The suitability of the controversial F-35 jet fighter as a replacement for the Royal Canadian Air Force's aging CF-18s is getting even murkier, if that's possible.
The fighter-replacement program has been thrown into limbo already over cost issues and development delays, with Ottawa considering whether to abandon the U.S.-sourced F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and reboot the search for another candidate.
Now comments by a senior U.S. Air Force general hint that Ottawa may have gotten it wrong from the very beginning.
First, a little background: The CF-18, in service with the RCAF since 1982, fulfills both an air superiority and ground-attack role for the Canadian Armed Forces, meaning it can dogfight with enemy jets and also work as an effective bomber.
Presumably its replacement should be able to do the same. Not so, says Gen. Michael Hostage, head of the U.S. Air Force's Air Combat Command.
In an interview published in the Air Force Times last month, Hostage said essentially the F-35 Lightning can't perform the air-superiority role. The air force is relying on its new F-22 Raptor to do that.
Hostage's comments were part of a conversation about preserving various important programs in the face of major cuts to the U.S. defence budget. He was asked about needed upgrades to the F-22, which is just coming into active service.
Hostage said he planned to fight hard to retain the upgrade program for the F-22.
"If I do not keep that F-22 fleet viable, the F-35 fleet frankly will be irrelevant," he told the Air Force Times. "The F-35 is not built as an air superiority platform. It needs the F-22."
The comment likely will explode like a bomb in Canadian defence circles.
“I’m sure you won’t see the general’s comments in any F-35 marketing literature,” Martin Shadwick, a York University professor and defence analyst, told the National Post.
“Canada needs a multi-role fighter and even if the F-22 were available we couldn’t afford another aircraft to fly top cover for the F-35s.”
Unlike the F-35, which is being developed for international sales, the Americans are keeping the F-22 to themselves. Both are stealth fighters developed by aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, but the F-22 is considered the most advanced fighter in the world.
A spokesman for Lockheed Martin Canada quickly dismissed Hostage's comments.
Mike Barton told the Post the F-35 meets all Canadian requirements and Hostage's comments relate to the way the U.S. Air Force employs its fighters, which is not relevant to Canada.
Barton said he had not seen an adverse reaction to the Hostage interview from the federal government or any of the other countries considering the F-35.
Nonetheless, it's hard not to think the comments won't be investigated as Public Works Canada tries to decide whether to stick with the F-35 program or ditch it and start the search afresh for a CF-18 replacement.
The Globe and Mail reported in January that the government wants a decision soon because it wants to start phasing out the CF-18s starting in 2017.
Canada was on track to buy 65 F-35s until questions arose about the initial cost estimates.
A 2012 report by the Auditor-General criticized the process Ottawa used to pick the F-35 and said the government had underestimated the long-term cost of the program.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer later said the cost of the F-35 program would be about $29 billion, roughly double the $14.7-billion initial estimate.