There is nothing stopping the Liberal government from fulfilling its promise to hold a full and open competition for new fighter jets, a top procurement bureaucrat told MPs.
"That is definitely an option that can be pursued, and again, it's information that we are providing [to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan]," Patrick Finn, the assistant deputy minister in charge of procurement at National Defence, said to a committee of the House on Thursday.
Mr. Finn was responding to questions from NDP MP Erin Weir, who brought up the possibility that the Liberal government could use a sole-source contract to replace the current fleet of CF-18s.
The Conservatives are raising concerns that Ottawa is seeking a way around a competition to avoid buying Lockheed-Martin F-35s, opting instead for a sole-sourced purchase of Boeing Super Hornets.
The F-35 is a leading-edge stealth aircraft that has faced a series of technological challenges and delays in its development, while the Super Hornet is an older aircraft that offers fewer short-term risks to its buyer.
During the past election, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said he would not buy the F-35 aircraft, which was championed by the previous Conservative government.
Once in office, however, the Liberals promised to launch an "open and transparent" competition for new aircraft.
Mr. Finn confirmed that the government is currently exploring a series of options to purchase new fighter jets, suggesting the Liberals could eventually opt out of an open tendering process.
"Right now, no decisions have been made," Mr. Finn said. "The full spectrum is being looked at. Our minister has asked us many questions about approaches, products, how it could be done, what could be done, to make sure he has all of the information that he needs to bring to his colleagues."
Sources said the file is currently in front of the cabinet "ad hoc" committee on defence procurement, which is chaired by Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr.
Government officials said the cabinet committee is working to refine the choices that will eventually be put in front of the full cabinet, where there will be a debate before the government makes a final call.
The acquisition of the new fighter jets is estimated to cost at least $9-billion, plus decades of maintenance and operation costs.
Mr. Finn said the government considers many issues when it looks at aircraft, including cost and whether they can be bought "off the shelf," but also the long-term ability to upgrade their capabilities to prolong their efficiency.
"Maturity at the outset can be an important factor, but it's one of many. Interoperability, price, being able to upgrade – all of those are important factors," he said.
Retired lieutenant-general Ken Pennie, who is a former head of the Air Force, has said he hopes the government will make its choice based on Canada's defence needs rather than political considerations.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said Erin Weir was a Conservative MP instead of an NDP MP.