The Trudeau government in Canada has launched the country’s largest defence policy review in “over 20 years” as it considers if and when to exit the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme.

Canadian defence minister Harjit Sajjan, who assumed the cabinet position in November, has appointed a four-member advisory panel to oversee the wide-ranging defence policy review, which seeks input from citizens, experts, parliamentarians, allies and the nation’s closest neighbour and collective security partner, the USA.

When released in early 2017, the new defence policy will influence everything from the Canadian armed force’s role in military operations at home and abroad to resourcing and capability requirements. But a spokesman for Sajjan’s office confirmed that the review is running independent of the government’s plan to hold a competition to replace the Royal Canadian Air Force’s outdated CF-18s.

Leading into the election in 2015, the now Liberal government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it would ditch the $ 45.8 billion (2012 total ownership cost) acquisition of 65 Lockheed Martin F-35As and “immediately” launch an open fighter competition.

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Royal Canadian Air Force

“The process to replace the CF-18s is just beginning,” the defence minister’s office said in a 6 April email. “We’ve only been in government for a few months, and are making good progress on this file.”

That process, led by the minister of public services and procurement in partnership with the MoD, will “design” a procurement process “for an aircraft that matches Canada’s defence needs” – and local industrial participation will be key.

“We are committed to ensuring that manufacturing contracts for whichever aircraft is chosen will go to Canadian companies,” the spokesman for Sajjan’s office says. “By virtue of our enrollment as a member nation in the F-35 programme [memorandum of understanding], Canadian companies are allowed to compete for F-35 production contracts and have benefitted from these economic opportunities.

“Regardless of which aircraft Canada decides to buy, industrial benefits to Canadian companies will be part of the decision-making process.”

The office did not explicitly say if it wants the winning aircraft to be assembled in Canada. “I don’t want to prejudge the procurement process, but economic benefits to Canadian companies will likely be a factor in the decision-making process,” the spokesman says.

Sajjan will kick off that defence policy review process with a roundtable meeting in Vancouver on 27 April, followed by “cross-country roundtable meetings” in Toronto, Vancouver, Yellowknife, Edmonton, Montreal and Halifax “ending in July”.

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US Air Force

US government officials, including deputy secretary of defence Robert Work and F-35 chief Lt Gen Christopher Bogdan, are “anxiously” awaiting Canada’s decision on the F-35, particularly since Canada’s withdrawal of 65 orders would raise the price per jet by $ 1 million.

“We’d like to know, we’re anxious to know, where exactly will you go so we can start to plan together,” Work said in a 10 March interview with Canada’s public broadcaster CBC. “But these types of decisions are made in due course and we’re looking forward to the final decision.”

“The [Canadian] government is committed to keeping its campaign promises,” the defence minister’s office said in response to that question. “It is well known that we will need to replace our CF-18s in the years ahead. There will be an open and transparent process to replace the CF-18s.”

Canada’s interest in the F-35 dates back to 1997 when the nation began looking at next-generation fighters, and it formally joined the development programme in 2002. The Harper government initially selected the F-35A to replace the CF-18 in 2009, sparking protests from critics who claimed decision was made without a competitive bidding process. The current plan to buy 65 A-models is estimated to cost $ 45.8 billion over a 42-year life cycle, including $ 9 billion for aircraft acquisition.