Key point: Any gaps in the air defense of the North American continent is bad for both the United States and its ally Canada.
The northernmost tier of North America's air defense has problems.
Canada's air force lacks enough jet fighters to meet its North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) or NATO requirements, according to Canadian government auditors. And that raises questions about whether the U.S. Air Force can meet increased demands to prepare for a war with Russia or China.
Either way, the report by Canada's Office of the Auditor General paints a picture of a fighter force that can't fulfill its missions, especially after a 2016 government mandate that the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) have enough fighters available to meet the highest NORAD alert level, while meeting Canada's NATO obligations at the same time. This required a 23 percent increase in the number of fighter aircraft available for operations.
"We found that Canada’s fighter force could not meet the government’s new operational requirement, which is to have enough aircraft ready each day to meet the highest NORAD alert level and Canada’s NATO commitment at the same time," the audit concluded. "The fighter force could not meet the requirement because National Defence was already experiencing a shortage in personnel, and the CF-18 was old and increasingly hard to maintain."
Between April 2016 and March 2018, the RCAF lost forty trained fighter pilots, but only produced thirty replacements. But it's not just a shortage of pilots: the audit found that in fiscal year 2017-2018, 28 percent of pilots flew fewer than the minimum 140 hours required to maintain proficiency, partly because of a shortage of mechanics to service the aircraft.
How to replace Canada's aging 1980s CF-18 (the Canadian version of the U.S. F/A-18 Hornet) fighters has been a military and political drama for years. Canada was going to buy sixty-five F-35s and then changed its mind, followed by a plan to buy F/A-18E/F Super Hornets (canceled because of Trump administration tariffs on Canadian aircraft manufacturers). Next up was a plan to buy used Australian F/A-18 Hornets, which the audit found would not "help solve either the personnel shortage or the aging fleet."