National Newswatch

GATINEAU, Que. — The commander of Canada's air force wants to pay retention and signing bonuses to pilots, one measure of several meant to address the military's shortage of experienced aviators and mechanics.

In a frank message to Royal Canadian Air Force members on Monday, Lt.-Gen. Al Meinzinger called the moves "vital" for stabilizing the military's ranks at a time of unprecedented competition for skilled aviators and technicians.

"We are at risk of losing the depth of experience that our more senior personnel possess and, thus, the ability to mentor, train and transfer knowledge to our newer aviators and bring them to an operationally effective level," he said.

"Without action to stabilize our levels of experienced personnel, the RCAF's operational output will be further impacted. Increasing our intake and our training capacity is not enough."

The new initiatives aim to minimize the amount of time pilots spend on the ground rather than in the cockpit by streamlining training and cutting non-flying responsibilities while using more reservists and contractors.

There are also plans to look at retention bonuses for more experienced aviators and signing bonuses to attract former military pilots from Canada and elsewhere back into uniform. Such measures, however, will require government approval.

Other militaries, notably the U.S., that are also struggling with shortages of pilots have introduced financial bonuses and other measures to keep aviators in uniform.

Meinzinger acknowledged some of the measures will take longer to implement than others, some as up to seven years, which is when he has previously said he hoped the shortage would finally be addressed.

Meeting that timeline will be essential to ensuring a smooth transition from the current CF-18 fighter-jet fleet to new state-of-the-art replacements, during which the air force will be stretched in three different directions.

Not only will the RCAF need to keep the same number of planes in the air to fly missions and have enough senior aviators to train new pilots, which is already difficult, it will also need to send seasoned pilots for training on the incoming fleet.

"The challenge is complex ... and will require equally complex solutions," Meinzinger told air force members.

The federal auditor general reported in November that the military doesn't have enough pilots and mechanics to fly and maintain the country's CF-18s as it is.

Two months earlier, air force officials revealed they were short 275 pilots and need more mechanics, sensor operators and other trained personnel across the air force's different aircraft fleets.

And there are concerns the shortage will get worse as a result of explosive growth predicted in the global commercial-airline sector, which could pull many experienced military pilots out of uniform.

The situation might not be an existential crisis for the air force, at least not yet. But military officials have nonetheless conceded it is one that needs to be addressed if Canada's air force is to continue operating at top levels for the foreseeable future.

—Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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