OTTAWA - Internal documents show the air force kicked the tires of two F-35 alternatives, but critics question how hard defence officials looked — and want the military to provide more justification for its choice of the stealth fighter.
Boeing's Super Hornet and Eurofighter's Typhoon were stacked up against the controversial and not fully tested F-35s, according to a February 2011 slide deck presentation to the chief of air staff.
The Harper government decided in July 2010 to buy the stealth fighter, but has yet to sign a contract.
In the beginning, there were five competitors to the F-35, which was whittled down to two before the final decision was made, documents obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information show.
In calling for a open tender to replace the aging C-18s, opposition parties have alleged no competitors were given serious consideration, a perception NDP procurement critic Matthew Kellway says was reinforced by written answers to questions he posed in the House of Commons.
Responses from Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino say that between 2005 and 2008, air force planners gathered information among allies and the defence industry.
"I am told that these visits included opportunities for subject matter experts to 'fly' simulators for each of the aircraft considered in order to gain an understanding of the cockpit environment and operational capabilities," Fantino wrote on March 26, 2012.
"I am also told that the gathering of information and analysis continued between 2008 and 2010, including further visits to industry, industry visits to Canada to speak to senior representatives of National Defence and other departments, and the receipt of detailed government-to-government information."
Kellway questions how much research was done beyond flying simulators, which almost anyone with a home computer could have done.
"This government just went through the motions and did minimal consultations with other aircraft-manufacturers to tick of the boxes," said Kellway.
Phil Legasse, a defence expert at the University of Ottawa, said the government and the air force have thrown around undefined terms like "fifth generation," and talked about the different capabilities of aircraft, without answering the most basic questions about the program.
"Tell why this is absolutely, bar none, the only option," Legasse said. "Justify it to me."
Dwindling defence resources, in Canada and elsewhere, make those questions important ones to answer for the public, he said.
In the wake of the auditor general's recent scathing assessment of the F-35 program, the Harper government has said it would consider all options to replace the aging CF-18s, expected to reach the end of their service life by 2020.
Despite that assurance, air force chief Lt.-Gen. Andre Deschamps said last week that the military is still planning for the stealth fighter.
"The government is speaking out of both sides of its mouth constantly," said Kellway.
Deschamps also said the radar-evading jet was the best choice to meet emerging air defence threats, such as new surface-to-air missiles. But beyond the statement that the F-35 represents a quantum leap forward to highly automated "fifth generation" technology, there has been little public or military policy rationalization for the enormous program.
Much was made in the auditor general's April 3 report about the lack of a supporting paper trail and how Public Works demanded and received a one-page, 160-word letter to justify the multibillion-dollar procurement.
A copy of the air force's preliminary analysis, also obtained under access to information, provides a snapshot of each the competitors.
The operational requirements and concept document, dated June 2006, found the Super Hornet, a beefed up version of the F-18, to be "a credible and proven strike fighter system with a range of integrated weapons" with an "extremely good combat radius."
Despite acknowledging the F-35 design and systems were unproven, the report went on to dismiss the Eurofighter Typhoon as still a "development program, with the associated risks in development, performance, schedule and budget."
The other contenders, including the French-manufactured Dassault Rafale and SAAB Gripen, were dismissed outright, according to the analysis.