Canada begins search for Joint Strike Fighter replacement

The country's National Fighter Procurement Secretariat issued the new terms of reference that will guide the Canada's defense ministry's selection of a new fighter jet. That aircraft will replace the country's aging fleet of F-18 warplanes. 

“With the release of the Terms of Reference that will guide the evaluation of alternative fighter aircraft, we are demonstrating that we are serious about looking at all available options to replace the [F-18]," according to a statement issued by Ottawa on Wednesday. 

That said, Canadian officials specifically excluded any previous data or analysis that led military officials there to select the JSF as the country's F-18 replacement, as part of the new selection guidelines. 

The initial evaluation of future fighter requirements by the Royal Canadian Air Force resulting in the F-35's selection "will be set aside and not used as part of this new evaluation of options," according to the selection terms. 

Excluding that information will allow "for a full consideration of the options available to sustain Canada’s fighter capability," Wednesday's statement read. 

Any possible effects on the Canadian Air Force's initial fighter study "will be assessed once the options analysis is complete," the statement added. 

Further, Canada's new fighter evaluation will be reviewed by a third-party organization outside the country's military chain of command, "to review the acquisitions process and to identify lessons learned going forward." 

While Canada has publicly stated the JSF could still end up the country's top pick to replace the F-18, Ottawa has yet to sign a formal contract with the JSF program office and Lockheed Martin for the new planes.

The new selection terms, specifically the decision to write off any analysis pertaining to the JSF's selection, are only the latest in a number of setbacks to the Canadian portion of the F-35 program. 

Billions of dollars in military funding for the JSF has been frozen since April, when Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper blocked all JSF funding due to a review of the Canadian Air Force's selection of the Lockheed Martin-built fighter. 

That month, the country's auditor general issued a scathing report alleging that defense officials failed to inform top government decision-makers "of the problems and associated risks" of buying the F-35 by intentionally sugar-coated cost analysis of the fighter. 

The report drew outrage from Harper and members of the Canadian parliament, throwing into doubt the country's plans to buy 65 new F-35s over the course of the next several years, at a cost of $8.9 billion. 

Recent news reports out of Ottawa claim projected JSF costs have now ballooned to $40 billion, prompting one government official with knowledge of the program to say last Friday that the F-35 “is dead” in Canada, according to the Ottawa Citizen

Should Canada leave the JSF consortium, the program would lose one of its premiere international members and a key U.S. military ally.  

Canada's planned JSF purchase, along with those planned by the United Kingdom and Australia, made Canada one of the stronger members in the JSF coalition.

Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Denmark and Norway round out the nine-member international JSF consortium.

Canada's potential exit from the F-35 effort could also send a chill among the rest of the JSF's partner nations, prompting others to reconsider their commitment to the program.

Severe defense spending cuts in the United Kingdom already have London throttling back its planned purchases of the F-35.

The current fiscal crisis sweeping over the European Union has only added more doubt as to whether the JSF coalition can remain intact.