OTTAWA - The federal Conservatives are demanding the Liberal government provide more clarity on the next phase of Canada's search for a new fighter jet — including when a replacement for the military's aging CF-18s will finally be announced.
The call comes days after the government announced Lockheed Martin's F-35 stealth fighter and the Sweden's Saab Gripen are the only two planes still in contention for the $19-billion contract to supply Canada with 88 new fighters.
The announcement confirmed an earlier report by The Canadian Press that Boeing's Super Hornet had been tossed out of the competition. Public Services and Procurement Canada has refused to say why Boeing's bid did not make the cut.
The department has also been vague about what happens next in Canada's decade-long search for a new fighter jet, saying it will decide the way forward in the coming weeks.
"While the procurement process includes predetermined steps and decision points, a degree of flexibility was also built in to respond to the broad range of possible evaluation outcomes," spokesman Jean-Francois Letourneau said in an email.
"Canada will take time to carefully analyze next steps for the process, which could include either proceeding to final negotiations with the top-ranked bidder, or entering into a competitive dialogue, whereby the two remaining bidders would be asked to submit revised proposals, followed by finalization with the resulting top-ranked bidder."
The government has not said whether Lockheed Martin or Saab is the current frontrunner.
Conservative defence critic Kerry-Lynne Findlay said the fact the government doesn't know what it will do is a concern, particularly given how long the search for a new fighter has taken.
Rather than going back to the two companies and reopening their bids, she added, the government needs to avoid any further delays and set a firm timeline for when a winner will be selected.
"We're asking them to stick with certain timelines so that we all know when to expect an announcement on a final decision, and not go to ... some further renegotiation," Findlay said Friday.
"Just make a decision. There has to be a decision. It has to be made soon."
The government has repeatedly said Canada's first new fighter jet would be delivered by 2025 and the last by 2032. It has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the CF-18s to keep them flying to that date, at which point they will be around 50 years old.
But it appeared to hedge on those long-established timelines in announcing the final two bidders this week.
While the plan is still to award a contract next year, Defence Department spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said the first aircraft is now expected "as early as 2025, with all 88 jets expected to be delivered by the early 2030s."
Findlay said certainty is required for the military and industry to make sure Canada has the aircraft it needs to defend itself.
"There needs to be more certainty in the process as they move toward that final decision," she said. "And we need this equipment, and we've needed it for a very long time."
Canada first started its search for a new fighter jet in 1997 when it joined the United States and other allies as a partner in developing the F-35.
Stephen Harper’s Conservative government then committed to buying 65 F-35s without a competition in 2010, before concerns about the stealth fighter’s cost and capabilities forced it back to the drawing board.
The Liberals promised in 2015 not to buy the F-35, but to instead launch an open competition to replace the CF-18s. They later planned to buy 18 Super Hornets without a competition as an “interim” measure to ensure Canada had enough aircraft until permanent replacements arrived.
Some at the time questioned that plan, suggesting the Liberals were trying to find a way to lock Canada into the Super Hornet without opening itself up to a legal challenge from Lockheed Martin or any other jet makers.
But the government cancelled the plan after Boeing launched a trade dispute with Montreal aerospace firm Bombardier over the latter’s C-Series planes. It launched the current bidding process in July 2019, at which point both the Super Hornet and F-35 were allowed to compete.