Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has pushed the purchase of new fighter jets to the top of his priority list, stating the current fleet of CF-18s can hardly fulfill its domestic and international mandates.
"Our fleet of CF-18s need to be replaced now. And the fact they have not been replaced means we are facing a capability gap in the years ahead," Mr. Sajjan said in a speech on Thursday morning.
"Now, we did not create this issue. Unfortunately I inherited it, but it needs to be dealt with quickly," he said, blaming the previous Conservative government for failing to buy a replacement plane.
Mr. Sajjan made the comments at the CANSEC defence and military trade show in Ottawa, where the world's biggest aircraft manufacturers are lobbying federal officials on the merits of their respective product.
Lockheed Martin, which makes the F-35 stealth fighter, has a large presence at CANSEC, despite the Liberal Party's promise in the last election not to buy its airplane.
Speaking to reporters, Mr. Sajjan refused to state whether any aircraft manufacturer will be prevented from bidding on the multi-billion-dollar contract.
"As I said from the get-go, right now my focus is on making sure that our men and women in the Air Force have the right capabilities and my focus is replacing the F-18s," Mr. Sajjan said, refusing to lay out a specific timeline for the purchase.
Canada remains an official partner in the F-35 program, which has allowed Canadian firms to win contracts for the international production line. Still, Mr. Sajjan said that will not influence the government's handling of the procurement process.
"This doesn't mean that the F-35, we are going to be purchasing that," he said. "I want to make sure that we do our due diligence before we make any decisions."
In the last election campaign, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau promised to opt for a more "affordable" aircraft than the stealth Lockheed Martin fighter jet.
"We will not buy the F-35 fighter jet," said Mr. Trudeau, less than two months before he was sworn in as prime minister.
However, in his mandate letter to his lead ministers on the procurement file, Mr. Trudeau simply called on them to launch an open and transparent process to replace the CF-18s.
Mr. Sajjan said time is running short.
"Today, we are risk-managing a gap between our NORAD and NATO commitments and the number of fighters available for operations. In the 2020s, we can foresee a growing capability gap, and this, I find unacceptable and it's one thing that we plan to fix," the Minister of Defence said in his speech.
The CF-18s were designed to last 20 years when they were purchased in the 1980s. The planes will now be used for twice as long, lasting into the 2020s, Mr. Sajjan said.
More than two dozen protestors blocked one of the main entrances to the CANSEC trade show on Thursday, denouncing the Liberal government for approving the sale of Canadian-made light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. Letting only a few cars enter the facility every minute, the protestors sang songs such as Solidarity Forever and carried banners stating "Canadians Say No To Sending Weapons To Saudi Arabia."
"He's putting a Liberal face on the sale of weapons of destruction," protestor Joel Harden said of Mr. Sajjan. "The Liberals can't wash their hands of this."
Still, inside the trade show, Mr. Sajjan toured the booth of General Dynamics Land Systems, which featured a LAV 6.0 vehicle that can be used for humanitarian work.
"That's great," Mr. Sajjan said as he was briefed by a GDLS official on the capabilities of the vehicle.