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This US Navy handout image shows the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II, built by Lockheed Martin as it takes off for its first flight on 15 December, 2006 to test the aircraft's initial capability from the Joint Reserve Base, Fort Worth, Texas.

HO/AFP/Getty Images

Canada will clearly need to replace its fleet of aging tactical fighter jets. The Parliamentary Budget Office has raised some serious questions around the full cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Rather than wrapping itself in the Maple Leaf, as the Conservatives have done, or lobbing rhetorical bombs without a convincing alternative, as the opposition has done, all parties should consider the questions invited by the PBO's report.

That the PBO had little to work with is evident, as it states in its executive summary. "The statement of requirements has not been made publicly available, the capabilities of the aircraft remain uncertain given its current state of development, the industrial and regional benefits remain unclear, and the acquisition and long-term sustainment costs have not been determined."

So the PBO's approach, informed largely by historical trends and information from American sources - and not by our own government - was the only one available, and it resulted in the finding that unleashed opposition fury yesterday: $29.3-billion (U.S.), almost twice as much as the federal government said.

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It is not, of course, so simple, and the PBO acknowledges as much. In statistical terms, it is only 75-per-cent confident of its cost estimate, and provides no cost range (polls, by contrast, are typically published at a 95-per-cent confidence rate, and include a margin of error). Some individual elements, such as its estimate of the cost of upgrading and overhauling the 65 planes once obtained ($3.95-billion total), are provided with little evidence.

But at least the PBO is showing its hand. And in the process, it made other observations worth further discussion. It calculated, for instance, that the cost of fighter aircraft doubles in real terms around every 18 years. It notes that U.S. legislation requires purchases to be "recertified" (shown to be essential by government, with a plan for managing expenses), where procurement costs exceed projections by 15 per cent or more.

The PBO raises sharp questions. An accountable government, one that tried to convince on the basis of evidence, would answer them.

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