hours allocated to the CF-18 fleet in response to financial resource constraints."

Operations in Iraq and eastern Europe also reduced opportunities for fighter pilots training during 2014, said Maj. Scott Spurr, with the directorate of air force public affairs.

"The RCAF recognized this issue and the trend has been reversed by an increased allocation of flying hours in subsequent years," he said.

The air force said pilots get all of the flying hours needed "to support and maintain operations."

Keeping the CF-18s in flight

The government intends to refurbish the CF-18s, but there are questions about how safe the jets will be to fly after 2025. 

The Liberal government's decision to buy the Super Hornets, and push back the launch date of the competition to buy a new fleet of fighter aircraft, means the CF-18s will have to keep flying through the 2020s and possibly up to 2032.

According to documents obtained by CBC News, that plan is a "high-risk" and "costly" option. 

Operation IMPACT

A Royal Canadian Air Force CF-188 Hornet flies over Iraq during Operation IMPACT in November 2015. (Combat Camera/Department of National Defence)

The technical engineering assessment outlined a series of significant problems the fighters will face after 2025 and would require a major overhaul to remain operational into the 2030s. The report says that overhaul is "a high-risk solution, from both a technical and operational perspective."

The head of the air force told senators on Monday that the capability gap is because of a policy change. The change means the government now requires the air force to meet its NATO and North America air defence commitments concurrently, and that means there are not enough aircraft to meet those demands on a daily basis. 

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated that George MacDonald works for Lockheed Martin. In fact, he works for a consulting firm that has supported Lockheed Martin.
    Dec 04, 2016 9:23 PM ET