(Adds quotes, background on evaluation process)
By Cameron French
OTTAWA, June 12 (Reuters) - Four independent experts endorsed on Thursday the Canadian military's evaluation of options to replace its aging fleet of fighter jets, setting the stage for the government to decide whether or not to go ahead with previous plans to buy F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
Ottawa scrapped its plan to buy 65 Lockheed Martin Corp F-35s in 2012, after an official watchdog said officials had grossly downplayed the cost of maintaining and operating the jets.
The military's review of potential options is part of a multi-agency government process to determine the best way to replace Canada's aging fleet of CF-18 fighters, and the four-member panel was struck to oversee the military's review and lend credibility to the process.
In a 38-page report, the panel said the military's evaluation process was thorough, comprehensive, conducted professionally and not biased in favor of any of the four aircraft the government is considering.
"The simple bottom line is that we have provided ministers with assurance that the evaluation was rigorous and impartial and the results are comprehensive and understandable," Keith Coulter, panel member and former head of Canada's electronic surveillance agency, CSEC, told reporters at a briefing.
The panel, which also consists of two other retired civil servants and a university professor, did not issue its own recommendation for whether the government should proceed with the F-35 purchase, worth an estimated C$9 billion ($8.29 billion), or launch an open competition.
A senior Canadian government official at the briefing said no decision has been made by the government.
In addition to the F-35, the military has evaluated Boeing Co's F-18 E/F Super Hornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon, built by BAE Systems Plc, and the Rafale, made by Dassault Aviation SA.
The government official at the briefing said there was no timetable for a decision.
Sources close to the process have told Reuters the government's multi-agency review has recommended Canada buy the F-35s. The decision must still be finalized by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet.
If Canada goes ahead with the F-35 purchase, it will be the 6th-largest by a country and would further safeguard the $399 billion Joint Strike Fighter program.
The Pentagon recently estimated the average price per plane at $139 million, about twice the original estimate in 2001, but said the projected costs to operate the maintain the jets was down 9 percent from earlier estimates.
$1=$1.08 Canadian Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Peter Galloway and Meredith Mazzilli