An independent panel that monitored the government's rethink of Canada's jet-fighter needs will give its official seal of approval to the process this week as the Harper government prepares to make a pivotal decision on the country's next warplane.
The 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's now setting the stage for a tough decision on the file, starting with a public thumbs-up from the four independent experts who oversaw the Royal Canadian Air Force's re-evaluation of fighter options.
The Conservative government is hoping this will lend credibility when it announces the next step. The Tories' carefully cultivated image as stewards of the public purse took a beating in 2012 after a damning Auditor-General's report said they selected the F-35 without due regard for price and availability.
The main decision facing the government is whether to stick with the untendered purchase of F-35s or launch a full competitive bidding process for new aircraft.
But sources said Ottawa has also been considering a third route forward, one that could buy it more time and possibly delay a decision until after a 2015 election.
The government has also been looking at the possibility of rewriting the requirements for the fighter jet, something it hasn't touched to date. This is because, as insiders say, the current technical specifications are designed to pick the F-35. No other jet could meet all the existing requirements.
"If the government doesn't want to make a decision before the election, it can state that it needs to review the statement of requirements based on the work that has been done," a source involved in the process said. "It would be a way for the government to show action without having to make a commitment."
Ottawa will hold a technical briefing for media, planned for this Thursday and a source said that during this presentation, the four-member panel is expected to "discuss its work and endorse the methodology that was used."
The independent review panel was made up of former fighter pilot and ex-Communications Security Establishment Canada chief Keith Coulter, University of Ottawa professor Philippe Lagassé as well as two retired senior civil servants, James Mitchell and Rod Monette, a former federal comptroller-general. It has held 32 meetings between late 2012 until February of this year, according to the minutes publicly posted on a Public Works website.
The monitors supervised the government's evaluation of technical and financial data that were supplied by four aircraft manufacturers involved in the "evaluation of options" to replace the current fleet of CF-18s. Sources said the process was based on a "risk analysis" that ranks the jets based on a number of criteria, including the ability to meet planned missions for the new aircraft and their maintenance and upgrading costs.
The F-35 continues to draw criticism, with experts insisting that a single-engine fighter jet is not particularly well suited to replace Canada's twin-engine CF-18 for remote missions such as Arctic patrols.
"You could use a single-engine aircraft to do national and continental missions, but there would be greater risk involved. It is as simple as that," Duff Sullivan, a retired major-general and former fighter pilot, said in an interview. "When you lose an engine in a CF-18, it's a non-event. … When you lose the engine of a single-engine aircraft, the outcome is certain: You will be ejecting from that aircraft."
Mr. Sullivan, who is not working for any firms involved in the current process, oversaw allied air operations in Afghanistan and worked as a defence adviser in the Privy Council Office before retiring in 2010. He said the F-35's biggest advantage comes at the high end of the spectrum of military operations, such as a hypothetical mission to conduct a pre-emptive strike in North Korea. But Mr. Sullivan said Canada has not traditionally participated in these "most extreme, most unlikely" types of missions.
The F-35 is still in development, and has faced a number of technological challenges that have boosted its price tag. Still, as the most modern fighter on the market, it promises to offer unrivalled stealth capabilities and state-of-the-art capabilities when it enter into operation.
The SuperHornet, by contrast, is already in use and offers more predictable sustainment costs, government officials and experts said.
The opposition parties in the House are also urging the federal government to conduct a competition, pointing out that the sole-sourced process was ripped apart in 2012 by the auditor-general. The project is estimated to cost at least $45-billion over the new aircraft's lifespan.