Forces planes can’t refuel F-35s in air

OTTAWA — The Canadian military has decided it will rely on the U.S., other allies and private companies for air-to-air refuelling if the government purchases the F-35 because the stealth fighters aren’t compatible with Canada’s current refuelling aircraft.

The revelation is buried in an explosive report released last week and means the Canadian military would be reliant on third parties to realize the full benefits of its F-35s — a situation opposition critics and analysts say is completely unacceptable.

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“I’m shocked,” said former defence department military procurement chief Alan Williams.

“At the end of the day, we want to provide our men and women in uniform the ability to do the job. And certainly, eliminating that flexibility to be able to refuel when we want with our own assets, is a very limiting factor.”

Air-to-air refuelling is considered to be of critical importance to Canada’s military aircraft given the country’s massive size, particularly when it comes to conducting sovereignty missions in the North.

F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin initially said the stealth fighter would be compatible with Canada’s existing refuelling aircraft — a claim repeated by Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

“Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the plane, has confirmed that the F-35 can handle different types of refuelling systems, including the one currently used by our forces,” MacKay told Parliament on Jan. 31, 2011.

Numerous defence department documents subsequently showed the F-35 was in fact incompatible with Canada’s existing fleet of refuelling aircraft, but the military said it was examining ways to address the problem.

Now, according to accounting firm KPMG, National Defence has decided to change that plan and instead outsource air-to-air refuelling if Canada buys the stealth fighters.

KPMG was recently hired to verify the government’s cost estimates for the F-35. 

At one point it asked for clarification on the defence department’s plans for refuelling the stealth fighters in mid-air.

“With respect to air-to-air refuelling requirements, DND will rely on [the U.S.], coalition partners, or commercial refuelling assets to meet operational requirements,” reads KPMG’s final report, which was released last week.

Public Works, the department overseeing the government’s efforts to replace Canada’s aging CF-18 fighters, would say only that the government is considering all options before deciding which aircraft to buy.

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