Harjit Sajjan backs away from election promise on F-35 jets

Click to play video: 'Liberals change stance on replacing CF-18s' Liberals change stance on replacing CF-18s
WATCH: The Liberals are backing away from an election promise not to buy expensive fighter jets to replace Canada's aging CF-18s. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan now says the competition to replace the CF-18s will be "open." Vassy Kapelos has reaction from Ottawa on the Liberals' 180 – Feb 18, 2016

The federal defence minister appeared to back further away from a Liberal election promise on Thursday, suggesting that the procurement process for Canada’s next generation of fighter jets could include bids by Lockheed Martin, maker of the F-35.

While delivering an address at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute in Ottawa, Harjit Sajjan was asked whether the Liberals would allow the F-35 jet to be part in the bidding competition to replace Canada’s current CF-18 aircraft. He replied that the bidding process would be “open,” and explained that the government first needs to work out the specific requirements for its new jets, then it will move to accept bids.

Pressed further, Sajjan referred reporters to his ministerial mandate letter, which states that he must work “with the Minister of Public Services and Procurement to launch an open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18 fighter aircraft, focusing on options that match Canada’s defence needs.”

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Sajjan’s statements on Thursday seemed to directly contradict the Liberal election platform, which explicitly states that Canada “will not buy the F-35 stealth fighter-bomber” under a Liberal government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged that his government would withdraw from the program, buy a cheaper fighter jet chosen by competition and redirect the savings into rebuilding the navy.

It’s not the first time Sajjan has muddied the waters surrounding the procurement of a new fleet of jets to replace the CF-18s. In December, the minister was asked twice during a media conference call from Iraq whether the F-35 was being formally excluded from the open competition. In each case, he ducked the question.

“We now have an apparent contradiction … with the prime minister saying ‘no, we’re not going to consider these’ and the minister of defence saying today ‘yes we are.’ So I guess we’re back to (asking) who’s going to be in charge of this, and who’s going to make the decision?” said NDP defence critic Randall Garrison. “It’s a real contradiction, and a direct contradiction.”

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READ MORE: Can Canada really pass on the F-35s with no impact?

The F-35 procurement program was plagued with problems under the previous government. The Conservatives put the $44 billion endeavor on hold after a report from Canada’s auditor-general flagged issues with the statement of requirements, an important document that sets out what the military needs in a piece of equipment.

The F-35 planes themselves have also encountered challenges, with numerous technological  issues still being worked out. The Pentagon released a new report listing possible bugs in early February.

With files from the Canadian Press.

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