CF-18 airframes approaching their age limits as replacement debate rages

New figures tabled in Parliament show the country's CF-18 jet fighters are rapidly wearing out. The release of the air force maintenance chart comes as an unofficial bidding war between rival aircraft-makers heats up.

Canada's fighter jets running out of airframe life, according to data tabled in Parliament

Ricardo Traven, the chief test pilot for the Boeing Super Hornet, sits in the cockpit of the fighter at the Boeing plant in St Louis, Mo. The fighter is one alternative to the F-35.

Canada's current fleet of CF-18s is rapidly wearing out, according to new figures tabled in Parliament, and there are fresh questions emerging about how well the fighter jets, and other so-called legacy aircraft, will be able to communicate with the new F-35s.

The new data emerged on the same day as the corporate air war over the Trudeau government's fighter replacement program heated up, with one of the principal contenders going on a PR offensive to counter the notion that choosing anything other than the Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter would cost Canadian jobs.

Last week Lockheed Martin warned it would pull hundreds of millions of dollars in F-35 related work out of the country unless its jet was selected to replace Canada's CF-18s.

On Wednesday, rival aerospace company Boeing tried to paint that notion as an empty threat and promised to match or even exceed the value of lost contracts should Canada go with it instead.

But it was the release of a defence department chart, which tracks maintenance on the 77 remaining CF-18s, which may be the most startling development. It shows many of the fighters have used up to 85 per cent of their anticipated airframe life.

On average, each aircraft is expected to end its service life with just over 7,000 hours in the air.

As many as 49 of them have already logged in excess of 6,000 hours, according to air force data tabled at the request of Conservative defence critic James Bezan. Three of the aircraft had even exceeded the limit.

The figures are current up to April 22, 2016, and therefore would have included the wear and tear accumulated during the recent bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria against ISIS.

The Harper government set aside nearly $500 million to extend the life of the CF-18s, a program the Defence Department recently said was still in the "options analysis" phase and wouldn't be completed until October of next year.

Defining the 'capability gap'

Despite that, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan told the House of Commons on Wednesday that 26 of Canada's CF-18s have undergone some sort of refurbishment, but he gave no further details.

"A lot more work needs to be done, but we would not be here if we had replaced the fighters 10 years ago," Sajjan told the Commons.

The Liberals have said Canada faces a "capability gap," meaning either the air force doesn't have enough fast jets to meet its obligations — or the current aircraft do not have the right capabilities.

They've forwarded that argument as justification for taking swift action, which might include the sole-source purchase of a handful of Boeing Super Hornets.

But there are new questions within the defence community about what that would mean for the air force, especially when many allies operating in the Far North, including the U.S., Norway and Denmark, have all opted for the F-35.

Communication issues

The U.S. is currently wrestling with important technical aspects, including how the stealth fighters can communicate and exchange data with older model jets, such as the CF-18s, the Super Hornets and European designed fighters.

It has been known for years that F-35s and F-22 Raptors will have trouble signalling and handing off "weapons quality data" to older planes while maintaining their radar-evading capabilities.

The U.S. air force and Lockheed Martin have been working on a solution to the communications problem through something called Project Missouri.

But proponents of the stealth fighter say Denmark's recent selection of the F-35 means Canada will be relegated to the back seat in terms of operations, including in the Arctic.

Traven says concerns over the ability to communicate between various makes of aircraft are misplaced. (Terry Milewski/CBC News)

But Ricardo Traven, the chief test pilot for the Boeing Super Hornet, denied there's a problem and called it a "ridiculous" notion.

Communications among everyone on the battlefield are paramount and the obstacles will be overcome, he said.

"We're all going to be able to communicate and share information, whether you're a tank, a [joint strike fighter] or a Super Hornet," Traven said.

Boeing vice-president Roger Schallom also attempted Wednesday to put to rest the notion that Canadian aerospace jobs would be lost if the F-35 isn't selected.

Many of the 110 Canadian companies doing business with Lockheed Martin are also working for Boeing on separate contracts.

If Boeing's plane is chosen, Schallom said, the company could replace or even exceed the current $825 million in contracts and the up to $10 billion lifetime value of industrial benefits.

"We will put in much more work than those numbers. I can't quantify it until we see what the [air force] requirement is, but we will definitely trump those numbers," he said.


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