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A Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighter flies toward its new home at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida in this U.S. Air Force picture taken on January 11, 2011.US AIR FORCE/Reuters

Timing is of the essence when it comes to finding new fighter jets for the Canadian Forces.

Officially, Canada's CF-18s are scheduled to be phased out between 2017 and 2023, which would force the government to have a whole new fleet in operation within less than a decade. However, officials who are conducting the search for new fighter jets feel they have a couple of years of extra leeway.

"The Canadian Forces say that they are ready to operate the CF-18s until 2025," said a source involved in the process, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The evolving time frame gives a boost to the candidacy of the F-35, the Lockheed-Martin fighter that is still under development and might need the extra time to be fully operational to be ready to replace the CF-18s.

"That would allow F-35s to enter into service in Canada in 2022 or 2023, which gives eight years to get them ready," the source said. "That is an advantage for Lockheed-Martin."

On the other hand, Boeing is ready to start providing the Canadian Forces with its SuperHornet fighter jet on a quicker time frame, which offers a safer choice for the Canadian Forces in the short term, sources said. However, there are concerns inside the government about the long-term prospects for the SuperHornet, an aircraft that is already in operation, but is nearing the end of its production cycle.

If and when the U.S. military stops operating the SuperHornet, there will be relatively few countries that will use the aircraft, leading to a potential increase in the cost of parts and upgrades if it remains in operation by the Canadian Forces. One question facing the government is how long would the SuperHornet be able to continue to meet Canada's needs, and at what cost.

"There is a risk that we will have to pay for all of the upgrades to the aircraft by ourselves," the source said.

Another issue for the SuperHornet is whether the government would need to buy more of them upfront. The Canadian Forces want 65 aircraft, but it may need to buy more SuperHornets to ensure that it always has a sufficient number of them in operation, even after the production line comes to a halt. The F-35, on the other hand, is expected to be in production over a longer period of time, which would allow the government to eventually buy new planes to replace any ones that crashed.

Still, other sources said the government is still looking at the possibility of acquiring a "mixed fleet" that would include both SuperHornets, focused on the defence of the Canadian territory, and F-35s, designed for overseas operations. However, the Air Force is said to be resisting this prospect, officials said.

Sources said the federal government is currently exploring whether to continue with its planned sole-sourced purchase of a fleet of 65 F-35s, as announced in 2010, or to launch a new competition for fighter jets. There are concerns inside the military about the delays associated with a competition, which would likely entail writing a new Statement of Operational Requirements (SOR). As it stands, sources said there is only one aircraft – the F-35 – that can meet all of the requirements in the document.

"Public Works feel that they could hold a competition over an 18-month period, but the Air Force are skeptical, given that they feel that simply re-writing the SOR would take a year," the source said.

Sources involved in the ongoing process said that issues of timing are critical to the government's choice. So far, Ottawa has commissioned an "evaluation of options" that compares the cost and technological capabilities of four aircraft in the running. In addition to the F-35 and the SuperHornet, the government has looked at the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Rafales.

The matter is expected to go to cabinet for a final decision in coming months. Meanwhile, a public version of the evaluation of options is expected to be released in the near future.

Daniel Leblanc is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.