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A Rafale fighter jet, made by France’s Dassault Aviation, performs in the air at the Paris Air Show on June 13, 2005.

REGIS DUVIGNAU/REUTERS

A French fighter-jet manufacturer is urging Ottawa to quickly launch a competition to find a replacement for its fleet of CF-18s, stating billions of dollars of work in Canada are at stake.

Yves Robins, a vice-president at Dassault Aviation, said the Canadian government's evaluation of the options to replace the CF-18s is nearing completion, meaning Ottawa could decide this year whether to launch a full and open competition. The alternative for the government would be to continue with its previous choice – stalled by a 2012 report by the Auditor-General – to buy a fleet of F-35 fighter jets directly from Lockheed-Martin.

"The only reason for procrastinating for the opening of a competition might be an internal policy reason," Mr. Robins said in an interview, pointing to potential political considerations. "I think that nowadays, the Canadian government has enough information to make its judgment within four to six months."

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In addition to the F-35, the Canadian government is looking at the cost and capabilities of three other fighter jets: Dassault's Rafales, the Boeing SuperHornet and the Eurofighter Typhoon. Government officials said they will look closely at the economic spinoffs when they decide how to proceed, while keeping in mind that Canada's current fleet of CF-18s is set to be phased out between 2017 and 2023.

"Making sure that Canadian military procurements benefit the Canadian economy and create Canadian jobs is crucial to making sure that Canada's aerospace and defence industries can continue to prosper," Public Works Minister Diane Finley said at a speech to the 2013 Canadian Aerospace Summit. "Simply put, we will do business with companies who bring jobs to Canada."

Lockheed-Martin said $10-billion in high-tech work in Canada will be lost if Ottawa abandons its initial plans to buy F-35 aircraft. However, Dassault is arguing that if it wins the competition, it will ensure that the full value of the project, estimated at $40-billion over the lifetime of the selected aircraft, will be spent in Canada.

Mr. Robins said Dassault is willing to provide a full and unrestricted transfer of technologies to the federal government, meaning the Canadian Forces could go on to "Canadianize" the French-built Rafales to its own specifications. The offer has shaken up the competition, with the French offer going beyond the firm's U.S. rivals in terms of potential transfers of intellectual property.

"Our aim is to give Canada the capability to be fully autonomous in the support of the aircraft throughout its lifetime. Our proposal aims at providing Canada with the means to follow the Rafales throughout its operational life, not only through its maintenance and support, but also through its upgrading and eventually its midlife modernization," Mr. Robins said.

He added that in his view, the twin-engine Rafales would offer greater range and capabilities in defending Canada's sovereignty in the North than the single-engine F-35.

"The F-35 has been designed with a maximum emphasis on stealthiness, which implies that some drawbacks were accepted in terms of payload, range, dimensions and so on," Mr. Robins said.

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Last fall, the head of Boeing's defence division argued that Lockheed-Martin's massive F-35 program has suffered a series of technological challenges that increase the risk to the Canadian government.

Lockheed-Martin has asserted that its new fighter jet, with leading-edge technology, simply cannot be compared with any of its existing rivals.

"Quite frankly, [rival] airplanes don't have the computing power or the data links to keep up," Lockheed-Martin vice-president Stephen O'Bryan said. "To say that [the F-35 is] orders of magnitude better than fourth-generation airplanes is a huge understatement."

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