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Two U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II aircraft arrive at Amari Air Base, Estonia, on Feb. 24.US AIR FORCE/Reuters

If the Liberal government’s announcement Monday that it will purchase 88 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets at a cost of $19-billion were made in a vacuum, there would be valid reason to applaud the decision, and to feel confident about Canada’s ability to protect itself and support its allies in the coming years.

After all, Canada badly needs to update its aging fleet of CF-18s and F-18s, and the F-35 could reasonably be argued to be the best choice for the job.

It is one of the most advanced and lethal fighters on the planet, and it has become the warplane of choice for many of Canada’s allies, led by the United States. Those allies have together ordered thousands of F-35s, making it easier for their air forces to work together on joint missions.

Best of all, Ottawa’s decision to negotiate with Lockheed Martin on the purchase of F-35s, with a second-ranked bidder on tap if those talks fail, was based on an open and competitive bidding process free from political interference, at least according to Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi.

If that’s all there was to it, there would be unicorns dancing on rainbows over Parliament Hill. But as everyone knows, Monday’s announcement was just the latest development in Ottawa’s decade-plus F-35 procurement fiasco. With luck, it will end here, but there is no way to guarantee it and very little reason to hope for it.

Canada picks U.S.-made F-35 fighter jet as next warplane

The recap is this: The Conservative government of Stephen Harper announced in 2010 that it would buy 65 F-35s, at a cost of $9-billion, in a sole-source contract.

That fell apart in 2011 when the federal Auditor-General and the Parliamentary Budget Officer challenged the process by which the F-35 was chosen, as well as the Conservatives’ $9-billion price tag.

The Auditor-General criticized bureaucrats in the Department of National Defence for failing to do their due diligence on the cost of the fighters and for withholding information from Parliament. The PBO said the more likely cost of 65 fighters, when maintenance over 30 years was included, would be $29.3-billion at the end of their full life cycle.

By 2012, the price tag has risen to $45-billion over 40 years. A humbled Harper government hit what it called the “reset button” and said it would hold an open competition to select Canada’s next fighter jet.

Justin Trudeau, seizing on the stench that had attached itself to the F-35, promised in the 2015 election that, if elected, his government would never, ever purchase the jinxed fighter and would instead launch an “open and transparent competition” for a cheaper model better suited to Canada’s needs.

The Liberals won that election and the next two after that. And then, this week, the whole schmozzle went full circle, and the Trudeau government concluded the F-35 is the one for Canada.

It would be great if this political farce ended here. But there is already a troubling sign that the Liberals may have made the same mistake as the Harper Conservatives, which was to understate the estimated cost of buying fighter jets in order to make an easier sale to voters.

How do you otherwise explain that the PBO said in 2011 that purchasing 65 F-35s would cost close to $30-billion over their lifespan, and more than a decade later Ottawa is estimating a cost of $19-billion to purchase 88 F-35s?

It’s true that the individual price of an F-35 has dropped in the past decade, as some noted this week when Ottawa announced its intention to negotiate with Lockheed Martin. But watchdogs in the U.S. are saying the lower price is based on selective mathematics, and that the jet’s maintenance costs are soaring.

Have the Trudeau Liberals announced an estimated cost that will double, or even triple, when more details are released? If it has, will the revelation that they played down the real cost force them to hit their own reset button and once again delay the critical overhaul of Canada’s geriatric jet-fighter fleet?

The government says it could have a deal signed with Lockheed Martin by the end of the year. If that doesn’t happen – if Ottawa fails to procure new fighter jets at the very moment Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has reminded Canada and its allies of the need to be able to defend themselves and each other – this entire fiasco will move past farce into the realm of tragedy.

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