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Politics Canada to funnel money into upgrades to keep CF-18 fighter jets flying

A Canadian Forces CF-18 Hornet fighter jet taxis at the Birgi NATO Airbase in Trapani, Sicily, March 24, 2011. Ottawa is considering two main options for its plans to commit $45-billion to controversial new fighter jets – and both point back to Lockheed Martin F-35 as the clear front-runner. These leading choices are: buy a fleet of 65 F-35s without seeking competing bids, or launch a competition that, based on technical and financial data obtained by the government, would lead to the selection of the same aircraft.

TONY GENTILE/REUTERS

The Canadian government will pay for maintenance and upgrades to extend the life of the country's aging CF-18 fighters so they last until about 2025, sources say – a strong sign that Ottawa is far from ready to pick a new warplane.

The federal government will also make the next required payment to keep alive its partnership in the Joint Strike Fighter program producing the controversial F-35 fighter-bomber, the sources say. The contribution, in the $25-million to $30-million range, means Canada will still be able to buy the plane at a slight discount if it chooses and, in the meantime, Canadian companies remain eligible to bid on supply contracts for the project.

Taken together, these measures suggest Stephen Harper's government is hedging its bets in the face of a difficult decision. The CF-18 life extension shows the Conservatives are preparing for the possibility that it could take years to select and acquire a new fighter. Remaining in the F-35 consortium indicates Ottawa refuses to close the door on purchasing the warplane despite controversy about its cost and effectiveness.

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The developments come as the Conservative cabinet is discussing this week a request to join U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq – and CF-18s and refuelling planes would be a part of that mission.

The Tories initially announced in 2010 that Canada would buy 65 F-35s without entertaining rival bids, but then backed off in the face of heavy criticism that this decision was made without due diligence and the full $45-billion cost of the planes had been hidden from public view.

They restarted the procurement process in 2012, trying once again to pick a new fighter.

The last multibillion-dollar life extension project undertaken by the Canadian military prolonged the life of 80 CF-18 jets until 2020. As of May, 2014, data showed 77 fighters were still in operation.

The new life-extension upgrades – to move the planes' best-before date to roughly 2025 – will cost tens of millions and possibly more than $100-million, sources say.

Canada's CF-18 warplanes are currently conducting air policing over the Baltic states, a NATO effort to ward off Russian aggression.

The Globe and Mail reported in May the average age of the CF-18 jet fighters was 27 1/2 years old, which means an operating life dating back to the fall of 1986, when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev held Cold War talks in Iceland. Data in May showed 27 – or more than one-third of the jets – had logged more than 6,000 flying hours and one has exceeded 7,000 hours.

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It's looking increasingly unlikely that the government will choose a new jet fighter before the 2015 election.

The government, which took a serious credibility hit over its poor management of the fighter-procurement process last time, has little to gain from a swift pick.

On the other hand, the Conservatives face the prospect that opposition parties might capitalize on the unspent jet funding and propose a more politically attractive use for the billions of dollars during the next election campaign.

"Cabinet will not rush a decision," a source familiar with deliberations said.

As The Globe and Mail reported in April, Ottawa is considering two main options for its plans to commit $45-billion to controversial new fighter jets – and both point back to Lockheed Martin F-35 as the clear front-runner.

These leading choices are: buy a fleet of 65 F-35s without seeking competing bids, or launch a competition that, based on technical and financial data obtained by the government, would lead to the selection of the same aircraft.

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Separately, on Monday, with Canada apparently poised to join air strikes against Islamic State militants, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird promised the Tories would bring a vote on any combat missions to the Commons.

"The opposition are demanding a debate and vote in Parliament on a combat mission. They are pushing against an open door. This Prime Minister and this government have always brought such matters before this House and have always had a vote, and that is exactly what we will do," Mr. Baird said.

The Conservatives' majority in the Commons means a combat deployment vote would easily pass.

While he wouldn't discuss cabinet's plans, the Foreign Affairs Minister made it clear that the government is ready to increase its contribution to the coalition.

"This fanatical terrorist organization is a direct threat to people in the region, to our allies and to Canada. We think it is important to play a constructive role," Mr. Baird said.

With a report from Daniel Leblanc

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