(Adds reaction from defense minister, opposition)
By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA, Nov 20 (Reuters) - The Canadian air force is increasingly running short of combat-capable fighter jets and pilots and government attempts to address the problem have only made it worse, the nation’s top watchdog said on Tuesday.
The report by Auditor General Michael Ferguson is another blow to a decade-long, trouble-plagued attempt by successive administrations to replace Canada’s CF-18 jets, some of which have been flying for almost 40 years.
“National Defence (defense ministry) has not done enough to manage risks related to Canada’s fighter aircraft fleet ... until a replacement fleet is in place,” said Ferguson.
Defense officials are set to issue final specifications for a new fleet of 88 jets next May. The contract will be worth between C$15 billion ($11.3 billion) and C$19 billion.
Repeated delays mean some CF-18s will have to fly until 2032, much later than expected. Ferguson said the planes had not been significantly upgraded for combat since 2008 - in part because officials thought the new jets would be operating by 2020 - and were therefore increasingly vulnerable.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a statement that Ottawa would launch new initiatives to recruit and retain pilots and was also moving to upgrade the CF-18s.
In 2016, at a time when qualified pilots and technicians were leaving in growing numbers, the ruling Liberals ordered the air force to increase the number of fighters available for operations by a quarter.
To help overcome the shortage of planes, the government vowed to buy 18 Boeing Co F-18 Super Hornet jets. Ferguson said it did so even though the defense ministry indicated the move would worsen the personnel shortage by taking pilots away from an already stretched CF-18 fleet.
Ottawa later scrapped the plan after a dispute with Boeing and moved to buy used CF-18s from Australia.
James Bezan, defense spokesman for the opposition Conservatives, accused the government of creating the crisis and urged it not to buy “rusted-out Australian jets.”
Ferguson said the military would have to spend an extra C$3 billion to extend the lifespan of the CF-18s and buy and operate the Australian jets “without a plan to deal with its biggest obstacles to meeting the new operational requirement: a shortage of pilots and declining combat capability.”
Ferguson said the defense ministry did not have a plan to boost the number of CF-18 pilots. If they continue to leave at the current rate, there will not be enough left to train the next generation, he added. ($1=C$1.33) (Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by David Gregorio and Peter Cooney)