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Canada's new jets have no pilots to fly them

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OTTAWA—Auditor general Michael Ferguson today fired a bullet at the Trudeau government's plan to buy second-hand Australian fighter jets, revealing the air force doesn't have enough people to fly the planes it already has.

Ferguson said military commanders first alerted the government to the personnel shortage in 2016, when the Liberals were planning to spend billions of dollars on 18 new Super Hornet jets to supplement Canada's aging CF-18 fleet.

But the government brushed aside those concerns and pressed ahead with the purchase while providing only minimal increases to training and other measures to make sure the Canadian Forces had the pilots and technicians to use the new planes, Ferguson noted.

The Liberals eventually scuttled the Super Hornet plan due to a trade dispute between Super Hornet-maker Boeing and Montreal rival Bombardier, and now are planning to buy 25 used Australian jets for $500 million.

But the auditor general's report said the military's firm assessment—and his own—is that the result will be the same: planes we can't use.

“The [Defence] Department stated it needed more qualified technicians and pilots, not more fighter aircraft,” the report reads.

“In our opinion, without more technicians and pilots, the effect on fighter-force operations will be small.”

Ferguson, whose previous report on fighter jets in 2012 helped blow up the Harper government's plan to buy a fleet of F-35 jets without a competition, backed up his most recent assessment with some stark numbers.

For example, in the last fiscal year, 28 percent of fighter pilots flew fewer than the minimum number of hours needed to keep their skills while 22 percent of technician positions in CF-18 squadrons were empty or filled by inexperienced staff.

And between April, 2016 and March, 2018, the air force lost 40 trained fighter pilots and produced only 30 new ones.

Since then, another 17 have left or said that they planned to leave.

The auditor general's findings are likely to add fuel to the fire that has been smoldering around the Liberals when it comes to fighter jets, with opposition parties and defence analysts criticizing how the government has handled the file.

Many have been calling for years for the Liberals to launch an immediate competition to replace Canada's CF-18s, which already are 35 years old, but the government has insisted on taking its time.

The government is expected to formally launch a $19-billion competition for 88 new fighter jets next spring, but a winner won't be picked until 2021 or 2022.

The first new fighter jet won't arrive until 2025.

In the meantime, despite plans to spend upwards of $3 billion over the next decade to keep them in the air, Ferguson warned the CF-18s and used Australian fighter jets will become increasingly obsolete.

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