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Politics New fighter jet options mean Ottawa could avoid buying F-35s

The federal government, which backed off $45-billion plans to buy the controversial F-35 Lightning in 2012, had ordered a reassessment of what Canada needs in a fighter

LOCKHEED MARTIN/NYT

A new report prepared for Ottawa on options for new fighter jets gives the government an excuse to avoid buying the F-35 if it chooses.

Analysis undertaken by the Department of National Defence found that it's "highly unlikely" Canada would find itself participating in first-strike conflict with other countries that have sophisticated air-defence systems – a scenario where the Lockheed Martin F-35's vaunted stealth capabilities and other features might be most useful.

The federal government, which backed off $45-billion plans to buy the controversial F-35 Lightning in 2012, had ordered a reassessment of what Canada needs in a fighter and what's available on the world market. It released a raft of reports late Tuesday afternoon detailing different aspects of its deliberations for a new fighter.

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There appears to be no plane singled out as best in the reports. As The Globe and Mail reported in April, the F-35 is still the clear front-runner within Ottawa – among Royal Canadian Air Force brass, for instance – and the Boeing Super Hornet remains the only other real contender.

The reports suggest a number of fighters could do the job depending on which priorities Ottawa considers most important.

The conclusion of a "mission needs analysis" performed by Defence officials, however, says the chances of Ottawa conducting early air-combat operations against a country that has strong anti-air defences are low.

"The mission needs analysis undertaken as part of the evaluation of options makes clear that Canadian engagement in future state-on-state conflicts will be highly unlikely," a report called The Evaluation of Options for the Replacement of the CF-18 Fighter Fleet says.

"Far more likely, according to the mission needs analysis, are military engagements that are not clearly defined state-on-state warfare or explicitly humanitarian assistance missions but rather, as in the case of Libya or Kosovo, something in between."

When it comes to continental defence, Canada is jointly responsible with the United States, which has the might of the air force at its disposal.

"Historically, domestic and continental operations have accounted for at least 90% of the use of the Canadian fighter fleet," the report says.

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The Canadian government, which is trying to maximize the industrial benefits it can get from Lockheed, Boeing, Dassault and Eurofighter – the four companies with planes in the running – has broadly telegraphed to companies that it's in no hurry to choose.

Ottawa announced in September it will pay for maintenance and upgrades to extend the life of the country's aging CF-18 fighters so they last until 2025. One of the reports released Tuesday says this prolongation will cost $400-million.

A life-cycle calculation also made public estimates that the bill for F-35 aircraft could be about $1-billion higher when the cost of replacement planes for those lost during operations in included.

Canada's CF-18s are currently conducting air policing over the Baltic states, a NATO effort to ward off Russian aggression, and air strikes in Iraq as part of a U.S.-led coalition formed to beat back Islamic State militants there.

It's looking increasingly unlikely the government will choose a new jet fighter before the 2015 election.

The Tories, who took a serious credibility hit after they tried and then backed off buying the F-35 without a competition, have little to gain from a swift pick.

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Liberal national defence critic Joyce Murray called on the Conservative government Wednesday to hold an "open and transparent competition" to replace Canada's aging CF-18 fighter jets.

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