November 21, 2015 / 1:02 AM / 4 years ago

Canada's new defense chief cautious on F-35 despite party pledge

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia (Reuters) - Canada’s new Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan on Friday said it was premature to discuss which aircraft would replace Canada’s aging CF-18 fighter jets, caution that just might offer a glimmer of hope to Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-35 fighter jet. Sajjan’s Liberal Party pledged in its campaign to scrap planned F-35 purchases. But in an interview with Reuters, Sajjan said his fledgling government was still working to determine its requirements for the next jet and insisted the selection process would be “open and transparent.” “I’m focused on the requirements that we need ... as a nation that works with our allies as well, with NATO and our NORAD commitments,” Sajjan told Reuters, referring to the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Sajjan, a former police officer and veteran of military deployments to Afghanistan, said it would be “premature” to talk about the F-35.

He spoke at the Halifax International Security Forum shortly after meeting Deputy U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Work and said he delivered a similar message in private.

“I told the Deputy Secretary the same thing. I want to focus on making sure we have the right aircraft for Canada,” Sajjan said, without elaborating.

New Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the F-35 “didn’t come up” after his first formal meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday in the Philippines.

Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the F-35 program office, said Canada remained a partner in the program and was still slated to participate in a meeting of the program’s executive steering board in Italy early next month.

“Similar to actions taken by other nations, the Government of Canada is working to launch an open and transparent competition to replace their legacy aircraft,” he said.

“The F-35 Joint Program Office will continue to provide Canada with the data they need to make an informed decision that is in their best national interest.”

At the same time, Trudeau has vowed to stick to another campaign pledge: a promise to withdraw six Canadian jets that have been attacking the militants in Iraq and Syria, as part of a bid to refocus Canada’s military contribution.

Sajjan said it was too soon to estimate when those jets would be withdrawn.

“We have to do it ... in a responsible manner that does not decrease the capability of the coalition,” he said.

Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Washington and David Ljunggren in Manila; Editing by Bernard Orr

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