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The Globe and Mail

Tory procurement chief vows fighter jets will be up to the job in Arctic

Stephen Harper's minister in charge of military procurement is assuring taxpayers the communications system on costly new F-35 stealth fighters will "meet or exceed current capabilities."

Julian Fantino, the Associate Minister of National Defence, told The Globe and Mail on Monday the government will "ensure that our men and women in uniform have the best equipment to do their jobs safely and effectively."

Mr. Fantino's statement, sent by email from his director of communications Chris McCluskey, is vague amid a dramatic weekend report that the 65 jets the government is purchasing will not be able to communicate from the Arctic.

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However, the minister may be forced to reveal more as the opposition plans to pursue the story in Question Period later Monday.

The government's justification for the new fighter jets is, part, for patrolling the Far North and protecting Canada's airspace. The Conservatives have made Arctic sovereignty a main plank of their government.

"Reasonable people agree that we need aircraft to defend Canadian sovereignty," Mr. Fantino said in his statement. "We expect communications for our aircraft in the north to meet or exceed current capabilities."

The Canadian Press report says the F-35s – which will cost between $16- and $35-billion, including long-term maintenance – will likely not have the communications capability in the initial stage of production and then not until production reaches its fourth phase in 2019.

That ability is key to working in the Arctic where military aircraft now rely on satellite communications, according to the report.

The F-35 purchase has proved controversial of late, given the awarding last week of the $33-billion shipbuilding contract. The bidding process was at arms-length from politicians and politics and has been hailed as a template for future contract awards.

Some opposition politicians, including Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae, have asked the Prime Minister why this same process couldn't have been used on the jet purchase. The opposition has been very critical of the fact that the fighter contract was sole-sourced.

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The Liberals vowed in the May election to cancel the commitment to buy the jets if they were elected and ton instead hold an open competition.

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