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Canada’s tortured effort to buy new fighter jets is facing a fresh challenge as uncertainty about when the aircraft will arrive is making it hard for officials to know how long the military’s aging CF-18s must stay in the air.

The problem is no trivial matter as upgrading too many planes for too long could waste hundreds of millions – maybe even billions – of dollars while not upgrading enough could leave the military with a shortage.

Yet while time could provide some clarity, the clock on a decision is ticking as Canada’s head of military procurement, Patrick Finn, says work on the CF-18s must start soon to make sure they aren’t grounded.

“It’s tight,” said Finn, the Defence Department’s assistant deputy minister of materiel. “If you don’t have the lead time to do it, you start to have operational impacts.”

Federal bureaucrats are working overtime to launch a long-anticipated competition next month, intending to purchase 88 new fighter jets at a cost of up to $19 billion that will replace the CF-18s.

Yet while the government has said it wants to pick a winner by 2022 and start receiving the first new planes in 2025, a new Defence Department report says that schedule is “very aggressive.”

“The project team is managing a number of risks which have the potential impact schedule,” says the report, which includes an update on more than a dozen military purchases currently under way.

Finn confirmed that assessment in an interview with The Canadian Press, saying the real schedule won’t be known until a winner is selected and both sides can sit down and hammer out the details.

Yet defence officials are right now wrestling with how many to keep in the air – and for how long – to ensure the military has enough CF-18s until the last replacement arrives.

That answer should be dictated by the delivery schedule of whatever replaces them, but Finn said officials need enough lead time to start work on the CF-18s now to make sure there isn’t a gap should the new planes arrive late.

At the same time, the government does not want to put more money into the CF-18s – which were supposed to be retired in 2003 – than it has to.

The federal auditor general recently estimated it would cost $3 billion to purchase 18 second-hand fighter jets from Australia and upgrade them and the entire CF-18 fleet to last until new replacements are delivered in 2032.

That money would be only to keep them flying and does not include upgrading the planes’ combat systems. Officials are fine-tuning estimates on those upgrades, though many believe it would add billions more to the final tally.

“The issue is how many aircraft do we do and what do we do there so we can bridge to the new fleet,” Finn said. “We don’t want to be upgrading and adding capability and even the maintenance we do as we reduce.”

Successive federal governments have been grappling with the politically charged question of buying new fighter jets for the military for nearly a decade.

The Stephen Harper government announced in July 2010 that it would purchase 65 F-35 stealth fighters from U.S. defence giant Lockheed Martin without a competition, before that plan was scuttled over questions of cost.

The Liberals promised during the 2015 federal election they would launch an immediate competition to replace the CF-18s, but that still has not happened. They also promised not to buy the F-35s, but have since decided to let that model compete to be the CF-18s’ long-term replacement.

Officials are “burning the midnight oil” in an attempt to launch the competition by the end of May, Finn said, though he added it could end up rolling out a little later than that.

Four planes are expected to compete: the F-35, Boeing’s Super Hornet, Eurofighter’s Typhoon and Saab’s Gripen.

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