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military procurement

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to employees at Virtek Vision International Inc. in Waterloo Ontario March 11, 2011. They manufacture materials used in the F35 fighter jet, the procurement process for which has stirred up much public controversy.Fred Thornhill/Reuters

The Harper government is planning to delay the release of its latest estimates on the per-jet cost of its new fighter planes because it has decided the figures need to be independently verified first.

This means it could be October before Canadians receive new details on the price of the controversial stealth jets, which the auditor-general has predicted could cost $25-billion.

The Department of National Defence had been preparing to stage a media briefing in the next few weeks to detail what it believes each F-35 Lightning II jet would cost Canada.

But the plan ran into resistance within government as officials questioned the utility of releasing a new per-plane estimate before Ottawa commissioned an independent review of the entire jet procurement program.

In April, the Conservatives promised an early update on the costs of the jets after a tough report from Auditor-General Michael Ferguson hammered the Harper government's reputation for fiscal stewardship.

It was part of a seven-point plan the Tories had unveiled that would start the F-35 procurement from scratch and independently validate the program's cost estimates and assumptions.

Point No. 3 in the plan was that the Conservatives would provide Canadians with an updated estimate for the per-plane costs of the jets within 60 days of receiving forecast information from the Joint Strike Fighter Program office in the United States.

DND got the information in early May, which would mean they should have reported the cost publicly by early July.

Defence Department bureaucrats have told MPs during parliamentary hearings that the per-jet cost could be as high as $85-million now – up from 2010 estimates of $75-million – but the government has never designated a particular figure as its official update to Canadians.

Sources say Ottawa wants to wait until it sees the results of an independent study of the entire program before making any figures public.

The government is contracting out an arms-length review of the fighter project that will report by October after testing and verifying the program estimates.

The Harper Conservatives are eager to rescue their reputation for sound fiscal management after the Auditor-General's report said this spring that the Department of National Defence gambled on the F-35s without running a fair competition, cost certainty, or any guarantee the plane could replace the current fleet of CF-18s by the end of the decade.

The decision to postpone more disclosure also suggests the government does not trust estimates from the Department of National Defence, which has been managing the next-generation fighter procurement by itself for 15 years.

The Harper government is transferring responsibility for the purchase to the National Fighter Procurement Secretariat, an office within the Department of Public Works that is overseen by a board of deputy ministers from Defence, Public Works, Industry and the Treasury Board.

An internal debate has swirled around whether Ottawa has properly accounted for all the costs of the F-35s. One question raised was whether the jets would require drag chutes to land safely on short northern runways, adding to the cost. Another was the F-35's air-to-air refuelling mechanism, which is incompatible with Canada's current air-to-air refuelling system.