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DND officials still want F-35 despite controversy, cost concerns

Lockheed F-35 AF1 joint strike fighter.

tom reynolds The Globe and Mail

Department of National Defence officials will soon head to Washington to learn how much cost estimates have ballooned for the F-35 fighter jet, a plane the military still backs despite growing pressure inside and outside of government for a competitive bidding process.

Kevin Lindsey, the chief financial officer at the Department of National Defence, said in an interview on Tuesday that he expects Canada to be granted a Pentagon briefing "shortly." DND sources said the visit will likely take place in early to mid-May.

Once the meeting is concluded, the clock starts ticking on the Harper government's vow to provide Canadians with full life-cycle cost estimates for Lockheed Martin's controversial F-35 plane within 60 days.

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The federal government is trying to grapple with public anger over a hard-hitting report from the Auditor-General last month that said National Defence cut corners in selecting the F-35 fighter jet and hid key information on the acquisition from decision makers and parliamentarians.

DND officials were only slightly contrite on Tuesday at hearings on the controversy.

Speaking in front of MPs, deputy defence minister Rob Fonberg admitted to some mistakes, saying that "with the advantage of hindsight and with the AG's observations in mind, there are clearly things we would have managed differently in the program and things that all of us could have done better."

A few minutes later, Lieutenant-General André Deschamps, commander of the Canadian Air Force, made it clear the military is not budging from its recommendation to buy the F-35 despite the Harper government's pledge to restart the acquisition process.

National Defence is coming under pressure within government to consider whether Canada should buy a different plane.

"The bottom line is that tomorrow's operating environment will require stealth, the ability to sense and process vast quantities of information in a very short time, and to be able to operate with others, starting with our closest allies, anywhere around the globe," Lt.-Gen. Deschamps said.

Liberal MP Gerry Byrne said the Conservatives are misleading Canadians by promising to restart the strike-fighter purchase but then not considering other options.

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"They're not looking at any other aircraft other than the F-35," he said.

"In plain speak, they have bought the F-35 [already]because it's a done deal," he said. "The government continues to betray the truth."

Mr. Fonberg also rejected Parliamentary budget watchdog Kevin Page's $29-billion cost estimate for the F-35 program, saying his department is sticking with its forecast of $15-billion for the acquisition and sustainment over 20 years.

He insisted that long-term operating costs for the jets, still eight years from delivery, will be "firmed up over time," but will be similar to those for the existing fleet of CF-18s.

Mr. Fonberg, who at times appeared peeved by questions, said his department was not ready to determine the exact cost of the program over its planned 36-year lifespan, saying that using 20-year estimates is a well-entrenched practice at DND that prevents risky, long-term predictions.

"Life-cycle costing is not a simple issue," Mr. Fonberg said.

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Mr. Fonberg was also critical of the work of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, saying that Mr. Page "did the best he could," while cautioning that the watchdog's estimate was based on "significantly inflated" costs for the acquisition of the aircraft. DND said it stands by its assumption that each of its 65 F-35 fighter jets will cost $85-million.

Still, NDP MP Malcolm Allen said the government's publicly stated cost for the project is well below internal figures of $25-billion, which include operating costs such as fuel and pilots over 20 years.

"You told cabinet it was $25-billion, and you told the Canadian public that it was $10-billion less," Mr. Allen said.

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