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F-35s will be on time, on budget, MacKay told

Speaking from a Lockheed-Martin assembly plant in Texas, Conservative ministers said they have obtained assurances that Canada will get its fleet of F-35s on time and on budget.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Industry Minister Tony Clement shot down reports in the United States that the Joint Strike Fighter program has been hit by technological and financial problems. In addition, Canada's Auditor-General has said there is potential for delays and overruns in such a developmental project, which will cost Canada about $16-billion over 20 years.

But Mr. MacKay said he is convinced that the program is on budget after holding discussions with U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates and senior Lockheed-Martin officials while on an industrial visit with Canadian manufacturers. He said orders are pouring in, which will keep costs down for the Canadian government, which is already in the queue.

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"With the number of aircraft that are currently in production, and the potential for more, this puts Canada in a preferred position," he told reporters on a teleconference.

Mr. MacKay said that according to Canada's deal with the Joint Strike Fighter program, the U.S. will have to "cover cost overruns," adding that deliveries are still scheduled "in the 2016-2017 timeframe." He explained that the main concerns over the program are related to a variant of the F-35 that offers short takeoffs and vertical landings, while Canada is buying the traditional version of the fighter jet.

The two Conservative ministers also reacted to a diplomatic cable that was recently released on Wikileaks, showing that the U.S. embassy in Oslo scrambled two years ago to ensure that the Norwegian government bought F-35s instead of a rival aircraft. The U.S. officials were concerned with growing political opposition in Norway to the purchase of American jets, as well as the negative media coverage over the price of the F-35s.

"Norway's decision on this purchase will either end or sustain one of the strongest pillars of our bilateral relationship and could impact subsequent Danish and Dutch decisions on the F-35," the cable said.

The Americans were particularly worried that Norway, which was one of the original partners in the program along with Canada, would turn its back on the F-35. There were also concerns that rival aircraft would not be as effective as F-35s "at a time when we are seeing increased Russian military" in northern Europe.

"A decision by one of the original partners [in the F-35 program] to purchase a competitor would be damaging," the leaked cable stated.

The U.S. officials in Oslo called on their colleagues in Washington to launch "senior-level advocacy for the F-35." American diplomacy notched a victory on the Norwegian front, as Norway ultimately decided to go with the F-35s (although it has recently pushed back the first scheduled deliveries by two years to 2018).

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In Canada, the opposition is continuing to push the Harper government to scrap the current purchase plans and start over, with a full competition between rival manufacturers. A number of aerospace companies have appeared in front of a parliamentary committee to argue that they could also meet the Canadian government's requirements for new fighter jets to replace the CF-18s at the end of the decade.

Mr. MacKay said that while he has been in touch with his American counterparts on the file, the discussions have been positive.

"It has been more lines of communication and encouragement as opposed to pressure," Mr. MacKay said.

Mr. Clement added that the only pressure he has felt has come from Canadian aerospace manufacturers, which want to participate in the production and maintenance of the fighter jets.

He said Lockheed-Martin is currently hosting 61 Canadian aerospace companies at its headquarters in Fort Worth, where it can offer its expertise in the production and maintenance of the worldwide fleet of F-35s.

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