National News

Fighter-plane rivals jockey over F-35

By Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - Companies vying to build Canada's new fighter jets are cranking up their sales pitches, but they'll be waiting a while longer to learn whether the Harper government intends to hold a full competition — or stick with the troubled F-35 program.

A decision is still pending, and no timeline is imminent on when that decision might be forthcoming, Public Works Minister Diane Finley told a gathering of defence contractors Thursday.

"Over the next few weeks, ministers will finish 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 said.

The comments came as representatives Dassault Aviation and Eurofighter talked up the merits of their individual jet fighters this week at a major industry trade show in Ottawa.

Not to be outdone, Lockheed Martin — the U.S. manufacturer of the F-35 — and rival Boeing, the maker of the Super Hornet, set up glitzy high-tech simulators hoping to give participants a taste of what it's like to fly their fast jets.

Finley pledged to make public the independent analysis of the various options, the document on which the government will base its decision. But it will be a sanitized version to protect the commercial interests of each of the four contenders.

While all had praise for the nearly 18-month-long government review process, there was an underlying anxiety and hard edge to each of the aircraft-maker's pitches.

Yves Robins, a senior vice president with Dassault, the French aircraft-maker, said the Conservative government's recent overhaul of the military procurement system means federal officials would be hard-pressed to explain a return to the F-35 sole-source plan.

"I imagine that if the Canadian authorities will want to be consistent with what they are expressing in their projects, there is a good chance they will consider what the other options are," he said.

Robins said that if there is a competition, it likely would be completed quickly because the secretariat overseeing the program has carried out extensive research and consultation with each of the rivals.

In December 2012, the Harper government suspended its plan to buy 65 F-35s following months of criticism and an auditor general's report that accused National Defence and Public Works of failing to do their homework and low-balling the life-time cost of the radar-evading jets.

Subsequent independent reports suggest the price tag could hit $44 billion over four decades.

Officials from Boeing emphasized the cost certainty of their aircraft, saying that the Super Hornet has a proven maintenance and support track record.

Jeffrey Kohler, Boeing's vice president of business development and a former U.S. Air Force pilot, said the fighter — a new, improved version of the CF-18 — is more rugged and better suited to Canada's harsh climate.

Eurofighter, a British, German and Italian consortium, underscored the combat record and heavy weapons load that its Typhoon jet can carry.

Addressing the argument that Canada needs a plane that can operate jointly with the American fleet, former German air force pilot Joey Borkenstein emphasized how well the Eurofighter worked alongside U.S. aircraft during the air war over Libya.

Lockheed Martin was quick to point out that the F-35 was recently selected by South Korea as its next fighter.

"What we have is an aircraft that continues to win every single evaluation analysis that it's in," said Steve O'Bryan, the company's vice-president of business development.

"So, I'm confident that when the facts are provided in the (Canadian government's plan), and the data is provided, that Canada will able to make an informed decision."

The program has been beset with cost overruns and development glitches, prompting at least one high-tech demonstration to illustrate how the kinks are being ironed out.

Rockwell Collins, a partner with Lockheed Martin, showed off the specialized helmet designed to be worn by F-35 pilots. The helmet provides an unobstructed, 360-degree, all-weather view of the pilot's surroundings.

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