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A Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter is shown in this March 2010 file photograph. (HO/Reuters)
A Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter is shown in this March 2010 file photograph. (HO/Reuters)

PR blitz aims to sell 'skeptical public' on need for F-35 fighter jets Add to ...

The Defence Department has launched a PR blitz across Canada to sell the Harper government's contentious decision to spend $16-billion on F-35 stealth fighters without a competitive bidding process.

The commitment to buy the planes - made amid deep budget deficits and a fragile economic recovery - has pitted the ruling Conservatives against the Liberals and New Democrats in a conflict that will almost certainly spill over into an expected 2011 election campaign.

The cross-country tour will cover seven cities in all. It started last Friday in Ottawa, skipping Parliamentary Press Gallery journalists who cover defence and focusing on academics and business contacts in the nation's capital. It continued Monday with a roundtable for media in Vancouver and a separate session for academics and companies - a format that continued in Calgary and Winnipeg.

Retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie said the PR blitz is an indication of how much grief Ottawa is getting over the F-35 deal, adding he can't recall Defence previously launching such a campaign in support of a military purchase.

"They are clearly feeling the heat," he said.

Mr. MacKenzie said Ottawa has not yet persuaded "a skeptical public" of the deal, saying he encounters doubts about the F-35 deal during speeches and presentations. "Certainly folks that I talk to … When the question-and-answer period comes up, they're skeptical."

The $16-billion figure includes the $9-billion price tag to buy 65 jets as well as an estimated cost for decades of maintenance and support.

The former senior military officer said the argument that the military needs cutting-edge technology is not always an easy sell, even for veterans of past wars.

"Talk to some of our tankers who went into World War II. They did a pretty damn good job, but they didn't have the fifth best tank, let alone the best tank."

Mr. MacKenzie predicted that National Defence has a big challenge to win over doubters. "I think it is a polarized debate. It won't be easy."

The F-35 promotion tour continues Thursday in Toronto and reaches Halifax Friday. A later event is planned for Montreal on December 1.

Michael Ignatieff's Official Opposition Liberals say the government should have held a competitive bidding process to select the best jet rather than sole-sourcing the F-35 Lightning and have vowed to cancel the deal if they win power.

Annie Dicaire, a spokeswoman for the Defence Department, said the public outreach under way explains to Canadians "why the F-35 aircraft was the only aircraft that met the operational requirements."

She said so far the tour has heard "very positive feedback" from Canadians.

The Harper government, which previously defended the F-35 purchase as necessary to fend off Russian challenges to Canada's sovereignty, has switched tack in recent weeks to paint the contract as a job-creation boon for the country. Ottawa argues that aerospace and defence companies will be prevented from bidding on supply contracts for the Lockheed jet if the government pulls out of the purchase.

"If this thing continues to be on this teeter-totter as a political gamesmanship tool … this could set in motion a series of events where our Canadian companies are not in a good position to bid on these contracts," Industry Minister Tony Clement warned Tuesday.

The Conservatives have found an ally in recent days in the Bloc Québécois, which is clearly sensitive to the wishes of Quebec's aerospace industry. The Bloc voted with the Tories Tuesday to defeat a Liberal-led motion calling for the F-35 deal to be cancelled.

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