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.

Like this article? Follow our Facebook page

Or follow us on Twitter


Also on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

    FIIn this file photo taken on July 14, 2011 and released by U.S. Air Force, a USAF F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter (JSF) aircraft soars over Destin, Fla., before landing at its new home at Eglin Air Force Base. Japan selected the Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011, to replace aging jets in its air force and bolster its defense capability amid regional uncertainty. (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force, Staff Sgt. Joely Santiago)

  • F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

    A F-35 Lightning II sits on stage during the United Kingdom F-35 Lightning II delivery ceremony on July 19, 2012 at Lockheed Martin Corporation in Fort Worth, Texas. The ceremony marked the first international delivery of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to a partner nation. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

  • F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

    (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

  • F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

    Plane models stand outside the Lockheed Martin Corporation during the United Kingdom F-35 Lightning II Delivery Ceremony on July 19, 2012 in Fort Worth, Texas. The ceremony marked the first international delivery of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to a partner nation. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

  • F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

    The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet sits in front the entrance of the Asian Aerospace 2004 show in Singapore 24 February 2004. The Asia Pacific offers one of the world's strongest prospects for defence-related spending, US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin said Tuesday as it expressed confidence in remaining a major supplier to the region's governments (AFP PHOTO/ROSLAN RAHMAN)

  • F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

    (AFP PHOTO/CARL DE SOUZA)

  • F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

    A Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lighning II fighter jet sits on the tarmac for static display at the Singapore Airshow in Singapore on February 12, 2012. Boeing's much-delayed 787 Dreamliner is set to star at the Singapore Airshow this week where companies touting private jets and defence hardware to the Asian market will also be out in force. (ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

    (ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • F35 JSF Take Off

  • F-35A Flight with External Stores

    On Feb. 16, 2012, the first external weapons test mission was flown by an F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The F-35A is designed to carry up to 18000 pounds on 10 weapon stations featuring four weapon stations inside two weapon bays, for maximum stealth capability, and an additional three weapon stations on each wing.

  • F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

    IN AIR, NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER, MD - FEBRUARY 11: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been received by U.S. Military prior to transmission) In this image released by the U.S. Navy courtesy of Lockheed Martin, the U.S. Navy variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35C, conducts a test flight February 11, 2011 over the Chesapeake Bay. Lt. Cmdr. Eric 'Magic' Buus flew the F-35C for two hours, checking instruments that will measure structural loads on the airframe during flight maneuvers. The F-35C is distinct from the F-35A and F-35B variants with larger wing surfaces and reinforced landing gear for greater control when operating in the demanding carrier take-off and landing environment. (Photo by U.S. Navy photo courtesy Lockheed Martin via Getty Images)

  • F-35 First Ship Landing

    Courtesy: NAVAIR/JSF Program/Lockheed Martin

  • F35 Hovering

  • F-35 Flight Test Highlights

    Highlights of F-35 flight testing at NAS Patuxent River, Md., NAS Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base, and Edwards AFB, Calif.

  • F-35 Performs First Night Flight

    The first night flight in the history of the Lockheed Martin F-35 program was completed on Jan. 19, 2012 in the skies above Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Piloted by Lockheed Martin Test Pilot Mark Ward, AF-6, an F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant, launched at 5:05 pm PST and landed after sunset at 6:22 pm

  • F-35 Airstart Testing

    An F-35 test pilot talks about airstart testing at Edwards AFB, Calif., in early 2012.

  • F35 Air Show