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Conservatives notch up defence of $9-billion fighter-plane fleet

Defence Minister Peter MacKay checks out the cockpit of a F-35 Joint Strike Fighter mock-up after a procurement announcement in Ottawa on July 16, 2010.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Harper government has launched a unique pan-Canadian sales job to bolster the case for a planned fleet of new fighter planes, hoping to shield the military procurement from a wide array of attacks.

While the Lockheed-Martin F35 Joint Strike Fighter is a stealth aircraft, it appears on every opposition party's radar as a massive multibillion-dollar target, which can be used to undermine everything from the government's approach to regional development to its long-term defence policy.

Over the summer, the government justified the $9-billion purchase (plus maintenance costs of $5-billion to $7-billion over 20 years) as essential to the protection of Canadian sovereignty, pointing to recent Russian bomber flights that approached Canadian airspace. On Wednesday, the public-relations exercise was turned up a notch, as three ministers defended the purchase in front of a parliamentary committee, and five of their colleagues appeared at events from Vancouver to Lunenburg, N.S., to highlight the economic spinoffs related to the development of the aircraft.

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The Conservative government is facing a three-pronged attack on the purchase.

1. Sole-source contract

Ottawa is not going to tenders on this deal, directing the contract for 65 planes to Lockheed-Martin over the objections of rival manufacturers.

What the government says

Lockheed-Martin won a competition in the United States in 2001 to develop a new generation of stealth fighter aircraft for a number of allies, led by the American military. Under the Liberal government of the day, Canada joined the process by signing a memorandum of understanding, which the current government is using to buy the airplanes. "Competitions do not need to be held when there is only one product available that meets the requirements set by the client," Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose said.

What critics say

The Liberal Party accused the government of moving too quickly on the project and said there is nothing in the agreement that forbids the government from calling a competition to see whether various manufacturers would lower their costs or offer better value. In particular, the opposition said there might be more maintenance work in Canada if the project goes to tenders. "This Conservative government failed to do its due diligence and make sure that Canadian taxpayers and workers were getting the best deal," said Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc.

2. Mission requirements

Ottawa has not laid out the exact missions that will be accomplished by the Joint Strike Fighter, raising questions about the aircraft's suitability to conduct operations in the North or to engage in traditional peacekeeping operations.

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What the government says

The stealth capability of the F-35 is a key element that distinguishes it from its competitors, and makes it ideally suited to repel various threats to Canadian sovereignty. Ottawa is insisting that the F-35 is a flexible aircraft that will be able to adapt to the military challenges faced by Canada in coming decades - in operations at home or under the umbrellas of NORAD and NATO. "The F-35 will allow us to see threats before they see us," Defence Minister Peter MacKay said. "The stealth capability makes it the right aircraft, not only on the existing threats, but what may come."

What critics say

NDP MP Jack Harris was rebuffed in his attempts to get the government's formal requirements for the new fighter jet. He said he doesn't buy the notion that the Canadian Forces need a robust aircraft like the F-35 to conduct missions such as counterinsurgency operations in hot spots like Afghanistan. "We need a full study to determine the role that we foresee for the Canadian Forces," he said. "It seems like the Conservatives want to buy the F-35 because that is what the Americans are getting."

3. Regional benefits

Contrary to recent military procurements, Lockheed-Martin will not have to reinvest the full value of the purchase price and maintenance costs in Canada. Instead, Canadian companies will have to bid on about $12-billion worth of contracts, with no guarantees of success.

What the government says

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Industry Minister Tony Clement acknowledged that the government is moving ahead with a "new approach," while insisting that Canadian companies are eligible to work on the supply chain for the full fleet of up to 5,000 aircraft that will be purchased by militaries around the world in coming decades. "We have guarantees that we will have preference as part of the original group of suppliers and the original creator of the aircraft," he said.

What critics say

With much of Canada's aerospace industry located in Quebec, the Bloc Québécois is particularly insistent that Ottawa is taking too big a risk by obtaining less than 100 per cent of the project's value in regional benefits. Bloc MP Claude Bachand said the government has no guarantees that the purchase will lead to the creation of jobs, and that the matter needs to be settled before the deal is signed.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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