DUBAI — Canada will kick start its competition for a future fighter jet in 2019 with the hopes of awarding a contract by 2021, but the head of the Royal Canadian Air Force wants the process to move as quickly as possible.

“The plan right now is to have a request for proposal out to industry by 2019. we’re in discussions and have been in discussions with a number of the people who are considering competing for that, and what I’d like to see is that accelerated as much as possible,” said RCAF commander Lt. Gen. Michael Hood, in an exclusive interview with Defense News.

“A 2019 RFP would get us into contract probably by 2021, and certainly my advice to government is the sooner the better.”

The RCAF wants to procure 88 fighter jets to replace its current inventory of aging 76 F/A-18 Hornets, which are nearing the end of their lifespans.

Canada is an international participant in the F-35 joint strike fighter program and has helped pay for the development of the aircraft. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed not to procure the F-35 during his campaign, and his government has opened up the competition to industry instead of moving forward with a sole-source acquisition. The Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale, Boeing Super Hornet and Saab’s Gripen E are all projected to compete for the opportunity.

To bridge the gap between its Hornet fleet and a future fighter, the RCAF initially intended to procure 18 F/A-18 Super Hornets from Boeing — a move some analysts speculated could trigger a larger procurement later on. However, the Canadian government suspended the deal due to Boeing’s legal complaint against Canadian aerospace company Bombardier over its commercial business.

With a Super Hornet buy unlikely as long as Boeing and Bombardier feud, and Trudeau’s promise not to buy the F-35, U.S. defense experts worry that Canada could be driven into the arms of a European fighter manufacturer, thus eroding Canada’s long tradition of flying U.S. jets — a move that increases the militaries’ interoperability.

However, Hood stated that interoperability with the United States continues to be “the most important thing to me as command of the Royal Canadian Air Force.”

“Every step less of interoperability is one step less of effectiveness, so interoperability is right at the top of the list beside operational advantage,” he said. “I want the young men and women that are going to be flying fighters into harm’s way to have an operational advantage, and that will be key to me in the competition that’s coming.”

That need for interoperability with the U.S. Air Force does not diminish the chances of European fighters, he added.

Canada continues to investigate alternative ways to acquire an interim fleet of F/A-18s, including potentially buying used Hornets from Australia. However, a potential deal for Super Hornets with Boeing is still on the table, Hood said.

“I think the government has been presented with the FMS case for Boeing. And as they’re looking at options, that’s one option,” he said. “The Australian aircraft are another, and the government has not made a decision yet.”

If the RCAF moves forward with a used Hornet buy from Australia, it will have to extend the lives of the airframes, which are meeting their structural ends, Hood noted. That business would likely go to L3 Technologies, which has done life extension work on the Canadian F/A-18s in the past. But Canada would still be able to acquire the aircraft “within the next couple of years” once a decision is made.

Lockheed officials have said that if Canada ultimately decided not to procure the F-35, it could end its industrial partnership with Canadian firms — which totals 110 Canadian companies with $750 million in contracts, according to Lockheed — that already help manufacture the F-35.

However, asked whether Canada was concerned about losing that business, Hood demurred.

“I’m not privy to the industrial aspects of our partnership with Lockheed Martin,” he said. “What I can say is Lockheed Martin is a fantastic partner for Canada and for the Royal Canadian Air Force, has been for years. We remain very, very strongly engaged both in the joint project office and helping to continue with the development of the F-35, and Canadian companies continue to bid and win on contracts with that.”