OTTAWA - Military planners are concerned the Harper government is buying too few F-35 fighters with almost no room for any loss of the stealth jets throughout their projected lifetimes, according to internal Defence Department briefings.
"Canada is the only country that did not account (for) attrition aircraft" in its proposal, said an undated capability-and-sustainment briefing given to senior officers late last year.
The eye-popping pricetag for individual joint strike fighters, ranging from $75 million to $150 million, depending upon the estimate, has limited the purchase to 65 aircraft.
Access-to-information records, obtained by The Canadian Press, show that when the joint strike fighter was proposed almost a decade ago the air force had recommended a fleet of 80.
Nevertheless, Defence Minister Peter MacKay has insisted 65 is adequate to meet Canada's military needs.
But a separate information briefing from earlier in 2010 shows that the country is purchasing "the minimum acceptable fleet size" and that the air force has been told it should "be prepared to manage the operational risk should the fleet drop below 65 due to attrition."
The F-35s are replacing roughly 77 CF-18s, just over half the original number of 138 purchased almost 30 years ago.
The delivery schedule is pushing the current CF-18s to the very limit of their operational life. Even after a multibillion-dollar facelift, the workhorse of the fighter community, designed in the 1980s, is projected to be retired in 2020.