March 28, 2011: When the Canadian government decided to send some warplanes to assist in establishing the no-fly zone over Libya, they found out that sending six of their CF-18 fighters would amount to 20 percent of flyable Canadian fighters. That was a bit shocking to most Canadians. But not to those who run the Canadian Air Force, as they know quite well that the CF-18 is on the way out. For example, late last year, Canada awarded $700 million in contracts to two commercial firms (Harris and L3) to provide maintenance for its F-18 fleet of jet fighters over the next nine years. This type of contract is increasingly popular, as they provide a cheaper way to provide all the more complex maintenance, other than what the ground crews do on a daily basis. This involves major overhauls, management of spare parts and upgrades of equipment. This includes the airframe, engines and electronics. Canada expects to retire its remaining 79 CF-18s by 2020, and replace them with 65 F-35s. Meanwhile, only about 30 CF-18s are flyable, because so many aircraft are undergoing upgrades and extended maintenance.
The CF-18s were purchased in the 1980s. Of the 128 originally received, 103 remain and 80 have been upgraded and remain in regular service. The 20 ton F-18 used by Canada (as the CF-18) was initially the F-18A model, but in the last decade, most have been upgraded to the F-18C standard. Canada plans to replace its CF-19s with the new 65 F-35s. The trend towards fewer, but more capable and expensive aircraft is a common one. Half a century ago, Canada had a fleet of nearly 600 fighters, including license built U.S. F-86s, and what would eventually amount to over 600 CF-100 fighters, the only Canadian designed fighter to enter mass production. The CF-100s were gradually retired over the next three decades. The last ones left service as the CF-18 entered service. But in between, Canada built, under license, several other U.S. fighter designs. Canada had become a major aircraft manufacturer during World War II (over 16,000 aircraft produced), and that provided the foundation for an aircraft industry that remains a major supplier of commercial aircraft to this day.
But Canadian military air power has steadily shrunk since World War II, when the Royal Canadian Air Force had over 2,000 aircraft, and over 210,000 personnel in service. By the time the "Royal" was dropped in 1968, Canada and the United States had pooled resources to build a North Atlantic air defense system. The U.S. provided most of the aircraft, and because the United States was more involved in overseas wars during the last half century (and had a much larger aircraft industry), built a larger air force. Lacking any local threats (unless you count the Russians, across the Arctic Ocean), Canadian air power has declined, relative to its population. Measured in that way (aircraft per million population), Canada has far fewer warplanes than most European nations. But given its lack of hostile neighbors, and an ally to the south that has the world's largest air forces, Canada is under no pressure to halt the decline in its air power.