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French aircraft-maker ramps up pitch to Harper government in CF-18 replacement

OTTAWA - French aircraft maker Dassault Aviation is offering the deficit-conscious Harper government lower long-term support costs if its Rafale fighter is chosen as the new air force jet.

The offer, which is being studied by government officials, includes the unrestricted transfer of technology, such as software source codes for servicing the planes, said Yves Robins, Dassault's senior vice-president of NATO affairs.

That could shave hundreds of millions of dollars off the life-time price tag to operate and upgrade the fighter, which is already in service with the French air force and was recently selected by India.

It has been a little over a year since the Conservatives put on hold their plan to buy 65 Lockheed Martin F-35s, and almost two years since the auditor general accused National Defence and Public Works of low-balling the price of the stealth fighters.

A Public Works group set up to reboot the multibillion-dollar program has asked for detailed proposals from rival aircraft makers, but the government has yet to decide whether there will be a full-fledged competition to pick a successor to the existing CF-18s.

Robins says the Royal Canadian Air Force's current fleet is due to retire around 2020.

"A decision sooner than later is always better," he said in an interview.

Dassault's pitch could receive a warm reception in light of the Harper government's drive to give Canadian companies some of the billions to be spent on the planes.

The transfer of technology would allow Canada more flexibility to service the aircraft without involving the French parent company. It could be a boon to domestic aerospace firms, especially those that are already making parts for the Rafale fighter.

Dassault's competitors include the F-35, the Boeing Super Hornet and the Eurofighter Typhoon. They all offer a certain amount of technology transfer, but Dassault hopes its broad offer will catch the government's attention.

Early in the F-35 program, the issue of how much technology the U.S. was willing to share with its allies became a major sticking point and a barrier to the participation of other countries. Washington further ruffled feathers when it said it would not share the jet's software source codes.

In 2006, the Canadian air force dismissed the Rafale as a CF-18 replacement, citing concerns about the aircraft's ability to operate alongside the Americans, but Robins said the jet flew seamlessly with U.S. fighters during the 2011 Libya bombing campaign.

"It has been proven in war."

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