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F-35 decision remains in holding pattern

OTTAWA - An independent panel that examined Canada's alternatives to the F-35 is expected to provide a nuts-and-bolts view Thursday of its 18-month assessment, but a cabinet decision on whether to stick with the controversial stealth fighter remains in a holding pattern.

And before making that determination, some military experts say they hope the Harper government considers the wider implications for the overall defence budget, and avoids making a "politically face-saving" manoeuvre.

The panel's report, a market analysis of key responses to the auditor general's 2012 criticism of the program, is not expected to make recommendations to cabinet. Instead, it will compare the costs and capabilities of each of the four competing aircraft against the backdrop of what Canada needs its warplanes to accomplish.

It will be up to senior officials and ministers to recommend to cabinet what course to take, something multiple sources said Wednesday has not been done.

The F-35 program was put on hold in the months following Auditor General Michael Ferguson's report, which accused National Defence and Public Works of low-balling the life-time cost and not doing their homework.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the Commons on Wednesday that no decision has been made, and that whatever path the government chooses will be "in the best long-term interest" of the military.

But Dave Perry, a researcher with the Conference of Defence Associations, said the decision has already become politically charged, and he's seen no hint thus far that the government is considering the broader picture.

The government is also in the process of revising its defence policy, because the previous one — introduced in 2008 — is now considered unaffordable.

It would be troublesome indeed if a decision on the jets came before the new policy was complete, Perry said.

"I hope that whatever decision the government makes, it's taken the context of the overall defence strategy," he said.

"There's pressures on every component. You literally have every single project competing against one another for scarce resources."

Both the Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Rideau Institute made a similar argument in a report, released earlier this year, which claimed the cost of the F-35 has the potential of eating up vast portions of the defence budget.

Perry said similar arguments for could be made about any fighter the government chooses.

Although Public Works Minister Diane Finley promised to release a revised version of the panel's analysis, it's won't be made public before cabinet reaches a consensus.

Carefully sanitized and opaque summaries of the panel's meetings have been posted online by the Public Works secretariat overseeing the replacement program.

They show a lot of deliberation surrounding the notion of whether the military could operate a mixed fleet of fighters, as well as the implications of extending the life of the existing CF-18s.

Both issues are expected to feed into the cabinet deliberation, along with potential industrial benefits.

One option that is off the table, according to defence insiders, is the notion of a "bridging capability."

Australia, one of several global partners in the F-35 project, has ordered a different jet as a stop-gap measure until the stealth fighter is fully operational. The F-35 has been beset with delays and cost overruns that have pushed its full introduction into service into 2018.

There's been speculation that the government could postpone a decision by asking the air force to rewrite its statement of requirements, which other aircraft makers have said were rigged in favour of the F-35.

Perry said he doesn't think such an order would amount to an admission that the original process was fixed, only that it was flawed — something the auditor general has already pointed out.

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