OTTAWA - The ball is now firmly in the Harper government's court when it comes to deciding whether to stick with the oft-maligned F-35 fighter jet program.

After almost 18 months of exhaustive research and analysis, a key report that will determine whether there will be an open competition to replace the air force's aging CF-18s has been completed, the public works minister said Friday.

The analysis looks at fighter jets already on the market, how suited they would be for Canada's defence needs, their cost and potential benefits.

The review was part of a package of research the Conservative government ordered as a way to douse the political fire started in 2012 following a scathing report by the auditor general, which accused National Defence and Public Works of low-balling the enormous cost of the stealth fighter program and not doing their homework.

Diane Finley did not release the findings of the market analysis, conducted by four outside defence experts.

"Over the next several weeks we will be carefully reviewing a number of reports relating to the evaluation of options, industrial benefits, costs and other factors related to the decision to replace our CF-18 fleet," Finley told a Vancouver business audience.

She described the research as "both rigorous and impartial."

Her comments came as Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced six Canadian fighter jets would deploy to Poland as part of efforts to bolster NATO forces in eastern Europe.

Liberal defence critic Joyce Murray said there isn't much for cabinet to debate and a decision is self-evident.

"The government should have called for an open competition to replace our fighter jets years ago," Murray said in an email.

"That's the only way to ensure we can get the best possible equipment for the Canadian Armed Forces at the best value for taxpayers. This report is just another delaying tactic so the Conservatives don't have to come clean with Canadians about their F-35 plans until after the next election."

The panel looked at information from five rival aircraft makers: Lockheed Martin, the F-35's manufacturer; Boeing's Super Hornet; EADS Eurofighter, also known as the Typhoon; Dassault's French-built Rafale; and the Saab-manufactured Gripen from Sweden.

In 2010, the government said it intended buy the F-35 stating it was the best and "only" option to replace the current fleet. Conservatives stood their ground and defended the decision for two years in the face of reports by the auditor general and the parliamentary budget officer, each of whom questioned the government's claim that the jets would cost only $16 billion.

Both watchdogs came up with substantially higher numbers and an independent analysis — also commissioned in the aftermath of Ferguson's report — projected the total lifetime cost of the F-35s to be about $44 billion over four decades.

Officials have taken pains to underscore that they have not signed a contract with Lockheed Martin and have not put any money down on the replacement.

But if the government intends to pursue the stealth fighter, its window for making a decision is starting to close.

In order to keep its place in the line of other buyers, the federal government recently pushed off its tentative delivery date for the first F-35s to 2018. A senior executive of Lockheed Martin said that timetable would mean Ottawa have to make a decision and start putting money down next year.

Finley did not say when cabinet will come to a decision.

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