Ottawa will scrap the requirements that were developed by the Canadian Forces and used by the previous Conservative government to justify the sole-source purchase of F-35s, giving itself leeway to buy another aircraft to replace Canada's aging fleet of CF-18s.
The move stands to change the outcome of one of the biggest and most controversial military procurements in Canadian history.
The federal government will ask the Forces to develop new criteria for the $10-billion contract six years after the first set was delivered, giving Ottawa unusual power over the procurement process. It allows the Liberal government to launch a competition for new fighter jets while knowing the contract will not go directly to the aircraft that it has so often criticized in the past.
In an interview, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said his government will get rid of the existing requirements that could be matched only by the Lockheed Martin F-35 in order to benefit from a greater range of options to meet Canada's defence needs.
"The requirements have to be changed, because right now, the requirements are pointing toward only one aircraft," Mr. Sajjan told The Globe and Mail.
"Any requirements that we do set on, we have to make sure they allow for us to have different choices."
The drafting of the new requirement will be closely watched by critics and defence experts to see whether the new specs end up favouring another aircraft at the expense of the F-35.
"We welcome a fair and open competitive process that allows the F-35 to demonstrate that it is the aircraft that will best support the needs of our men and women in uniform well into the future," said Charles Bouchard, chief executive of Lockheed Martin Canada.
The replacement of the fighter jets is one of the most complex files facing the government, with Ottawa still looking for the best process to acquire the expensive and technologically sensitive pieces of military hardware.
The Canadian Forces formally adopted their requirements for new fighter jets in 2010, quickly concluding that they could only be met by the F-35. However, a 2012 report by the Auditor-General criticized the Conservative government of the day for its handling of the acquisition.
The process has been stalled ever since.
Mr. Sajjan said he has been told by his officials that the process to rewrite the requirements will take months, and not years.
His comments came as the government launched a series of consultations to collect new information on the various aircraft on the market.
Over the next two months, the federal government will go to Canada's military allies for feedback, including information on their experiences with different fighter jets and past procurement practices. Mr. Sajjan said Ottawa will consult with allies such as the United States, Britain, Australia, France, Germany, Sweden and Denmark.
Federal officials will also meet with manufacturers to obtain information such as acquisition and life-cycle costs, delivery schedules and estimated economic benefits for their respective aircraft.
In a statement, officials at Boeing Co. said they hope to convince the government that their Super Hornet fighter jet would be "the best fit for Canada, with low acquisition and sustainment costs, advanced capabilities, and economic benefits for Canadian industry."
Mr. Sajjan said it is still too early to state the exact acquisition process that will be used by the government after it has finished collecting the data and redrafting the requirements.
"We have a lot of information on the F-35, a little bit of information on something else, so this is about getting all of the right information to start looking at what type of process is required to replace our jets," he said.
Critics have accused the Liberal government of rigging the system to avoid purchasing the Lockheed-Martin F-35s.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during the last election campaign that his government would not pursue the acquisition of the stealth fighter jet, and has recently dismissed the F-35 as an aircraft that "doesn't work."
Transport Minister Marc Garneau, who sits on a cabinet committee in charge of military procurement, has in the past extolled the virtues of twin-engine fighter jets to fly in Canada's North – knowing the F-35 operates with a single engine.
Mr. Sajjan said Canada quickly needs new aircraft because it is struggling to meet its commitments to NATO and NORAD.
"If you do not address a capability gap, you will end up losing a capability," he said.
He added the government will look at Canada's long-term defence needs.
"For us, what's very important is how do we look at our sovereignty in the context of NORAD," he said of the bi-national command with the United States.