Until recently the government has insisted that the F-35 is the only fighter aircraft suitable for Canada's military needs, and a expert in Canadian defence policy says that might be true.

On Wednesday the government announced it would do a "reset" and evaluate all possible options for fighter jets to replace Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18s. The options analysis will include the F-35, even though the government has essentially scrapped its initial plans to buy 65 of them.

"I'm fairly confident you're still going to end up with the F-35, because what's the alternative?" said Rob Huebert of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

Huebert went through a laundry list of available fighter jets around the world. The Super Hornet, just purchased by the Australians, is a "total colossal waste of money," he said, adding that the Australians bought them as a stopgap measure.

"You're not going to buy the Russian or Chinese aircraft — that just ties you in to a back lane that you just don't want to go into," Huebert continued. He said that the Eurofighter Typhoon is an "interceptor" that does one thing very well, while the Swedish Saab Gripen fighter is a short-range aircraft designed to take out Soviet tanks. "So it's a bit of a relic, let's be honest."

Ugarhan Berkok of Kingston's Royal Military College doesn't entirely agree. He said that "multi-function is probably the order of the day," and that's a strength of the F-35. But, he said, other fighter jets in development will catch up. He named several: the European Typhoon, the French Rafale, the Swedish Gripen and the American Super Hornet.

Botched communication policy

Huebert acknowledged that it would be difficult for the government, after heralding a "reset," to conclude that the F-35 was the right choice in the first place. He blamed the government's orientation toward secrecy, which he said resulted in a botched communications policy, and added that the Liberals under Chrétien weren't very transparent either when they narrowed down the choice for new fighter jets to the F-35.

The whole process, he said, could have used "a little more transparency, a little more debate, and less, 'we know best, shut up and listen to what we say.'"

Huebert's sentiments were echoed by the interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae and the Liberal defence critic John McKay, who held an almost hour-long press conference Thursday solely on the subject of the government's turnaround on the F-35. "I think Canadians need to understand how big a screw-up this has been," said Rae.

Rae described the government starting over to find the right aircraft as a "like a voyage into Narnia,” and an attempt to buy time.

"I think this is a huge spin operation," Rae said. "One of the things that came out yesterday is the government said the life of the CF-18s is longer than previously thought. Maybe they think they can kick this process over past the next election."

John McKay said the costs of the F-35 program, which were pegged at $45.8 billion over 42 years, are not going to go down, no matter what option the government chooses. "You don't have to be around this world for too long to know that acquisition costs never go down, they only go up."

Rae defended his party's decision to agree to let the House of Commons rise two days early for its Christmas break, bypassing an opportunity to excoriate the government for what he has called "the F-35 fiasco."

Two more days of question period would be just a "ritual dance" said Rae.

"We haven't had a question period for the last six months where [Defence Minister] Peter MacKay has answered a single question about this screw-up."

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  • An F-35 in final assembly. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

  • An F-35 ready to take off on a test flight. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

  • The assembly line has nearly a dozen aircraft at any one time. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

  • Flight simulators allow pilots to ease into flying the F-35. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

  • Carts like this are necessary to get around the enormous factory floor. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

  • More flight testing takes place in the hangars. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

  • Lockheed-Martin vice-president Steve O'Bryan talks about the testing process. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

  • Two F-35s flying in tandem during a test flight. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

  • Chief operations officer Chris Kubasik at a press conference in Washington. (Photo: Nicolas Laffont)