OTTAWA - A questionnaire meant to gauge what options exist to replace the air force's aging CF-18 fighters has landed on the desks of aerospace companies in North America and Europe.
The 15-page survey is considered the first step in evaluating whether the Conservative government should bail out of its planned and controversial F-35 stealth fighter deal with U.S. defence giant Lockheed Martin.
It is considered a "draft" and asks potential rivals to outline the capabilities of their aircraft, but does not request detailed cost information.
That will come in a follow-up survey next month. It also leaves the door open for aerospace companies to give suggestions on what questions the government might have missed, or what technical aspects should be explored.
Lockheed Martin has been asked to fill out the survey along with other potential bidders including: U.S.-based Boeing with its Super Hornet; EADS Eurofighter, also known as the Typhoon; Dassault, which is selling its French-built Rafale; and the Saab-manufactured Gripen from Sweden.
The request for information falls short of the demand by critics and the opposition to open the program up to a full-fledged competition, but is part of the government's promise to review all of the potential options to replace the CF-18s.
Last spring, in a scathing report, Auditor General Michael Ferguson accused National Defence and Public Works of hiding the full cost the F-35 Lightning and not following the proper procedures.
The government said in 2010 that it intended buy the stealth fighter, stating it was the best and "only" option to replace the current fleet.
But since the auditor's report, which caused a storm of political and public criticism, the government committed to reviewing other options through a committee of independent experts.
The review is expected to shed light on whether the Conservatives will end up sticking with the F-35, or abandon it in favour of a full-on competition.
Lockheed Martin issued a statement late Friday, saying it had received the questionnaire, and defended the stealth fighter as the best choice for Canada.
"The F-35 continues to be the best solution for CF-18 replacement from both a capability and cost perspective," said the statement.
"The F-35 program, in which Canada has been a committed partner since 2001, has and will create and sustain thousands of Canadian company jobs and provide industrial benefits far greater than the cost of procurement.”
A spokesman for EADS acknowledged it had also received the survey and would respond.
"The Eurofighter consortium has had communication with Canada and will assist them whenever possible," Theodor Benien said in an email.
But a long-time critic of the F-35 program says there is deep skepticism in the defence community about the path the government has taken.
Each aircraft maker has secret information on the capabilities of their aircraft, something they would be reluctant to share without the guarantee of a full competition, said Alan Williams, a former senior defence bureaucrat.
"You're not going to get the kind of specific, detailed technical requirements through a questionnaire," Williams said.
"My advice is, if they're serious, do the right thing the right way."
There is also wariness among European aerospace companies, many of whom are wondering whether the U.S. will lean on Canada to stick with either Lockheed Martin or Boeing, said Williams.
"People need to be sure the fix isn't in for one or the other," he said. "Industry should know, if it puts its best foot forward, makes its best bid, it has a chance to win and that hasn't been seen as the case lately."
Also Friday, Public Works announced it has awarded a $161,950 contract to Samson & Associates to conduct an independent review of the steps the government took in the F-35 process prior to June 2012.
Critics have scoffed at the long-anticipated procedural review, accusing the government of politely trying to whitewash the auditor general's criticism.
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