The Canadian Forces have finished exploring the world market for fighter jets, putting pressure on the government to decide whether to launch a competition or forge ahead with the sole-sourced purchase of F-35s before the next election.
According to documents posted on a federal website on Thursday, the Canadian Forces have already prepared draft reports on the price, the technical capabilities and the strategic advantages of the four fighter jets in the running.
"The process is nearly finished," said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The newly released documents suggest the government will have to make its decision in short order because of concerns over the viability of the current fleet of CF-18s, which is set to be phased out between 2017 and 2023.
Any decision on the life extension of the CF-18s will depend on Ottawa's main choice in coming months: whether to launch a full-blown competition for new aircraft, which could take years, or proceed with its initial decision to directly buy a fleet of 65 Lockheed-Martin F-35s, a high-tech aircraft that is still in development.
The process is designed to help the government weigh the risks associated with both scenarios and choose the best option for the Canadian Forces and taxpayers.
The Auditor-General slammed Ottawa's previous acquisition plan in a report that fuelled a political firestorm in the spring of 2012. There was speculation at the time the government's seven-point response could bring a final decision after the 2015 general election.
However, the process is moving along swiftly, according to the public summary of meetings of an "independent review panel" that is monitoring the government's process, which means that the F-35 is set to be a hot political file once again.
The Royal Canadian Air Force presented a series of draft reports to the review panel in late November and early December, including the initial version of the Public Report on the Evaluation of Options that will eventually be released at large.
In addition, the RCAF is finishing up its "Integrated Mission Risk Assessment," that is nearly ready to be presented to a committee of deputy ministers, the documents said. According to the government's process, the committee of deputy ministers will then present a series of options to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet, which will make the final decision on the process.
In its 2012 report, the Auditor-General criticized the government's sole-sourced acquisition process, and raised questions about the long-term cost of the program.
The government responded by creating a National Fighter Procurement Secretariat to oversee its new acquisition process, stating that it was "hitting the reset button."
One of the first steps was to launch an "options analysis" to compare the cost and capabilities of the four fighter jets in contention for the $40-billion contract: the F-35, the Dassault Rafales, the Boeing Super Hornet and the Eurofighter Typhoon.
However, the Canadian Forces informed the panel of independent experts that it has not managed to obtain detailed financial information from the four aircraft manufacturers. Instead, the government is currently operating with a "rough order of magnitude," which suggests that Ottawa will need to launch a full competition if it wants guarantees that it is getting the best possible price for its new fighter jets.
The federal government announced to great fanfare in 2010 it would forgo an open competition and buy the Lockheed F-35 because it was the only plane that would serve Canada's needs. The Conservatives defended the decision in the 2011 election and often excoriated critics who suggested they had made a mistake.
In late 2012, however, the government backed away from its decision as it launched its new process, including the evaluation of the F-35's major rivals.
"What's important here is that we act on these recommendations, that we deliver to Canadians the certainty, the surety they require that they're getting the right aircraft for our country for the long term and that we're being responsible with taxpayers' dollars," then-defence minister Peter MacKay said.