Public Works Minister Diane Finley says a key report that will determine whether the Harper government sticks with the F-35 jet fighter program is complete, and the federal cabinet will take a few weeks to consider its next step.
An analysis of what fighter jets already on the market would be best suited to replace the air force's current fleet of CF-18s was ordered in late 2012 following a scathing auditor general's report, which accused National Defence and Public Works of low-balling the enormous cost of the stealth fighter program.
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Finley did not release the findings of the review, conducted by four outside defence experts.
In prepared remarks for a speech in Vancouver, Finley said she met with the panel several times during their study.
"Keith Coulter, Rod Monette, Philippe Lagassé and Jim Mitchell have really kept the RCAF’s feet to the fire in this evaluation," Finley said of the panel.
The panellists have a range of experience: Coulter is a former fighter pilot and commanded a CF-18 squadron before eventually joining the public service. Monette is a former comptroller general of Canada and CFO at National Defence. Lagassé is an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa, specializing in Canadian defence policy and civil-military relations. Mitchell is a consultant and former senior civil servant who started his career in the foreign service.
Other planes to be considered
Finley says the panellists have taken their role seriously and "done a great service to Canada."
"And they have now completed their work. Over the next several weeks we will be carefully reviewing a number of reports relating to the evaluation of options, industrial benefits, costs and other factors related to the decision to replace our CF-18 fleet."
The panel looked at information from five rival aircraft makers: Lockheed Martin, the F-35's manufacturer; Boeing's Super Hornet; EADS Eurofighter, also known as the Typhoon; Dassault's French-built Rafale; and the Saab-manufactured Gripen from Sweden.
Finley says the market analysis will be one of several documents that cabinet will review before deciding whether to hold an open competition.
There's been speculation the Harper government is anxious to keep the CF-18 replacement off the political agenda in the run-up to the 2015 election, given the political firestorm created by auditor general Michael Ferguson's F-35 criticisms.