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A U.S. F-35 fighter jet flies over the Eifel Mountains near Spangdahlem, Germany on Feb. 23.Harald Tittel/The Associated Press

The federal government has narrowed its search for a new warplane to the very aircraft the Liberals once swore they would never pick: Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 fighter jet.

Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi and Defence Minister Anita Anand announced Monday that Lockheed Martin has emerged as the top-ranked bidder in the government’s procurement process. They said Canada will now negotiate to buy 88 F-35s, at an expected cost of $19-billion. If the negotiations are successful, Canada could start taking delivery as early as 2025. The planes would be the country’s first new fighters in more than three decades.

Should contract negotiations fail, Canada would turn to the second-ranked bidder, Sweden’s Saab AB, which makes the Gripen fighter jet.

The announcement Monday caps a tumultuous, 12-year saga during which the federal government has struggled to pick a fighter plane. Ottawa is now facing calls to boost defence spending as Russia lays siege to Ukraine, with NATO pushing for a commitment of 2 per cent of GDP. Canada devotes only about 1.4 per cent of GDP to military expenditures.

Canada’s lengthy fighter jet replacement process began in 2010, when the former Conservative government announced it would buy the F-35 without a competitive bidding process. It aborted the plan after public outcry over whether it was getting the best value for taxpayer money. It restarted the procurement process in 2012 after a damning audit of its plans for the sole-sourced purchase. This time, it hired independent monitors to oversee things.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party came to power in 2015 with new plans, having campaigned on an election pledge that it would not buy F-35s. It said it would instead purchase “many, lower-priced options that better match Canada’s defence needs.”

The Liberals pledged to hold an “open and transparent competition” – principles critics had said were incompatible with excluding a particular plane.

Monday’s decision is the result of another restarted procurement process that took shape in 2016 and, despite the 2015 campaign pledge, did not exclude Lockheed Martin.

Asked to explain the Liberal campaign-pledge reversal, Ms. Tassi said only that Monday’s outcome is the result of a fair and unfettered bidding process with no political influence. She said she, Ms. Anand and Mr. Trudeau did not know until Monday that Lockheed Martin had been selected as the top-ranked bidder.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘well at the end of the day you ended up with the same plane,’ but really when you look at it, we are basing this decision on fact and on evidence based on all the evaluations that have been done, and I can tell you that’s rigorous,” Ms. Tassi told reporters.

She said the competitive bidding process will ensure Canada gets the “best plane in terms of capability at the best cost.” But she could not provide any figures to demonstrate a savings in comparison to what the government would have spent on F-35s in 2010. The government said Monday the price tag for the 88 aircraft is still being finalized.

In the past 12 years, Canada has spent significantly to keep its existing combat aircraft force ready for action. That includes a $1.3-billion program to extend the lifespans of aging CF-18 Hornets and nearly $400-million to buy used Hornets from the Royal Australian Air Force. Canada’s inventory of fighters today includes 76 CF-18s, and 18 F-18 Hornets from Australia.

Timothy Choi, a defence researcher at the University of Calgary, said having waited to buy F-35s may end up not being a financial burden for Canada. About 10 years ago, an F-35A, the variant Canada plans to buy, cost around US$100-million. The latest cost for the same variant is US$77.8-million, he noted. “That comes to a savings of nearly $2-billion, which comfortably covers the Hornet extension and secondhand Hornets,” Mr. Choi said.

Ms. Anand said on Monday that “the 88 new fighter jets are going to contribute to our multilateral alliances both here on the North American continent and in terms of our broader NATO capabilities.”

LOCKHEED MARTIN F-35A LIGHTNING II CHOSEN

Canada has narrowed the search for a warplane supplier down to

Lockheed Martin Corp., the U.S. manufacturer of the F-35 fighter jet.

Canada will now negotiate a contract to buy F-35s.

Max. speed: Mach 1.6 (1,930km/h)

Ceiling: 18,300m

Range: 2,200km (on internal fuel)

Payload: 8,160kg

Engine: Single

F135 turbofan

Length: 15.7m

International F-35 orders by country

F-35A conventional takeoff/landing variant

F-35B jump jet

Japan

105

42

Britain

138

Australia

100

Italy

60

30

Canada

88

Finland

64

Norway

52

Israel

50

Netherlands

46

South Korea

40

Belgium

34

Poland

32

Denmark

27

Singapore

4

(1,763 F-35A, 693

F-35B/Cs (carrier version)

Total

orders

U.S.

orders

912

2,453

the globe and mail, Sources: graphic news;

Lockheed Martin

LOCKHEED MARTIN F-35A LIGHTNING II CHOSEN

Canada has narrowed the search for a warplane supplier down to

Lockheed Martin Corp., the U.S. manufacturer of the F-35 fighter jet.

Canada will now negotiate a contract to buy F-35s.

Max. speed: Mach 1.6 (1,930km/h)

Ceiling: 18,300m

Range: 2,200km (on internal fuel)

Payload: 8,160kg

Engine: Single

F135 turbofan

Length: 15.7m

International F-35 orders by country

F-35A conventional takeoff/landing variant

F-35B jump jet

Japan

105

42

Britain

138

Australia

100

Italy

60

30

Canada

88

Finland

64

Norway

52

Israel

50

Netherlands

46

South Korea

40

Belgium

34

Poland

32

Denmark

27

Singapore

4

(1,763 F-35A, 693

F-35B/Cs (carrier version)

Total

orders

U.S.

orders

912

2,453

the globe and mail, Sources: graphic news;

Lockheed Martin

LOCKHEED MARTIN F-35A LIGHTNING II CHOSEN

Canada has narrowed the search for a warplane supplier down to Lockheed Martin Corp., the U.S.

manufacturer of the F-35 fighter jet. Canada will now negotiate a contract to buy F-35s.

Max. speed: Mach 1.6 (1,930km/h)

Ceiling: 18,300m

Range: 2,200km (on internal fuel)

Payload: 8,160kg

Engine: Single

F135 turbofan

Length: 15.7m

International F-35 orders by country

F-35A conventional takeoff/landing variant

F-35B jump jet

Japan

105

42

Britain

138

Australia

100

Italy

60

30

Canada

88

Finland

64

Norway

52

Israel

50

Netherlands

46

South Korea

40

Belgium

34

Poland

32

Denmark

27

Singapore

4

Total

orders

U.S.

orders

(1,763 F-35A, 693

F-35B/Cs (carrier version)

912

2,453

the globe and mail, Sources: graphic news; Lockheed Martin

David Perry, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the fighter jet selection process has suffered from “unusual amounts of politicization.”

The F-35 represents a major investment by the U.S. military that will benefit Canada, he added.

“The United States government has put something like half a trillion dollars into developing this airplane. Even if you think the U.S. system is inefficient – and it certainly is in lots of different ways – that’s an awful lot of money spent on a tonne of advanced aspects and capabilities.”

A Canadian government source said an added benefit of picking the F-35 is that it will help Canada-U.S. relations. The United States has long pushed Canada to buy American-made jets, and Canada is pressing Washington hard to relent on buy-American rules that discourage or bar government departments from purchasing foreign goods or services.

The Americans will like this new development, the source said. The Globe is not naming them because they were not authorized to discuss Canada-U.S. relations publicly.

Conservative defence critic Kerry-Lynne Findlay and Conservative procurement critic Pierre Paul-Hus said the Liberals are not moving fast enough to buy the warplanes. “The Liberals announced they will be starting discussions to potentially award a contract at the end of 2022 to Lockheed Martin Corp. for F-35 fighter jets if negotiations go well,” the MPs said in a joint statement. “This announcement is a far cry from the commitment and clarity Canadians expect from their federal government.”

Contract negotiations with Lockheed Martin could take as little as seven months, Ms. Tassi said Monday.

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