Arrival of used Aussie fighters pushed back to summer 2019 or later

The Liberal government's plan to buy used Australian fighter jets has hit the first of what could be a series of hiccups. The arrival of the first plane, originally slated for January 2019, won't happen until later in the year.

Senior defence official says Canada will take used Aussie FA-18s as they become available

Royal Australian Air Force FA-18 Hornets fly over the Australian Formula One Grand Prix race track located at Albert Park in Melbourne Feb. 28, 2002. Canada has agreed to buy 18 of the jets from Australia. (Reuters)

It will be 2022 before the Royal Canadian Air Force receives all of the used Australian fighter jets the Liberal government intends to purchase, says senior defence official.

The plan was rolled out with much fanfare at the end of last year because the air force has faced — in the words of Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan — an "urgent capability gap" and is not able to meet its NATO and Norad commitments at the same time.

Pat Finn, who is in charge of the materiale branch of National Defence, told CBC News in a recent interview a final agreement is still months away.

He is confident, however, everything will come together.

Delivery is "staggered over three years," Finn said.

Pat Finn, assistant deputy minister of the Department of National Defence, says delivery will be staggered over three years. (CBC)

The Trudeau government announced in December it would buy 18 used Australian "classic" FA-18s as an interim measure to bolster the air force until the entire Canadian fleet of CF-18s is replaced, beginning in the mid-2020s.

It had wanted to buy brand new Boeing Super Hornets, the newer, bigger, more advanced version of the FA-18 and CF-18. The plan was scuttled when the manufacturer, Chicago-based Boeing, filed a trade complaint against Canadian aerospace giant Bombardier.

No price tag for the Australian deal was released at the time of the formal announcement, which was made by Sajjan and Public Works Minister Carla Qualtrough.

Ongoing discussions

Finn said those details are still being worked out.

The Liberal government said in December the first used fighters, which were purchased by Australia around the same Canada bought its CF-18s, would arrive by January 2019.

Finn said the delivery schedule is being finalized, but he anticipates receiving the first two warplanes by the summer of that year.

Another one would follow by the end of the year, but much depends on the Royal Australian Air Force and how quickly it retires the fighters and the age of what's being offered.

"They, of course, release aircraft as they get aircraft," Finn said. "We do not necessarily want the oldest aircraft, so we would like to have an ongoing discussion."

He said there is some flexibility and if "summer '19 turns into" something a few months later because they can get a better jet, then it's something that can be negotiated.

The Australian government is in the process of seeking permission to sell the planes because they were originally manufactured in the U.S. 

Once the Australian warplanes arrive in Canada, they will need to be given life-extension modifications that will bring them up to the standard of the CF-18s, which have been modified to continuing flying until 2025.

It stands in stark contrast to the urgency with which the Liberals initially painted the shortage of fighter aircraft.

Minister of National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has said Canada has an 'urgent capability gap' and can't meet its NATO and Norad commitments, yet the timeline for new jets keeps being moved back. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"In 2025, the CF-18s will not be able to fly, and it is important that we move very quickly in filling this capability gap." said Sajjan in June 2016.

Finn said the air force is managing the capability gap by making more CF-18s available for operations on a daily basis.

"We're basically working right now to increase the availability of our current airplanes," he said.

Experts say that would mean pouring more than expected into the maintenance budget in order to keep fighters on the flight line.

Urgent purchase?

One defence analyst said the government has a strange definition of urgent.

"Nothing about the handling of this file lines up with the identification of it as an urgent need, either the interim or the permanent purchase," said Dave Perry, an expert in procurement at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

He said he believes it will present a political headache for the Liberals come the next election.

"The fact that this government may, at best, have a couple of second-hand aircraft before the next election after having identified an urgent need to acquire new fighter aircraft is just incredible," he said.

When the Australian deal was announced, the government also laid out a timeline for the full replacement of the CF-18s, which were purchased in the 1980s, but extensively modified and upgraded in the early 2000s.

Public Works recently held a consultation day with defence contractors, but Perry says no one seems to understand why it will take until the early 2020s to launch the competition.

When the former Conservative government was struggling over whether to buy the F-35 stealth fighter, it conducted extensive research on the alternatives and possible types of warplanes Canada would need.

That research, which conceivable could move things along faster, was largely discarded by the Liberals and is gathering dust on a shelf, Perry says.

Canada's CF-18s were purchased in the 1980s and upgraded in the 2000s. (CBC)

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.