OTTAWA, March 5 (UPI) -- Canada has begun consultations with aircraft manufacturers as part of a tortuous but necessary multibillion-dollar quest for a winning successor to the country's aging fleet of CF-18 Hornets.
Canada has 78 of the McDonnell Douglas jets in various stages of operation. Whether all of them remain airworthy and combat ready isn't clear.
Canada's hunt for the jet fighter that will be most suited to its vast and varied geography and security requirements is somewhat akin to Brazil's FX-2 new-generation fighter program which has been deadlocked over issues of performance, price and the scale of technology transfers to the buying country.
In the case of Canada, the issues at stake are more of price, performance and politics, the Toronto Sun said.
Brazil wants to buy at least 36 of a new fighter jet model, Canada plans to acquire at least twice that many. There are more players in what will be a Canadian contest than in the Brazilian shortlist.
U.S. plane-makers Boeing and Lockheed Martin are pitted against European manufacturers Dassault of France, pan-European Eurofighter and Sweden's Saab.
Unlike Brazil, Canada isn't too keen on trying to build the next generation of fighters but is certainly looking at that option, too, industry analysts said.
Canada's Public Works and Government Services sent out questionnaires to U.S. and European manufacturers, signaling the start of what promises to be a long process of comparing the competing craft for their performance and price.
The National Fighter Procurement Secretariat released the final version of the questionnaire to industry leaders asking for detailed technical information on their fighter aircraft.
"The information gathered through the questionnaire will support a rigorous examination of available fighter aircraft options on the market and how they could accomplish the missions outlined in the Canada First Defense Strategy," the PWGSC said.
The companies were invited to return the completed questionnaires within six weeks as of early March.
Until last year such a consultation wasn't seen in the cards. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper got caught up in controversy after its efforts to procure the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from Lockheed Martin without a competition drew heavy fire from the opposition and a reprimand from the auditor general.
After Harper's damage-control efforts through most of 2012, critics in the opposition and media as well as defense specialists began looking closer still at not just the F-35 but also all other jets competing against it.
"Not one of the mooted contenders is beyond criticism in the global defense marketplace. It's all due to the three p's: performance, price and politics," the Toronto Sun said.
Opinion remains sharply divided, with some critics arguing most of the competing aircraft are dated and will be well behind technological advances before they are built or commissioned in the Canadian air force.
Saab's Gripen has been criticized for inadequate stealth qualities and poor electronics, Dassault's Rafale is struggling to find buyers and Eurofighter has come in for scrutiny on other technical issues. The F-35 is constantly criticized for its rising costs.
"Talk is cheap but making defense purchases of this scale requires intestinal fortitude on the part of politicians because problems will always arise," the Toronto Sun said.
The performance-related popularity among military leaders of unmanned airborne systems has also given rise to critics who want Canada to buy less manned fighter aircraft and invest more in unmanned aircraft to patrol its airspace and borders.
Canadians are increasingly sensitive to Russian air force activities in the arctic region, where Canada hopes to assert sovereignty in territories it considers its own.