Upgraded CF-18 fighter jets have no where to fly
September 23, 2004
The Canadian air force now has the ability to send its CF-18 fighters almost anywhere in the world, with their own precision bombs and their own air-to-air refuelling tanker, but Bill Graham, the Defence Minister, said yesterday he has no plans to use the air force's new-found mobility.
The air force will take delivery of its first converted CC-150 Polaris transport plane in two weeks, an air force spokesman said, giving the Canadian Forces the ability to send a self-sufficient squadron of fighters abroad for the first time in seven years.
"Within a period of weeks, you could have the entire force on the ground and flying combat missions at the other end," said Brigadier-General Dwight Davies, the chief of operations for 1st Canadian Air Division.
"There's no geographic impediment to us deploying these aircraft anywhere in the world ... we can get, in a very short period of time, to anywhere on the globe."
The Canadian Forces is spending $80-million to turn two of its five Polaris jets into air-to-air refuelling tankers, essentially flying gas stations for CF-18 fighters.
The newly fitted tankers can also carry passengers, allowing the air force for the first time in decades to send a Canadian expeditionary squadron abroad, complete with jets, pilots and ground crew.
Crews must still be trained in refuelling techniques and some airborne electronics must still be added to the Polaris tankers, but they are expected to be operational by early next year. A second tanker aircraft will be ready by next April.
But despite calls from NATO and embattled Afghan government, the Liberal Defence Minister said yesterday he will not send the fighters to fly air cover for Canadian and allied ground troops in Afghanistan.
"I can't tell you if we're sending them anywhere at the moment, certainly not Afghanistan for now. But we want to make sure they have the resources to maintain that capability."
Mr. Graham, speaking with the National Post after he addressed a gathering at the Royal Canadian Military Institute, said the air force will wait until they are asked to deploy the CF-18s before they commit them overseas.
"Let's make sure they get to the mission that's appropriate. Afghanistan is not that mission at the moment."
The Defence Minister said in his speech at the institute that one of his priorities will be giving the Canadian Forces much-needed rest after back-to-back overseas missions in Afghanistan and the Arabian Sea.
"The high operational tempo ... has had an impact on our men and women in uniform and their families. As I've said before, they need and deserve a break."
"This is why we are now moving to reduce our operational commitments and begin a period of regeneration."
The United States sent an "informal request for forces" to the Canadian military in 2002, asking if they could deploy a squadron of CF-18s to southwest Asia to provide close air support for U.S. and coalition ground forces hunting down Taliban and al-Qaeda holdouts in Afghanistan.
According to Defence Department memos obtained by the National Post, Canadian staff officers determined that the proposed mission was possible. But Vice-Admiral Greg Maddison, the deputy chief of defence staff, turned down the U.S. request because of concerns that it would appear to be indirectly supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Brig.-Gen. Davies said that the air force is now in a better position to provide a "six pack" of Canadian fighters for an overseas mission, thanks to the new refuelling tankers and a multi-billion-dollar modernization program for the CF-18.
"Expeditionary capability, which is the ability to deploy abroad, is a significant area of focus and importance to the air force," he said. "[And] we can deploy fairly significant levels of combat power even as we speak."
Two of Canada's four fighter squadrons have been converted to the upgraded versions of the fighter jets, equipped with modern electronics, radios and targeting computers to allow them to use up-to-date precision bombs and missiles.
"It has been a great success story," Brig.-Gen. Davies said of the modernization program.
"The resulting modernized aircraft, with the weapons suite that goes with it, is a virtually state-of-the-art fighter that is world-class. It's a remarkable piece of equipment."
As well, the air force has acquired stockpiles of precision-guided weapons in recent months as well as additional electronic "sensor pods" carried under the fighters' wings to control laser- or GPS-guided bombs.
Six of the new fighters, accompanied by one of the CC-150 tankers, can be airborne and on their way to an international hot spot within days, Brig.-Gen. Davies said. "One of the principal things that the CF-18 brings to the table is not only does it provide a significant amount of combat power, even relatively small numbers, but it is deployable rapidly," he said.
"It will provide a capability to the Canadian government that -- should they choose to use it -- would have utility in a vast number of scenarios anywhere in the world."
With the new air-to-air refuelling planes, Brig.-Gen. Davies, said the air force can now go where it wants without relying on American or rented tankers. As well, he said, Canada can now support its fighters on the ground, even building its own air base if necessary.
"We have the ability to put in place a fully instrumented airport, where we would have control towers, [navigational] aids, communications and air traffic controllers and so on," he said.
"It's not an endless capability and to sustain such an airfield [abroad] would be a challenge, but no more than we are challenged in many other areas of the Canadian Forces to support a deployed operation."