Canada's new chief of defence staff has contradicted Defence Minister Peter MacKay by suggesting that other fighter jets do offer some of the stealth capabilities the military needs.
Tom Lawson said during testimony Thursday before the Commons defence committee about the planned $25-billion purchase that most fighter jets offer some degree of stealth capability, including Canada's aging fleet of CF-18s.
Boeing's Super Hornet and the Eurofighter Typhoon have been suggested as alternatives to Lockheed Martin's F-35, which until now appeared to be the only fighter jet Canada was considering.
"It's the only fifth-generation, stealth aircraft that meets Canada's needs," MacKay told reporters as recently as last March.
"There are countries around the world flying the [other aircraft with stealth capabilities] to great success these days," Lawson told MPs on Thursday.
Lawson, himself a former fighter pilot, downplayed the importance of Canada buying a so-called "fifth generation" aircraft. The marketing classification "fifth generation" is used in the United States to signify aircraft with the latest technology as of 2012, including advanced stealth capabilities.
"Fourth and fifth generation is not a very helpful way of looking at that aircraft," Lawson told reporters in a scrum after his testimony.
Public Works Department now in charge
The purchase of 65 F-35 aircraft was first announced in 2010. But the costs have risen significantly from the $9-billion price tag offered at the time.
After first Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page and then Auditor General Michael Ferguson sounded the alarm over discrepancies in the calculated costs, Rona Ambrose's Public Works Department was put in charge of the fighter jet procurement process.
Part of that review includes evaluating alternatives to the F-35. The military's original statement of requirements for the purchase included some level of stealth capability, but not a particular, "necessary" element of stealth, Lawson said.
Lawson said that while other fighter jets offer an "element" of stealth capability, the F-35 is "better."
But when asked by Liberal defence critic John McKay whether there is only one airplane that can meet the standard of stealth set out in the Canadian military's requirements, Lawson said "no."
"All options are on the table," Lawson told MPs.
That appears to put him at odds with MacKay's claim that only the F-35 meets the requirements to replace the CF-18.
"It is the only plane that can fill the requirement laid out in Canada First Defence Strategy," MacKay told the defence committee in September 2010.
In question period Friday, Ambrose's parliamentary secretary, Jacques Gourde, was taking the opposition's questions on the F-35 procurement.
Speaking in French, he maintained that the seven-point plan being implemented by Public Works for the procurement includes an analysis of "all the options to replace the CF-18."
The defence minister's spokesman, Jay Paxton, says this seven-point plan "includes an analysis of all options to replace the CF-18 that will not be constrained by the [military's earlier] statement of requirements."
"The options analysis is a full evaluation of choices, not simply a refresh of the work that was done before," Paxton says.
Gourde said the Public Works Department is "taking time to do things correctly" and would not say when KPMG, which won a contract worth more than $600,000 to study the cost of the F-35, will finish its work and issue its report.