Stephen Harper is sending the clearest signal yet that the Conservative government is leaning toward purchasing the controversial F-35 Lightning fighter, telling Parliament that Ottawa will consider what is in the "best long-term interests" of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
He's echoing a chief selling point of Lockheed Martin, manufacturer of the F-35, which repeatedly points out that rival fighters are older-generation technology with production expected to taper off while the relatively new Lightning will be produced until 2039.
Mr. Harper's remarks come shortly before an independent panel appointed by the government is expected to give the air force its seal of approval for how it handled a reassessment of what Canada needs in a fighter jet. This rethink was launched in 2012 when the Tories backed off $45-billion plans to buy the F-35 after heavy criticism that they had not done their due diligence in selecting a plane.
This new analysis has not yet been made public but sources say it tells Ottawa that the F-35's main advantage over its rivals comes in the later years of the program, when the Lockheed-Martin aircraft is deemed to be easier to maintain and upgrade. That's because, as experts and officials have said, Canada would be able to rely on its allies to share a large portion of the cost to modernize the F-35s over their life cycle.
By comparison, the new analysis says, rival aircraft are older and Canada would have to shoulder a greater portion of future upgrading costs, which was flagged as a greater risk in the options analysis, sources said.
Sources, however, say the Conservative cabinet is "more than likely" expected to take up the report in the next few weeks – a deliberation that will lead to a pivotal decision for Canada's military. The leading choices for Ottawa are whether to hold an open competition for a new fighter or buy the F-35 as previously intended.
The government hopes a thumbs up from the independent panel, expected to come this week, will help bolster public confidence in Ottawa's looming decision on jets.
In the Commons Wednesday, Mr. Harper laid out his priorities for acquiring a new warplane, saying the government will be looking to obtain fighter jets that are best suited to meet the needs of the Canadian Forces for coming decades.
"We will always consider what is in the best long-term interests of the men and women of the Royal Canadian Air Force," he said.
The Prime Minister's Office insisted Wednesday that Mr. Harper was not telegraphing his intentions on the file, that he had not yet read the new report and that cabinet had not made any decisions. Sources say the new risk report does not recommend any particular aircraft. It instead compares the risks of procuring various aircraft, including the F-35, Dassault Rafales, the Boeing Super Hornet and the Eurofighter Typhoon.
During Question Period, Mr. Harper defended the steps the Conservatives had taken since the spring of 2012 when the federal Auditor-General criticized the government's sole-sourced acquisition of the F-35, and raised questions about the long-term cost of the program.
The decision on Canada's next fighter jet comes as the Department of National Defence struggles to cope with successive budget cuts imposed by the Conservative government in the name of balancing Ottawa's books.
The department's budget is smaller than it was in 2007 after adjusting for inflation, a new report by the Conference of Defence Associations Institute says. Capital spending as a share of the defence budget has fallen to the lowest level since 1997-78, it says.