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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, middle, gets a tour of Canada's CF-18's by LCol Daniel McLeod, Sicily Air Commander, left, and General Charles Bouchard prior to delivering a speech at Camp Fortin on the Trapani-Birgi Air Force Base in Trapani, Italy, on Thursday, September 1, 2011.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

For the first time in two years, the path is clear for the Conservative government to select Canada's next fighter jet, a choice that could very well mean buying the controversial F-35 Lightning without a competition.

A panel of independent monitors on Thursday gave its blessing to a still-confidential Royal Canadian Air Force report that evaluated the risks and benefits of purchasing four different warplanes and has been forwarded to the federal cabinet.

Sources say cabinet is expected to make a decision on fighters within the next couple of weeks.

Thursday's seal of approval fulfilled the Harper government's final obligation before making a pivotal decision to either buy the F-35 without competition or open the field to bidding from all jet makers.

The Tories froze this procurement in 2012 after blowback over an earlier decision to buy the F-35 that critics said was made with a lack of due diligence. After a damning Auditor-General's report, the Harper government vowed to hold off until it had fulfilled a "seven-point plan" to restart the process of replacing Canada's aging CF-18s.

But as of Thursday, the seven-point plan has been fulfilled. Government sources say the federal cabinet is "more than likely" to take up the report in the next few weeks.

A four-member independent review panel gave the government the affirmation it was seeking, saying it had no hesitation in pronouncing the RCAF's assessment of Lockheed Martin's F-35, the Dassault Rafales, the Boeing Super Hornet and the Eurofighter Typhoon "rigorous and impartial."

Former federal comptroller-general Rod Monette, one of the panelists, compared the group's independent seal of approval to the Auditor-General signing off on the government's books.

Still, the panel acknowledged the measurements used to analyze the fighters were based on the same Conservative defence policy used to justify the now-aborted decision in 2010 to buy 65 F-35s without a competitive bidding process.

"The policy is used to guide acquisitions," said Philippe Lagassé, a military expert at the University of Ottawa who was a member of the independent panel.

The federal government opted to analyze the technical data from four fighter jets through the lens of its 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy.

This six-year-old policy is widely considered outdated. It specifically calls for the acquisition of "next-generation fighter aircraft," using Lockheed-Martin's favourite buzzword to describe its F-35 as the only aircraft that is a full generation ahead of its rivals.

The independent review panel was made up of former fighter pilot and ex-Communications Security Establishment Canada chief Keith Coulter, Prof. Lagassé as well as two retired senior civil servants, James Mitchell and Mr. Monette.

While the panel's thumbs-up is public, the crucial air-force report that they shepherded through the system is not.

The government will release only a partial version of the RCAF report to the public, excised of all sensitive and commercial information, once Ottawa has announced the next step in buying fighters.

This full report is in the hands of federal ministers, who will be able to compare the four aircraft using a colour-coded scheme that lays out the risks associated with six types of missions that future jet fighters might be called upon to fulfill.

The risk for each mission ranges from low (green) to very high (brown), laying out the capabilities and deficiencies of each aircraft in conducting operations such as patrolling the Arctic or attacking foreign forces in an overseas mission.

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