Minding the Capability "Gap"

Is the air force tripping up on policy changes?

The House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence (SCND) recently went In Camera to start drafting its long-awaited report on “Canada and the Defence of North America”, an issue the Members of Parliament have been studying for the better part of a year. 

The report, when it gets presented to the House, is virtually guaranteed to include more money for the Canadian Armed Forces in general, and the Royal Canadian Air Force in particular, given that continental defence is a top-dollar priority for the Department of National Defence. From a DND perspective, the Arctic (including the impact of global warming) is mainly an RCAF operational responsibility.

Some elements of the upcoming report can be found in an earlier report by the SCND, which is chaired by B.C. Liberal MP Stephen Fuhr, a former CF-18 Hornet pilot and one of several retired Canadian Armed Forces personnel who have repeatedly proved their mettle on defence policy despite being first-term MPs. That earlier report recommended better awareness of cyber attacks and emerging missile threats, among other things. But it focused heavily on NORAD and aerial readiness, and devoted most of its content to the RCAF.

Urging “a thorough review of Canada’s international and domestic capability requirements” for replacing the remaining “legacy” Hornets, the committee pushed for an aircraft that would satisfy all needs, including maintaining Canadian sovereignty in the North, and said the government should decide on a replacement by September 2017.

In a letter from Sajjan to Fuhr, the government’s response to the SCND noted that the DPR consultations over the past year had included not only the public through social media and other means but also experts through a series of roundtables, and more than 50 Members of Parliament had participated in constituency-level discussions.

Sajjan further highlighted the decision to acquire 18 Super Hornets from Boeing – to plug what he initially described as an RCAF “capability gap” until there’s a decision on replacing the already diminished legacy fighter fleet of CF-18s, which are set to be retired in the 2023-2025 timeframe, despite a pending $500-million upgrade program.

The notion of a “gap” arose when Sajjan announced last May that the government would work to acquire additional fighters to enable Canada to fulfill simultaneous commitments to both NORAD and NATO. The announcement seemed to come out of the blue because, only a few weeks earlier, the RCAF Commander Lieutenant-General Mike Hood never mentioned it when testifying before the SCND in April.

Pressed by Nova Scotia Liberal MP Darren Fisher, Hood noted that CAF readiness is budgeted annually. “I’m funded in my operations and maintenance budget to ensure that I can keep my NORAD commitments at a posture that’s ready.” He went on to say that finding resources “has not been a challenge under my watch at this time” and that “we have enough trained personnel, we have enough aircraft and enough maintenance people to keep them going, and we have the money, certainly, to operate.”

In other words, no “gap”, seen by some as a contradiction of the government’s position. While it might be splitting hairs, it should be noted that Hood did not include NATO, which obviously can be a volatile component, in the readiness/affordability mix. He did say, however, that if he faced “any challenges” in fulfilling commitments, he was confident that the additional resources would be endorsed by “the chief”, meaning General Jonathan Vance, the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS).

Later, as the controversy continued to bubble, Sajjan’s spokesperson, Jordan Owens, sought to clear the air with a statement in which she defined the “capability gap” as being “an insufficient number of aircraft available on any given day to meet our existing NORAD obligations and NATO commitments combined, not to mention having the capacity to react to unforeseen and emerging threats.”

Owens also pointed out, rightly, that keeping the legacy Hornets flying longer was not the solution. “With the current availability rate what it is, even if the 77 airplanes could fly forever, there still wouldn’t be enough of them to simultaneously meet our NORAD and NATO commitments. The only way to address the capability gap is to improve the availability rate of our fighter fleet. This means we need more people and it means we need more planes.”

Note that this didn’t include domestic fighter requirements. With a serviceability rate of only about 50%, if all three became active missions simultaneously, the legacy fleet could not handle them all. 

A few days later, Hood suggested to the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence that a policy shift had resulted in the tactical shortfall. “The government has now directed that we be ready to meet our daily NATO and NORAD commitments simultaneously,” he said in his opening statement, adding later under questioning that he was “at present unable to do that with the present CF-18 fleet” because he doesn’t have enough aircraft (a status inherited from a series of RCAF commanders whose roles were constrained by various governments over the years).

Asked by Senator Colin Kenny how many aircraft the RCAF might need, given that it has been talking about a next-generation fleet of 65 compared with the 1980s buy of 138 CF-18s. Hood wasn’t prepared to reveal that: “the numbers behind the commitments with respect to NORAD and NATO are classified,” he said. “Suffice it to say,” he added, “the 77 we presently have are incapable of delivering that number.”

Judy Foote, the Minister of Public Services and Procurement (who has since taken an indefinite leave of absence for unspecified personal reasons), also involved herself in the debate, suggesting that the CDS was was in a better position to explain things. “I think if you ask General Vance, he’d have a different view on that and I have a lot of faith in the Minister of Defence, who of course has been on the ground and knows only too well what the need is," she said, adding that a capability gap has “existed for some time” but had been ignored by the previous government.

Foote also disagreed with Hood’s assertion to the Senate committee that keeping the legacy Hornets operational until 2025 would negate any urgency to sole-source FA/18 Super Hornets as the RCAF’s next frontline fighter. 

On numerous occasions, Sajjan has reiterated the notion that providing the CAF with resources they need to do their job had been a “key component” of the DPR consultations. “Capability requirements for operations at home and abroad, situational awareness, and intelligence are all being considered. Our goal is to ensure the CAF have the tools they need to safely and effectively perform the missions set by our Government. Your conclusions and recommendations have informed and will be reflected in Canada’s new defence policy.”

That said, Sajjan’s latest statement on the DPR, after an April 11 cabinet meeting, was to repeat that “we are coming very close to making the decisions,” but deflected questions about when that might be.

“We want to make sure that we get this right,” he told reporters, repeating what has become a ministerial mantra. “We want to make sure that it’s not just about the missions and what we do here in Canada and abroad; it’s about how we look after our troops as well. It’s extremely thorough, and I look forward to presenting this to Canadians on behalf of the government, and […] to having the discussion with parliamentarians as well […] in the coming months.” 

Could that mean the DPR isn’t released until after Parliament begins its summer recess? That’s currently set to begin June 23 and run until Sept. 18. That’s 12 weeks in which the government couldn’t be held accountable in Parliament. The optics of that scenario would be poor at best. 

Hudson on the Hill
The role of Hudson is being filled by contributing editor Ken Pole.