RAF FAIRFORD, England (Reuters) - Lockheed Martin Corp on Thursday welcomed comments suggesting that Canada would open a new competition for replacing its current fleet of aging CF-18 Hornets, instead of simply buying Boeing Co F/A-18E/F Super Hornets to meet its needs.
Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan told the Globe and Mail newspaper the government would change requirements for the new fighter jets, announced by the previous government, to allow for "more choices."
His comments in an interview published on Thursday raised hopes that Canada could start a fresh competition, including the F-35.
Canada helped fund development of the F-35 fighter, but the Liberal government, which took power in late 2015, promised during its campaign in last year's election that it would not buy F-35 jets. This led to reports it would buy Super Hornets and forgo a competition.
Canadian officials have since softened their tone.
On Wednesday, the Canadian government said that over the summer, its officials will be consulting all interested aircraft suppliers to help it decide on options for replacing its fighter jets.
"That information will inform a decision on a procurement path in the coming months," Sajjan said in a speech.
Asked by reporters on Wednesday if Canada was going ahead with the competition, Sajjan did not directly answer.
Lockheed told Reuters last month that it was studying whether to shift work on its multibillion-dollar F-35 fighter jet away from Canadian companies amid the uncertainty over Ottawa's plans to buy the jet.
Canadian companies would account for development and production work on the F-35 program worth about $1 billion by the end of 2016.
Jeff Babione, Lockheed's F-35 program manager, told reporters on Thursday he believed that Canada would ultimately have a new competition that included the F-35.
"We love to tell our story. They probably don't fully appreciate what the F-35 can do," Babione said.
He said he welcomed the latest comments from the Canadian government, but said the government had not contacted Lockheed directly.
Lockheed officials said they expected discussions to occur in the near future.
Babione said Lockheed had begun looking at which companies could take over the work now done by Canadian companies, but had not made any firm decisions. A decision by Canada to buy Super Hornets would make it difficult to keep Canadian companies engaged in the program, he said.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa and Jeffrey Hodgson in Toronto; Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Leslie Adler)