The federal government, expected to make a pivotal decision on Canada's next jet fighter within weeks, is playing down a new Department of National Defence acquisition schedule that suggests the contract for a new warplane won't be finalized until at least 2018.
On Monday, National Defence released what it called an Acquisition Guide to provide suggested timelines for the selection and purchase of new equipment. This document leaves the impression a decision on fighters is a long way off.
The guide suggests Ottawa would take until at least 2017 to issue a "request for proposals" from various bidders and then wait until at least 2018 before awarding a contract.
This is at odds with signals from the Conservative government that it's ready to take the next step on fighters this month – a choice that could lead to a new competition for the planes or buying the controversial F-35 Lightning on a sole-sourced basis.
A panel of independent monitors last Thursday gave its blessing to a still-confidential Royal Canadian Air Force report that evaluated the risks and benefits of purchasing four different warplanes, which has been forwarded to the federal cabinet.
Sources say cabinet is expected to consider this report shortly but that a decision is not likely this week.
A spokeswoman for Defence Minister Rob Nicholson said Monday the schedule in the new acquisition guide is not the final authority on the matter.
"The majority of the projects in this publication do not have formal authority from the government and remain subject to change in terms of scope, cost and schedule including termination without any further explanation or liability," Johanna Quinney, press secretary for Mr. Nicholson, said.
"No decision has been made on the replacement for the CF-18 fighter jet fleet."
Winning the seal of approval from independent monitors last week was the final task the Harper government had set for itself before making a 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."