A seven-member federal cabinet committee is drawing up final options to replace Canada's aging fighter jets, sources say – and the ministers include Transport Minister Marc Garneau, who openly advocated against the purchase of Lockheed-Martin F-35s in recent years.
Government officials said the cabinet committee is working to refine the choices that will eventually be put in front of the full cabinet, where there will be a debate before the government makes a final call. The acquisition of the new fighter jets is estimated to cost at least $9-billion, plus decades of maintenance and operation costs.
"We may have no bigger or more complex [decision to make] this mandate," a senior Liberal official said.
The Liberals promised in last year's election campaign not to buy the F-35, but once in government, they committed to holding an "open and transparent" competition to select the new aircraft.
However, the government has been putting growing emphasis in recent weeks on the "urgent" need to find a replacement for the three-decade-old fleet of CF-18s, and critics, including Conservatives, accuse the Liberals of rigging the process to purchase a fleet of Boeing Super Hornets at the expense of the F-35. That aircraft had long been championed by the previous government.
Retired lieutenant-general Ken Pennie, who is a former head of the Air Force, said he hopes the government will make its choice based on the need to protect the country's territory instead of political considerations.
"I think there should be a competition based on the requirement to defend Canada," he said in an interview. "I don't know what that requirement is today, but it has to be something that will be effective against what the Russians are going to put on the table in the next 20, 30, 40 years."
Sources said the file is currently in front of the cabinet "ad hoc" committee on defence procurement, which is chaired by Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr.
The other members of the committee are Treasury Board President Scott Brison, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, Procurement Minister Judy Foote, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, Science Minister Kirsty Duncan and Mr. Garneau.
When he was in opposition, Mr. Garneau repeatedly slammed the F-35 for having a single engine, saying the aircraft would put pilots at risk in the event of engine failure in the Arctic. The Super Hornet, while featuring older technology than the F-35, has two engines.
"All things being equal, two engines are better than one," Mr. Garneau said in 2011.
Mr. Garneau added the manufacturer should have to guarantee that 100 per cent of the value of its aircraft would be reinvested in Canada. The F-35 project does not include traditional regional benefits, but rather opportunities for Canadian firms to bid on work for the aircraft's international production line.
"We know we can get a better deal for Canadians, with guaranteed offsets," Mr. Garneau said at the time.
During Question Period on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was critical of the F-35, which has faced delays and technological challenges in recent years, as an aircraft "that doesn't work."
Former CF-18 pilot Billie Flynn, who now works for Lockheed-Martin as an F-35 test pilot, disputed the Prime Minister's characterization. In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Flynn said the so-called "fifth-generation" F-35 is already operational with the U.S. Marine Corps, meaning it could "go to war" right away.
"The F-35 is better, more capable than any fourth-generation aircraft that flies today, period," Mr. Flynn said.
He added the F-35 beat out the Super Hornet and other fighter jets in a recent competition in Denmark, not only in terms of technical capabilities, but also cost.