(Adds quotes, background on evaluation process)
By Cameron French
OTTAWA, June 12 Four independent experts
endorsed on Thursday the Canadian military's evaluation of
options to replace its aging fleet of fighter jets, setting the
stage for the government to decide whether or not to go ahead
with previous plans to buy F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
Ottawa scrapped its plan to buy 65 Lockheed Martin Corp
F-35s in 2012, after an official watchdog said officials
had grossly downplayed the cost of maintaining and operating the
The military's review of potential options is part of a
multi-agency government process to determine the best way to
replace Canada's aging fleet of CF-18 fighters, and the
four-member panel was struck to oversee the military's review
and lend credibility to the process.
In a 38-page report, the panel said the military's
evaluation process was thorough, comprehensive, conducted
professionally and not biased in favor of any of the four
aircraft the government is considering.
"The simple bottom line is that we have provided ministers
with assurance that the evaluation was rigorous and impartial
and the results are comprehensive and understandable," Keith
Coulter, panel member and former head of Canada's electronic
surveillance agency, CSEC, told reporters at a briefing.
The panel, which also consists of two other retired civil
servants and a university professor, did not issue its own
recommendation for whether the government should proceed with
the F-35 purchase, worth an estimated C$9 billion ($8.29
billion), or launch an open competition.
A senior Canadian government official at the briefing said
no decision has been made by the government.
In addition to the F-35, the military has evaluated Boeing
Co's F-18 E/F Super Hornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon,
built by BAE Systems Plc, and the Rafale, made by
Dassault Aviation SA.
The government official at the briefing said there was no
timetable for a decision.
Sources close to the process have told Reuters the
government's multi-agency review has recommended Canada buy the
F-35s. The decision must still be finalized by Prime Minister
Stephen Harper's cabinet.
If Canada goes ahead with the F-35 purchase, it will be the
6th-largest by a country and would further safeguard the $399
billion Joint Strike Fighter program.
The Pentagon recently estimated the average price per plane
at $139 million, about twice the original estimate in 2001, but
said the projected costs to operate the maintain the jets was
down 9 percent from earlier estimates.
(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Peter
Galloway and Meredith Mazzilli)