U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates made a pitch for Ottawa to forge ahead with plans to buy the American-made F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a purchase which is shaping up as a potential election issue in Canada.
The Conservatives have announced a plan to buy 65 F-35 stealth fighter-bombers for $9-billion, and estimate that support costs for the first 20 years will total another $5-billion to $6-billion. The Liberals, arguing costs are likely to balloon, have vowed that if they win government, they will put the purchase on hold to review whether such expensive aircraft are really needed.
With governments around the world facing defence-budget squeezes and the F-35 program suffering cost overruns and delays, several countries have either put off a decision on buying the plane or reduced the planned size of their fleets. In a visit to Canada, Mr. Gates said he hopes all the countries participating in the F-35 program will remain on board.
"Obviously, having all of our partners continue to be with us in this program is very important," Mr. Gates said at a news conference after a meeting with Defence Minister Peter MacKay. "And I'm pleased [at]the number of our allies who are going forward with the F-35. It is a true fifth-generation fighter. It will give us significant capability that will continue the interoperability that has been at the forefront of our NORAD relationship for decades now.
"So without getting into domestic affairs in Canada, I would just say that my hope is that for all of our sakes that all of our partners continue to move forward with us on this program."
Mr. Gates has placed one version of the F-35, a jump-jet to be flown by the U.S. Marines, on a form of probation because of technical problems in development. But he said he's confident that the two other variants, including the air force version that Canada plans to buy, are progressing well. The United States, he said, still intends to order between 2,300 and 2,400 F-35s.
However, Winslow Wheeler, a critic of the F-35 program at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, said purchase cuts by other countries could lead the U.S. Congress to scale back the U.S. buy, and it's likely the production run will be far fewer than the 2,800 planes officially planned - making costs rise.
In Canada, the Liberals and the NDP argue that the federal government shouldn't buy the F-35 until it has examined its defence requirements and whether another plane can fill them at a lower cost.
NDP defence critic Jack Harris said the Harper government has falsely sold the planes as the only choice - though he understand Mr. Gates wants Canada to buy them. "He's obviously saying it in the American interest," Mr. Harris said. "But it's not really that surprising."
Mr. MacKay said the opposition is playing political games that could leave Canada without jet fighters later in the decade if the current CF-18s are withdrawn from service and a replacement has not been delivered. Canada's commitment guarantees a place in the production line so the planes will be delivered when the CF-18s are retired between 2017 and 2020, he said.
Mr. Harris argues that the CF-18s don't need to be replaced till 2020, and says Canada should examine the options.