Goodbye to the Hawk: A Quiet Extinction Event in the Royal Canadian Air Force


Image credit: Canadian Armed Forces Corporal Jean-François Lauzé


by Jeff Tasseron
May 2024

Table of Contents

Goodbye to the Hawk: A Quiet Extinction Event in the Royal Canadian Air Force

By the time you read this, the last Hawk will probably be gone.  Seen for more than 20 years in the skies around Moose Jaw and Cold Lake, this is no native red-tailed bird felled by climate change or loss of habitat. Instead, the CT-155 Hawk was a high-performance jet training aircraft; a gateway to a career as a fighter pilot that provided over 1300 young airmen and women with their first critical exposure to fast air operations. Previously identified for retirement in the expectation that the fleet would be out of flying time by 2024, the Hawk has been removed from service. The parade is over, and the colors of 419 Tactical Fighter Training Squadron have been encased and stored away. 

In practical terms, this means that Canada no longer has a sovereign fighter pilot training capability. Instead, for at least the next seven years the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) plans to send its fighter pilots to schools in the United States and Italy.  In theory, nothing much will outwardly change.

Of course, in the intervening years between the original decision to remove the Hawk from service and now, many things did change.  For instance, two years of pandemic and significant reductions in flight training meant that that the flying rate of the Hawk fleet fell dramatically. Unlike previous aircraft retirements, Canada isn’t shedding 17 tired, obsolete rattletraps.  Of the current fleet, only five aircraft are beyond their useful life and ready for mothballs. The remaining 12 collectively have thousands of hours of flying time still in them. In fact, Canada’s Hawks are decades newer than the 1960’s vintage T-38 aircraft our pilots will now train on in the United States. 

Flying rates are not the only difference. Globally, demand for pilots spiked, fell, and has again rebounded. Fighter pilots around the world are aging out, or trading ejection seats for the lucrative fur-lined comforts of civil airline cockpits. This has created growing demand for fast jet training for a new generation of fighter pilots. Companies are jockeying to fill the need, but the latest generation of training aircraft is only beginning to enter service. This places a premium on older but proven training platforms – among them aircraft such as the Hawk. 

And of course, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and deepening global instability has highlighted not only the need for robust air combat capabilities, but also for more reliable and resilient defence industrial support chains generally.  The need to secure and enhance national sovereign resilience across the Alliance underpins NATO’s increasingly strident demands for member countries to pay their share of collective defence’s financial burden, and is intended to focus countries’ attention on making smart, collective choices about which capabilities (including critical training and sustainment capabilities) to retain and enhance, and which to shed. 

It is this last point that merits additional consideration. 

Ultimately, retiring the Hawk is less about the fate of a single aircraft fleet, and more about whether Canada is making the best possible strategic decisions as it grapples with the need to simultaneously sustain operational capability, introduce new equipment into service, attract and retain scarce talent, and remain a credible contributor to international peace and security. This has always been a tall order for the Canadian Armed Forces. As both the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Minister of Defence recently signalled, these challenges are becoming considerably more difficult to reconcile with recent direction to find hundreds of millions of dollars of annual savings going forward, as part of broad government reductions. 

This makes the manner in which Canada chose to retire the Hawk all the more regrettable. 

The original plan was to find a commercial buyer for the remaining fleet. This would have generated revenue for the Crown while also allowing Canadian industry to offer novel options to provide short-term training services to Ukraine or other NATO and partner users. Instead, the RCAF reversed course, and unexpectedly elected to send the remaining flyable aircraft to CFB Borden. There, they will be dismantled and repurposed for maintenance training, prematurely ending their flying days.  

There is no denying that maintenance training is a critical enabler of operations, or that such training is best conducted using modern aircraft parts and systems. Canada’s engine, avionics, and airframe technicians need high quality training assets – and too often settle for second-class equipment and training processes as acquisition of new operational systems are prioritized over sustainment funding. But in this case, there were already five grounded Hawk aircraft that might have been committed to the maintenance training requirement at any point, with no impact on the remaining fleet. 

This makes it difficult to understand how it could be operationally advantageous for Canada to decommission fully-functional, flyable aircraft – particularly aircraft that under a commercial model could have been kept flying for training purposes at little incremental cost to the Government of Canada – especially when there are prospective users among our allies and partners who could benefit significantly from access to fighter training capabilities that Canada is historically well-positioned to provide.

So why would the Canadian Armed Forces unexpectedly reverse course on the plan to sell the Hawk fleet, when doing so could raise money for general revenues, keep a proven flight training capability in service (albeit as a commercially-furnished rather than military-operated capability) and provide collective security benefits to partners and allies? 

While it might not be possible to arrive at an exact reason, what is clear is that Canada’s military is currently engaged in a desperate attempt to find savings. Although overshadowed by recent high-profile announcements of additional future funding, the fact remains that the RCAF and the other services are looking for any and all options to save money now, and to avoid or limit future costs to reduce the impact of recently mandated cuts on operations and ongoing procurement. 

This is not a new phenomenon. 

During the so-called “decade of darkness,” DND and the Canadian Forces were forced to implement wide-ranging austerity measures, often under significant time pressure with little analysis. Among the articles of faith for those tasked with achieving savings was the idea that there was no point in incremental reductions when it came to capital equipment. If even a single aircraft, naval vessel, or combat vehicle of a given fleet was kept in service, the need to sustain it meant that any savings from a fleet reduction would necessarily be limited. 

It can be presumed that in this case, a similar concern exists. If the Hawk were retained, even under the ownership of a commercial operator, there might always be a chance that the RCAF could be somehow dragooned into continuing to support it – thereby incurring unanticipated costs, demanding additional personnel they don’t have, and perhaps even imperilling longer-term goals of bringing a new fighter lead-in trainer into service to replace the Hawk. 

Although disappointing, such fears are not unfounded. 

During the decade of darkness and in later waves of Strategic Review (SR) and Deficit Reduction Action Plan (DRAP), hastily-implemented cuts created adverse second order effects and unintended consequences that damaged the operational effectiveness of the Forces in myriad ways. The cuts also shaped the instincts and inclinations of the current generation of senior officers and defence bureaucrats alike. Defence has rarely been rewarded for innovative thinking or programmatic risk-taking, and bitter past experience is a disincentive to innovation. So perhaps in the end, the idea of a commercial fighter training operation – even one as Canadian as maple syrup and a prairie sunrise - just felt like too much uncertainty, or too much unnecessary risk, coming at the wrong time.

But if we are to avoid repeating past errors, decisions like this need to be questioned. 

More than ever before, national defence and national security are more than simply the byproduct of whatever equipment Canada chooses to purchase and retain. A modern military is a complex ecosystem of people, operational platforms, and processes, brought together by money and national will to do what other organizations cannot. What it delivers must be more than flying hours, ships at sea, or troops in the field.  It must also provide national security options to Canada, including those which offer the opportunity to achieve beneficial strategic outcomes or position Canada advantageously with its allies and partners - even when doing so might require the Department of National Defence (DND) to consider innovative and unconventional ways of delivering military capability. 

Canada and its allies are entering a strange and difficult time, and there is much uncertainty in the world. We know that like the wider domestic economy, DND is facing financial headwinds that it cannot ignore. We also know that in the past this led us into dark and difficult decisions about our national security apparatus. In this instance, there are legitimate options available that could allow Canada to cost-effectively retain national sovereign capabilities that the RCAF might otherwise have to give up – including the ability to simultaneously improve maintenance training while also retaining a basic fighter pilot production capability. Why wouldn’t we explore the full range of options, and ensure our choices reflect the widest possible strategic context rather than the narrow perspectives of fear and fiscal uncertainty? 

When we look to the changing natural world, evidence suggests it may not be the most visible extinction events that are the most dangerous. Rather, it is the unremarked and unremarkable losses that may ultimately cost us most dearly. So too with military capabilities – even with ones as humble and seemingly insignificant as the Hawk, you sometimes don’t realize what you had until it’s gone.


About the Author

Jeff Tasseron is the Director of Business Development & Strategy at CAE D&S Canada.  In this capacity he leads business development and complex program capture activities in Canada, contributes to strategy development at regional and international levels, advises on technology and market changes, and assesses and champions opportunities for non-organic portfolio growth, including partnering, mergers, and acquisitions.

A retired Naval Aviator and former Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Colonel, Jeff is trained as an Air Navigator and Tactical Coordinator (TACCO). His extensive operational background includes deployed sea time with the Royal Canadian Navy, flying the CH-124 Sea King helicopter in antisubmarine and surface warfare roles. In addition to positions such as NATO Fleet Air Officer (OP SHARP GUARD) and 12 Wing Operations Officer, he commanded 423 Maritime Helicopter Squadron in Halifax, Nova Scotia.


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