The government of Canada will negotiate to buy 18 new F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters from Boeing, a move that would keep the fighter's production line in St. Louis operating into the early 2020s.

These aircraft will fill a "capability gap" until Canada can replace its current CF-18 fighter fleet, Canadian officials said at a press conference held Tuesday in Ottawa. 

Canada also will launch a "wide-open and transparent" competition to replace Canada's aging CF-18 fleet, Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan said.

The announcement marks a win by Boeing over Lockheed Martin, its archrival in the fighter business.

The previous Conservative government of Canada had planned to buy 65 Lockheed F-35s, the newest fighter in the American arsenal. 

But the cost of the procurement, initially pegged at 9 billion Canadian dollars with a total project cost of CA$16 billion, kept rising as the Canadian dollar lost ground against the U.S. dollar and government estimates were revised. During last year's national election contest, the Liberal Party of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau labeled the F-35 as too expensive.

Canada wants to replace its fleet of 77 CF-18s, an earlier version of the Hornet built in the 1980s. That fleet is no longer capable of fulfilling Canada's duty to NATO and to North American air defense at the same time, Canadian defense officials say.

The new F/A-18s will fill the gap while Canada launches a competition for a new aircraft, an effort which may take five years. The F/A-18 has advantages in "interoperability" with the U.S. Air Force in the defense of North America, Canadian officials said.

Canada will negotiate with Boeing over price, with the intention of having some of the work done in Canada, Canadian officials said.

The Pentagon is paying about $70 million each for F/A-18 Super Hornets. At that price, the Canadian purchase would be worth $1.26 billion.

The Pentagon plans to spend nearly $400 billion to buy nearly 2,500 F-35s for the Air Force, Navy and Marines. Canada will continue to play a role in developing the F-35, Canadian officials said.

The likely Canadian order is the second piece of recent good news for Boeing's St. Louis-based fighter business, which also produces the F-15 Strike Eagle and the E/A-18 Growler. The White House in September approved the $7 billion sale of F/A-18s to Kuwait and F-15s to Qatar.

Those orders were enough to keep the F/A-18 line operating into 2020 and the F-15 line into the next decade.

Boeing employs nearly 15,000 people in St. Louis.

The potential Canadian order drew praise from the St. Louis area's congressional delegation.

"I am optimistic that this potential deal between Boeing and Canada will continue to increase jobs and boost the St. Louis economy,” said Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin. She said she is working to win approval in Congress for more Super Hornets that the Navy says it needs.

The House passed a defense bill appropriating up to 16 more Super Hornets for the Navy in June, but unrelated differences over funding overseas wars in the Senate have held up congressional negotiators. The current budget for would pay for two more in 2017.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said that Canada’s interest “is even more evidence of the vital role Missouri’s workforce plays in national defense — both at home and for our strategic allies around the world.

“The Super Hornets are an incredibly valuable asset, and Canada’s investment in American-made fighter jets would mean great news for our state’s economy and for the security of the U.S. and our allies.”

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., agreed, saying that “an opportunity for an increase in Super Hornet production is great news for the hardworking skilled workers of St. Louis.”

Chuck Raasch of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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