OTTAWA — Boeing says it has not decided whether to submit its Super Hornet fighter jet as a potential replacement for Canada's aging CF-18s, and is instead waiting to see how the federal government will run the multi-billion-dollar competition.
The comments come after government officials briefed dozens of industry representatives and foreign delegates Monday on Canada's plan to purchase 88 new fighter jets in the coming years for an estimated $15 billion to $19 billion.
Boeing did not send anyone.
Fighter-jet makers were not required to attend the information session to participate in the upcoming competition, which will be formally launched next year, but Boeing's absence was noticed by many of those in attendance.
Boeing spokesman Scott Day said in a statement that the company values Canada as a customer and partner, and strongly believes the Super Hornet offers the best capabilities for the Canadian military at the lowest risk and cost.
However, he added, "we will evaluate our participation in Canada's future fighter capability project after the government of Canada outlines the (fighter jet) procurement approach, requirements and evaluation criteria."
Representatives from Boeing's main rivals, including Lockheed Martin, Dassault, Saab and Airbus were present at the briefing, sources said, along with officials from the U.S. and British governments.
The Super Hornet was once widely considered the front runner to win the upcoming competition after the Liberals promised not to purchase the F-35, and moved to buy 18 Super Hornets as a stop gap until the CF-18 fleet could be replaced.
But that was before Boeing's trade dispute with Canadian rival Bombardier saw the Liberals scrap their plan to buy interim Super Hornets and begin talks instead to buy 18 used fighter jets from Australia.
The government has also warned that companies deemed to be hurting Canada's economic interests would be penalized when competing for military contracts, a new provision which many see as a direct shot at Boeing over the Bombardier dispute.
Exactly how that provision will be applied will be worked out through consultations with industry starting next month, a senior government official said in an interview after Monday's information session.
Analysts have questioned the legality of such a provision, and wonder how the government will account for the fact Boeing employs about 2,000 people in Canada and contributes around $4 billion to the economy each year.
The do-no-harm provision "is being managed separate to this competitive process because it likely has a broader application than just this one procurement," said Troy Crosby, head of major defence projects at Public Services and Procurement Canada.
"So there will be an industry consultation process that kicks off for that, separate from what we are doing here."
Crosby, meanwhile, played down Boeing's decision not to attend the information session, noting that the U.S. government had representatives at the meeting and would likely pass along any relevant information.
Boeing was only one topic of discussion among participants before and after Monday's session, with another being how Canada would hold a fair fighter-jet competition while remaining one of nine partners in the F-35 project.
Staying in the program costs money but has advantages, as partners' domestic firms can compete for billions of dollars worth of contracts associated with building and maintaining the F-35. They also get a discount when purchasing the plane.
Canada has paid more than $450 million since 1997 to participate, and will be expected to make another contribution this spring.
The F-35's competitors have said Canada's participation gives the stealth fighter an unfair advantage, though officials denied that charge on Monday.
The Liberals initially promised during the 2015 election campaign that they would not buy the F-35, but have since backed off that hard line and say the stealth fighter will be allowed to compete as a potential replacement to the CF-18s.
Andre Fillion, chief of staff within the Defence Department's procurement section, confirmed that the government intends to remain a full partner until — and unless — Canada selects a different fighter jet to replace the CF-18s.
"We will continue to participate until really the decision is made," Fillion said.
"Being a participant allows us to continue to give opportunities to Canadian companies to participate in the program. It also gives us insight into where the program is going and how it's performing as part of the process of selecting."
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