The Liberal government has taken the next step towards buying 18 Super Hornet fighter jets on an interim basis, a purchase it hopes to make official by year's end.

The government sent a letter to the U.S. government on Tuesday outlining exactly what it needs in the warplanes, when it needs them, and what type of economic benefits Canada expects in return.

Aerospace giant Boeing will use those requirements to draw up a formal proposal by the fall, with the government hoping for a contract by the end of 2017 or early 2018.

The Liberals have said any deal will be contingent on getting the Super Hornets at the right price, on the required schedule and with the right economic spinoffs.

"We will assess whether an interim Super Hornet fleet purchase will help ensure Canada remains a credible and dependable ally for many years to come," Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a statement Tuesday.

The agreement must also be approved by the U.S. Congress.

The government announced plans in November to augment Canada's aging CF-18 fleet with the new Hornets until a full competition to replace the jets can start in 2019.

The Liberals say the Super Hornets are needed because the air force doesn't have enough jets to defend North America and contribute to NATO at the same time.

But a number of retired military officers have called for an immediate competition, warning an interim fighter fleet will be more expensive and hurt the military in the long run.

Sources have said the Liberals plan to purchase the Super Hornets using money the previous Conservative government originally set aside for F-35 stealth fighters.

But they will almost certainly need to find additional money to replace the CF-18s, either through a new defence policy or by cutting other projects.

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