A report commissioned by Canada’s Department of National Defence assessed that the country’s small, old CF-18 Hornet fleet may not be able to meet its commitments.
The report, prepared by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a well-respected British think-tank, was funded by the Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) and classified as “Not for Public Release”. However, copy was leaked to Canada’s The Globe And Mail newspaper.
Among its conclusions is that the Royal Canadian Air Force fighter fleet, entirely comprised of CF-18 Hornets – a mix of decades-old F/A-18A-B models and more recently acquired ex-Australian F/A-18A-Bs – “is not credible in a NATO context against many of the higher-end mission sets”.
The RCAF also has international obligations to fulfill to NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) which provides an airborne early warning and threat interception umbrella over Canada, Alaska and the continental United States. In that role, just 36 of the RCAF’s CF-18s are equipped with contemporary-standard AESA (active electronically scanned array) radars (AN/APG-79V(4).
The RUSI report’s author, Justin Bronk, cited additional concerns aside from aging equipment, asserting that the RCAF fighter force is “suffering from low morale, high rates of departure among instructor pilots and a shortage of maintenance technicians, impairing its ability to meet defence obligations to allies”.
The report comes on the heels of Canada’s formal decision to acquire 88 F-35As earlier this year, a process mired in politics for over decade, notably impacted by decisions taken by Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who said before assuming office in 2015 that Canada would not buy the F-35.
Canada expects to receive its first four F-35As beginning in 2026, another six in 2027, and six more in 2028, with the full fleet to arrive in time to enable the phase out of the CF-18s by the end of 2032. But its CF-18 fleet, even bolstered by the purchase of 18 ex-Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18A-Bs, may not be able to effectively hang on until then.
Among its challenges, the RUSI report identified a “very inefficient” spare-parts supply process, “poor aircraft availability,” “unsustainable pilot workload” and a marked “trust gap” in how captain and major-ranked pilots view their leadership.
The Globe And Mail quoted from the report which starkly notes that; “Resignation and retirement rates among experienced instructor pilots and weapons instructors have been unsustainably high for years, and in such a small fighter force, have now become an immediate threat to its viability… Urgent action must be taken now, before the decline becomes completely irreversible.”
I reached out to Canada’s DND to request an interview on the report’s conclusions, posing a series of questions about the Department’s confidence in the capability of CF-18s, the RCAF’s ability to meet international commitments, improve morale and what contingency plans are place in the event of delayed F-35 deliveries.
In an emailed response, DND spokeswoman, Andrée-Anne Poulin, said that the DND had no one available for an interview. She did add that;
“We are aware of the many issues highlighted by Professor Bronk and are actively engaged, alongside our DND colleagues, in looking into these issues, and seeking solutions to them. The findings and recommendations presented in the report will add to our overall understanding of the challenges facing our aviators and help prioritize our efforts to rectify them.”
“We are confident that the RCAF remains able to meet our NORAD commitments for the defence of Canada and the security of North American airspace.”
Ms. Poulin pointed out that through its CF-18 Hornet Extension Project, Canada invested $1.3 billion to upgrade a “portion of our fleet” to improve CF-18 avionics and mission support systems, to remain interoperable with our allies.
The reference is to DND’s Hornet Extension Project (HEP) which has upgraded some avionics and mission support systems across the fleet to maintain base-level interoperability with allies and meet aviation regulatory (FAA/CAA/EAS) standards going forward.
HEP Phase 2 will upgrade 36 aircraft with sensors, weapons, survivability, security and mission support improvements including the AESA radars mentioned above. It is slated for completion in 2026. In a follow-up query I asked what portion of the CF-18 is combat-coded (i.e. ready to deploy or fight tonight). As of the close of the day, DND had offered no reply.
The RUSI report recommended actions including the addition of more maintenance and support equipment, and the hiring of civilian contractors to reduce the administrative workload for air crew.
However, as The Globe And Mail noted, its author cautions that, “there will be insufficient experienced pilots to effectively transition the force onto the F-35 whilst maintaining any meaningful combat capabilities in the remaining two CF-18 HEP II squadrons out to 2032.”
Increasing frustration among RCAF fighter crews also arises from their perception that they are inadequately trained or equipped for many of the missions they are likely to be deployed for the report adds. That concern has led to both anxiety and discontent among RCAF pilots.
A less formal but no less concerning barometer of the health of Canada’s small, old fighter force came last spring with an RCAF announcement that its CF-18 Demonstration Team would be limiting its appearances at air shows during the 2023 season to just ten events.
“The decision to have a limited CF-18 demonstration season was taken in order to prioritize our personnel and aircraft resources during a busy period of high operational tempo for the RCAF fighter community supporting NORAD operations and exercises…” the announcement stated.
Major-General Ian Huddleston, Commander, 1 Canadian Air Division added that, “The decision to limit the number of CF-18 performances for the 2023 season was a difficult one, but it was taken so that our vital personnel and aviation resources can be directed toward supporting operations and ensuring readiness within the Fighter Force.”
The bottom line is that Canada’s force projection and homeland defense capability as exemplified by its fighter fleet is razor thin. There are serious questions as to whether a force that “is in crisis” can be a reliable allied partner.