Canada's CF-18s to fly 2 NATO overseas missions in 2017

A flight of six CF-18 jet fighters will soon depart for Iceland in one of two overseas missions this year in a show of solidarity with NATO allies.

Coming out of last year's Warsaw Summit, the Trudeau government committed to deploying an air task force as part of a range of measures meant to check Russian ambitions in Eastern Europe.

It has not, until now, confirmed any details.

Canada's aging CF-18s will conduct unarmed patrols out of Iceland for several weeks, beginning in late May. That will be followed in September by another air policing mission in Romania, defence officials confirmed to CBC News.

The deployments are the first major overseas missions since the Liberal government raised alarm last spring about what they described as a "capability gap" within the fighter fleet.

They are concerned about the air force having enough serviceable fighters to conduct both NATO and Norad (North American Aerospace Defence Command) missions concurrently.

A spokesperson for the military's strategic joint staff says the situation is in hand.

"The RCAF is actively risk-managing the capability gap to simultaneously meet our Norad and NATO commitments," said Capt. Patricia Brunelle.

The deployment also comes after the release of internal documents showing the military was concerned as far back as three years ago that the combat readiness of its front-line fighter fleet was declining because of fewer training hours and lean maintenance budgets under the former Conservative government. 

Russia and NATO

The fact the Liberal government has chosen to conduct back-to-back fighter deployments speaks volumes, a defence expert said.

Dave Perry, an analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said it could be a sign that the Liberal government is more concerned about the strategic threat posed by Russia than it lets on.

There is also the possibility it is a post-budget signal for the Trump administration, which has demanded NATO allies meet the alliance's two per cent gross domestic product spending target.

"You could look at this and say it's part of the government walking the talk about how we don't spend a lot but we do contribute operationally," said Perry.

"I think there is a strategic threat and we should be reinforcing the alliance. Whether or not it is politics, I can't say."

Iceland has no air force

The Liberal government's recent budget offered only a slight increase in operational spending for the military but withdrew $8.4 billion in planned capital spending — money that is supposed to be put back at a later date.

Brunelle says the department will make a formal announcement soon about the size and scope of the deployment. But defence sources told CBC News it will involve six fighters and up to 160 personnel, which is similar to the contingent that deployed on the same missions in 2011 and 2013.

Since 2008, NATO allies have taken turns flying fighters for two month stints out of Iceland, a country of just over 300,000 people which does not have an air force. The patrols are co-ordinated with the Icelandic coast guard.

The Italian air force is currently conducting flight operations out of Keflavik Air Base, outside Reykjavik, with six Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft.

The U.S. has been conducting anti-submarine patrols out of the same base since last year at the same time experts had warned that Russian undersea activity in the North Atlantic had hit levels not seen since the Cold War.

Canada's NATO contributions

There will be no overlap between the missions in Iceland and Romania, said Brunelle.

"The missions will be one after the other and not concurrently," she said.

"There will be several months of gap between the two missions that aims to conduct periodic surveillance and air policing operations in NATO areas of responsibility and participate in joint training activities with other nations."

Canadian fighters have conducted at least two deployments to Romania — in 2014 and 2016 — following an increase in tension related to Russia's annexation of Crimea. They have also conducted air policing missions in the Baltic region, where the army is preparing to deploy 450 soldiers to lead a NATO battle group.