New Liberal policy means there aren't enough fighter jets to go around
Commitments to NATO, Norad, mean Liberals may have to buy more jets than planned under Tories
Lt.-Gen. Mike Hood, commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, was just about to sit in the witness hot seat before the Senate defence committee Monday when he learned that a CF-18 jet fighter crashed, killing one of his pilots.
A shaken and subdued Hood had few details about the accident involving a jet from 401 Squadron, one of the country's front-line fighter units, based at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alta.
Testimony was paused on at least one occasion as he consulted uniformed staff and his BlackBerry.
The jet crashed at the air weapons training range on the Saskatchewan side of the border near Primrose Lake, which means it was likely on a training mission at the time, Hood said.
He announced the death of the pilot in front of senators, who promptly suspended the meeting.
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The committee had been convened to grill Hood about the Liberal government's plan to put off a competition to replace the CF-18s for up to five years and possibly buy 18 Boeing Super Hornets as a stopgap measure.
That he was testifying in the immediate aftermath of the crash was an unhappy coincidence.
"I think it's very sad," Hood told reporters after the committee meeting was halted. "It's sad for the family. It's sad for co-workers and it's sad for me as commander of the air force."
A flight safety investigation is underway, but the accident could very well turn up the temperature of the political debate.
Not enough fighters
Even without the crash, some of Hood's testimony was bound to prompt further questions of the government, which announced its way forward on the fighter jet file last week.
The Liberals have been arguing for months that the air force was facing a "capability gap," where it could not meet all of its commitments with the current fleet of 76 jets.
Hood told senators that a "policy change" by the government now requires him to meet both NATO and North America air defence commitments — through the North American Aerospace Defence Command (Norad) — concurrently.
"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 would not disclose the actual numbers for security reasons.
The testimony is significant because, when the Conservatives pledged to buy the F-35, they insisted a fleet of 65 stealth fighters was sufficient to meet the country's needs.
The Liberals decision to meet both NATO and Norad commitments at the same time means the government will be forced to buy a bigger fleet than the current one — possibly adding billions of dollars to the program cost.
Last week, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Public Works Minister Judy Foote refused to be pinned down on a fleet size and the cost to taxpayers — for either the interim fleet or the full replacement program.
Hood could not shed any more light the subject, saying he was simply "the implementer" of the government's policy change.
"We had 77 aircraft at the start of the day," Hood said. "That is insufficient."
Super Hornets not carved in stone?
Hood also qualified a lot of testimony before the committee about the government's interim solution — to buy 18 brand new Super Hornets — as a plan that has yet to be negotiated with the company and the U.S. government.
He also defended the current CF-18s saying "it's a great platform that we've invested in over the years."
The last time a CF-18 crashed was on Nov. 18, 2010. It happened during a nighttime exercise when the pilot became disoriented and was forced to eject, but survived.
"I think anytime you get up in an aircraft and ask people to do the type of things that we do to be ready for our jobs day in and day out, there's a certain element of danger," said Hood.
"I'm very proud of the training system we have and I think the men and women of the air force are prepared for those challenges."