OTTAWA, June 27 (UPI) -- Canadian air force officials are examining options to buy a new jet trainer aircraft to replace its aging fleet of BAE Systems-built CT-155 Hawk aircraft.
The official Canadian position on the planned purchase remains unclear but the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is looking at an upgrade with the option to allocate the existing Hawks elsewhere in the Canadian armed forces.
British-built Hawk, operational worldwide since 1974, is used by armed forces globally and remains in production. At least 18 air force and military establishments worldwide are known to be using more than 900 Hawks.
Harper's procurement strategy appears to be aimed at priming the air force for the much more ambitious task of the planned switchover to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.
The Hawk is both a training aircraft and a light combat plane and can likely fit into the pattern as the F-35 is eased into service -- whenever that happens over the next four years.
Canada originally planned to buy 65 F-35s but controversy over the government's alleged mishandling of the planned purchase has built up pressure to negotiate prices and buy less aircraft. The current price tag on Canada's likely purchase of 65 F-35s exceeds $15 billion.
A government decision on buying a new trainer jet is also in exploratory stages.
Government defense procurement teams have looked at several options, which include the BAE System's Hawk 128, Alenia Aeronautica's M-346 Master and Korean Aerospace International's T-50 Golden Eagle.
The training program for the trainer jet will likely include simulators and training curriculum designed to initiate air force pilots into the F-35 program.
However, Canada's aim isn't necessarily to go for a replacement contract for the Hawk trainers, as the air force could simply upgrade the fleet to manage the training tasks associated with the F-35, Flight Global reported.
Meanwhile, the F-35 acquisition program is moving slowly after an earlier flap in which Canada's auditor general took Harper's government to task for not being transparent enough while sharing information on the program with parliament and government agencies.
The procurement was heavily criticized by the opposition and the media and was labeled a national "scandal" and "fiasco." Harper's government has moved quickly to control political damage over the controversy.
The F-35s will replace about 80 McDonnell Douglas CF-18 Hornets in a phased program likely to conclude in 2016. However, Harper is under pressure to be more transparent and provide more details of the acquisition than originally supplied.
The F-35 program continues to be a major political issue, requiring Harper to be extra cautious in managing the purchase of new jet trainer aircraft.