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Dan Ross Deputy Minister of Defence holds news conference on the acquisition of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, in Ottawa, Thursday March 17, 2011.Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

The battle over the cost of the Harper governmen's stealth fighter jet has escalated into a war of numbers between the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the Defence Department.

On Wednesday, Kevin Page released a rebuttal to senior Defence officials who questioned the math in his latest report, which says the cost of the F-35 Lightning II could reach $30-billion over three decades.

Last week, an assistant deputy minister at the Defence Department said the budget officer made a "mathematical error" in calculating the unit cost of the planes, and that estimates on long-term maintenance costs were also erroneous.

The F-35 program in the U.S. has seen huge cost overruns, which Mr. Page says will drive up the price tag from an estimated $75-million (U.S.) to $148-million for each plane.

The department dismisses the figure, but Mr. Page pointed out today the Pentagon's latest estimate is $151-million - and that Washington does not sell aircraft to allies at a price less than what it pays.

The jet-fighter deal is expected to be a big issue in the expected spring election because the Liberals have promised to cancel it. They say the big-ticket purchase is ill-timed when the country is facing a $40.5-billion deficit.

The Harper government has said the purchase of 65 fighters and 20 years of maintenance support would run taxpayers between $14-billion and $16-billion. Mr. Page questioned those figures, saying they were based on outdated information from the U.S. manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

The Air Force has not done its own independent cost analysis.

"It appears that DND has relied upon the 2009 Selected Acquisition Report (SAR), published by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), as well as figures provided by the Joint Strike Fighter [JSF]Program Office," Mr. Page said in his rebuttal Wednesday.

"However, the reasonableness of relying on such figures might be questioned. The SAR was published in April of 2010. Since then, the JSF program has undergone two restructurings to address significant program delays and cost overruns, including a restructuring of the management of the JSF Program Office."

Defence officials said last week that they wanted to meet with researchers on the budget officer's staff, but as of Wednesday that had not happened.

The government has grumbled that Mr. Page ran his figures out over 30 years, which partly explains his eye-popping price tag. Defence officials insist that 20 years, the standard length of government support, is a fairer yardstick.

But Mr. Page's rebuttal says the air force will likely use its F-35s for three decades; that the U.S. averages its costs over that period; and the numbers would look worse for the government if the time frame was compressed.

"Consequently, the 20-year scenario would result in a much more expensive program, since it would result in a relatively expensive plane when compared to its service life," said the report. "Furthermore, it seems fair to assume that after 20 years, a new acquisition would have to be made. The cost associated with this could be significant."

The Canadian Press