The Harper government is conceding it might back out of its multibillion-dollar plan to buy F-35 stealth fighters.
Delays and setbacks have cast confusion over the price tag of the fighter jets, so Ottawa is now acknowledging it will have to wait and see how much they will cost – even if it doesn't have a clear idea of a Plan B.
It is a marked change in tone for a government that pledged its commitment to the F-35s in 2010 at a news conference complete with a military band. Ottawa stuck by the plan while the development of the plane was riddled with problems, insisting it was the only plane to do the job, and the order would create jobs in Canada.
At a meeting of the Commons defence committee, Julian Fantino, the associate defence minister now overseeing the purchase of military equipment, repeatedly used the word "if" when referring to buying the planes – although he maintained the government is still convinced they are the best available.
"But we have not as yet discounted the possibility, of course, [of]backing out of the program," he told MPs. "None of the partners have … And we'll just have to think it through further as time goes on. But we are confident that we will not leave Canada or our men and women in uniform in the lurch."
The partners Mr. Fantino was referring to are the other eight countries who entered into a arrangement with the United States to develop the so-called Joint Strike Fighter, but are now nervously waiting to see if they will be delivered on time to replace their existing jets, and at what cost.
Canada, too, is in that boat. It had planned to buy 65 of the F-35s, taking delivery in 2016 so that they can replace the current CF-18 fighters, due to be retired between 2017 and 2020. The government has mused recently about trying to extend the life of the CF-18s if the F-35s are not delivered on time – but that still doesn't get around the problem of what to do if the fighters are just too expensive.
Mr. Fantino said that the defence department is planning for contingencies, but is still at the "what-if" stage. The defence department's assistant deputy minister for material, Dan Ross, said there aren't any new alternatives that have come on the market in recent years. "We continue to monitor the options available to us around the world. We really don't see any change in what's available out there."
The government said in 2010 that it would spend $9-billion to buy the jets, along with a package of spare parts. But it estimated the cost at $75-million per plane and some estimates are now running more than twice that much. Senior Royal Canadian Air Force officers have insisted that 65 fighters is the minimum number they need, and Mr. Fantino said the government is sticking to the $9-billion budget.
"We will be spending the allotted amount of $9-billion for the acquisition if we are going to go there," he said.
The latest wrinkle is a delay in U.S. orders that is setting back production schedules and expected to increase the price tag. Washington decided to delay the production of 179 fighters, because the Pentagon's practice of buying some fighters while the design is still being developed led to high costs for retrofits.
Canada convened a meeting at its embassy in Washington with other F-35 countries, but Mr. Fantino said they didn't get new cost figures from U.S. officials.
Despite the admission that Ottawa hasn't ruled out backing out from buying the F-35s, Mr. Fantino continued to insist that the government is committed to the Joint Strike Fighter – even though he acknowledged that no decision has been made on whether to order them.
"Well, I'm being realistic," he told reporters later. "Until such time as the purchase is actually signed and ready to go, I think the only appropriate answer for me is to be forthright."
The NDP's military procurement critic, Christine Moore, said Mr. Fantino's comments were a dramatic change in tone for the government. She said it highlighted the reasons why the government should have held a competitive tender for fighter jets after it came to power, and developed an alternative plan to the F-35s.
"When you're talking about an important purchase like this, I think it's essential to have an alternative solution, and they didn't even do that," she said.