OTTAWA, June 12 (Reuters) - An independent panel of experts endorsed on Thursday the method used by the Canadian government to evaluate whether it should replace its aging fleet of fighter jets with F-35 stealth fighters, setting the stage for a final decision on the multibillion-dollar acquisition program.
The panel said the government's evaluation process was conducted professionally and was not biased in favor of any aircraft. The endorsement, however, does not indicate whether the government will choose the F-35s made by Lockheed Martin Corp to replace its fleet of CF-18 fighters or whether it will hold an open competition.
That decision could come as early as next week.
Ottawa announced in 2010 it would buy 65 F-35s, but scrapped the decision in late 2012 after an official watchdog said officials had grossly downplayed the cost of maintaining and operating the jets.
The government then launched a multi-agency examination to determine whether to proceed with the F-35 purchase, worth an estimated C$9 billion ($8.3 billion), or launch a competition.
$1=$1.08 Canadian Reporting by Cameron French; Editing by Peter Galloway