Politics

Conservatives made 'political' decision to cut military flying time in 2014, Laurie Hawn says

The Harper government made a "political" decision to cut flying times for CF-18s so it could save money and campaign on a balanced budget in 2015 — but that created only a temporary readiness problem for the CF-18s, former Conservative MP Laurie Hawn says.

Goal was to save money so Conservatives could run on balanced budget in 2015, ex-MP says

Former Conservative MP Laurie Hawn says concerns raised in 2014 over declining readiness of CF-18 pilots was a temporary issue caused by the Harper government's decision to cut spending to balance the budget before the 2015 election. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The Harper government made a "political" decision to cut flying times for CF-18s and other military aircraft so it could save money and campaign on a balanced budget in 2015, says a former Conservative MP and ex-fighter pilot.

But Laurie Hawn says any decline in combat readiness caused by the 2014 decision was only temporary and shouldn't be seen as evidence of a capability gap within the Royal Canadian Air Force now — an idea he says the current Liberal government has "fabricated."  

"The military is costly, and this wasn't [just the] CF-18, this was across the air force in every fleet — every single aircraft had flying time reduced so that we didn't have to spend money, so that we could run on a balanced budget," Hawn said of the Conservative government's decision. "So that was political as well.

"I objected at the time on paper with people well above my pay grade, [and] said, 'Look, this is going to have an impact on operational capability.'"

Documents obtained by CBC News reveal the Conservative government was warned by the air force in late 2014 that CF-18 pilots weren't getting enough training time and that "resource reductions" were squeezing maintenance budgets.

The documents, dated Dec. 17, 2014, make clear the military was concerned the combat readiness of its fighter fleet was declining a month after six CF-18s began conducting combat strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq.

Hawn said the decision was rectified the following year. Flying time was increased and it didn't have a long-term effect, he said.

In 2014, Stephen Harper's government decided to reduce flying time for CF-18 pilots as part of its effort to balance the budget before the 2015 election, his former MP Laurie Hawn says. (Shaun Best/Reuters)

The air force has confirmed that a readiness issue was identified in 2014 and it "was the result of a one-year reduction of flying hours allocated to the CF-18 fleet in response to financial resource constraints."

Maj. Scott Spurr, with the directorate of air force public affairs, said "the RCAF recognized this issue and the trend has been reversed by an increased allocation of flying hours in subsequent years."

'Capability gap'

Hawn made the comments in light of the Liberal government's decision to purchase up to 18 Super Hornets to fill what it says is a "capability gap" in Canada's fleet of fighter jets.

He said the Liberals created the gap idea to provide political cover for their decision to buy Super Hornets from Boeing and fulfil Justin Trudeau's election promise not to purchase Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighter jets.

That decision "is 100 per cent politically driven," he said.

"It is not in the best interests of Canada or our own sovereignty or our finances, or Canadian industry. It is all about preserving the reputation of the prime minister."

Justin Trudeau campaigned in 2015 on a promise not to purchase Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighter jets. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Hawn is a former CF-18 pilot and retired air force lieutenant-colonel. He spent 30 years in the air force before serving as an Edmonton MP from 2006 to 2015. He spent 3½ years as parliamentary secretary to the defence minister and served on the defence committee.

He also served as Canadian co-chair of the Canada-U.S. Permanent Joint Board on Defence, reporting directly to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on a variety of issues affecting the overall defence and security of North America. He didn't run for re-election in 2015.

In an email, Conservative defence critic James Bezan said "the previous Conservative government was committed to balancing Canada's budget. The Department of National Defence did its part to ensure the efficient use of public funds and to generate savings for Canadians, while safeguarding the ability of the CAF to be ready to take on the challenges of the 21st century."

He said the majority of savings were gained through efficiencies, such as streamlining contracting and internal processes.

Replacing fighter jets

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced in late November the government will begin the process of buying Super Hornets to supplement the aging CF-18s, insisting the air force doesn't have the jets needed to carry out all of its duties. 

The Liberal government says it needs to buy new planes on an interim basis to bridge a 'capability gap' with its current fleet of CF-18 fighter jets. (Combat Camera/Department of National Defence)

Sajjan rejected Conservative allegations the government has "fabricated" the capability gap. In the House on Monday, he said the government has "commitments to NORAD and to NATO and to satisfy these commitments we cannot do this by risk management.

"That is the capability gap that we talk about."

He has also said the government will launch an open competition to replace the entire CF-18 fleet, but that could take up to five years to set up.

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