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Lockheed F-35 AF1 joint strike fighter.

tom reynolds The Globe and Mail

National Defence still feels the F-35 is the only fighter jet that meets its needs for the future and rejects any sense it has offered misleading figures to the public on the cost of acquiring the aircraft.

Appearing in front of the House public accounts committee, DND officials rejected the estimated cost of $29-billion for the F-35 program that has been put forward by Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page, and argued that the Auditor-General was wrong when he said key financial figures were kept hidden from Canadians.

DND's deputy minister, Robert Fonberg, said his department is sticking with its estimated cost of $15-billion for the acquisition and the sustainment over 20 years of the F-35 jets. He insisted that long-term operating costs for the jets, which are still eight years away from delivery, will be "firmed up over time," but will be similar to those for the existing fleet of CF-18s.

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He added that his department was not yet in a position to determine the exact cost of the program over its planned 36-year lifespan, saying that using 20-year scenarios is a well-entrenched position at DND and avoids making risky, long-term predictions.

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

The deputy minister rejected criticism by Auditor-General Michael Ferguson that significant costs associated to the program were not publicly divulged. Mr. Fonberg said that in his view, Mr. Ferguson "got it wrong" when he discussed budgetary matters in front of the committee last week.

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 jet 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.

In his opening remarks, Lieutenant-General André Deschamps made it clear that in the eyes of National Defence, the F-35 remains the only fighter jet to meet Canada's needs in coming decades. He said as other militaries are fielding increasingly advanced technologies, Canada must obtain a "fifth generation" fighter jet, such as the F-35, which is deemed to be vastly superior to existing fighter jets.

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Under questioning by MPs, Lt.-Gen. Deschamps, the head of Canada's air force, said the military is still working toward acquiring a fleet of F-35s.

"Currently, from an air force perspective, we are focused on delivering a transition to the F-35," he said.

The witness list on Tuesday included eight federal officials from National Defence, Public Works, Industry Canada and Treasury Board. The parliamentary hearing marked the first time that government officials testified about the F-35 purchase since the release of the Auditor-General's report into the bungled process to date.

At next Thursday's hearing, the committee will hear from Mr. Page for its first hour, and then re-invite the same panel of witnesses who appeared on Tuesday.

In an appearance in front of the public accounts committee last week, the Auditor-General said DND underestimated a number of costs to taxpayers related to the F-35.

"There were some significant things that were missing from the life-cycle costing in this, for example attrition, for example upgrades, and the fact that these aircraft were going to last for 36 years, not just 20 years," Mr. Ferguson told MPs.

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"When we raised the issue of life-cycle costing and the fact that it was not complete, I don't believe that we were nitpicking in any way. We were saying that there were significant elements that were missing," he said.

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

"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."

With a report from Steven Chase

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