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Politics Federal officials explore military aircraft options to replace CF-18s

A model of a Lockheed-Martin F-35 is on display at the CANSEC trade show in Ottawa on Wednesday.

For the globe and mail/Dave Chan

The chief of staff to Procurement Minister Judy Foote sat in an F-35 simulator and fought against fake enemy jets at a military trade show in Ottawa, offering a clear sense that the once-maligned Lockheed-Martin aircraft remains in the race to replace Canada's fleet of CF-18s.

Gianluca Cairo also tried his hand at Boeing's Super Hornet simulator, later explaining that the government is simply involved in "information sharing" with all of the firms interested in the massive military contract.

Still, there has been a heavy federal presence at this year's CANSEC security and defence trade show, as both bureaucratic and political staff showed a willingness to find out more about all of the fighter jets on the market despite the Liberal Party's pledge not to buy F-35s.

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Officials from many of the world's largest military manufacturers were out in full force to lobby the government on the multibillion-dollar fighter-jet procurement that has been in limbo for years, all trying to prod the Liberals into launching a competition as soon as possible.

"It's an evolving process," said John Belanger of Sweden's Saab, which is hoping to sell its Gripen fighter jet to the Canadian Forces.

"At this point, the government really needs to come out and tell us what they are looking for."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party said during last year's election campaign that it "no longer makes sense" to buy a fighter with the F-35's stealth, first-strike capability, citing skyrocketing costs for a plane that has been plagued with development problems. The Liberals vowed instead to buy a "lower-priced" aircraft and funnel the savings into the Royal Canadian Navy.

However, Mr. Cairo and other officials from Ms. Foote's office, as well as senior bureaucrats in charge of procurement, made a point of touring all of the stalls at the fair on Wednesday.

At the Lockheed-Martin booth, former Canadian fighter pilot Billie Flynn and retired lieutenant-general Charles Bouchard greeted visitors by arguing that Canada needs the most modern fighter-jet capability to ward off security threats. Canada has been a paying partner in the F-35 program since 2001, although it remains to be seen whether the Canadian Forces will ever buy the aircraft for their own use.

"What I know is that the F-35 program continues to advance and that more countries continue to commit to the airplane with vigour," Mr. Flynn said in an interview. "There is no wavering of commitment of the partners in the F-35 program and the momentum continues to be strong."

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Boeing is countering that its twin-engine Super Hornet is the best-equipped aircraft to patrol the Arctic, stating it offers more options to pilots in the event of an engine loss than the single-engine F-35.

"It is fundamentally important for the kinds of missions that Canada performs on a day-to-day basis," said Roberto Valla, Boeing's vice-president for Canada.

Mr. Valla added that Boeing is promising to invest 100 per cent of the value of the fighter-jet contract in industrial and technological benefits in Canada, whereas the F-35 program only offers Canadian firms a chance to bid on contracts for the international project.

A number of protesters arrived early at CANSEC on Wednesday to denounce Canada's sale of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, arguing the $15-billion contract should have been cancelled over human-rights concerns in the country.

"International human-rights organizations and the United Nations have provided ample evidence that Saudi Arabia uses weaponry, specifically armoured vehicles mounted with machine guns, to kill and injure unarmed civilians in both Saudi Arabia and Yemen," said Kevin Shimmin of a group called Homes Not Bombs.

Protesters are expected to show up again on Thursday when Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Ms. Foote both speak on the final day of CANSEC.

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