Costs for F-35 fighter jets to soar: Canadian watchdog

by Michel Comte

OTTAWA – Canada significantly overpaid for new fighter jets jointly developed with the United States and its allies, a parliamentary watchdog said Thursday.

Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page said in a report Ottawa should expect to doll out as much as CAN$29.3 billion (US$30 billion) for the purchase and maintenance of 65 F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters over 30 years.

The estimate is nearly double the amount suggested by the government, and opposition parties pounced on the report to criticize Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservatives.

Page said the government likely paid 20 percent more by awarding a sole-source contract to Lockheed Martin to develop and build the jets than it would have if it had held an open competition.

The F-35 fighter jet, set to replace a large part of US and Canadian fighter aircraft fleets, has become the most expensive weapons program ever, drawing increased scrutiny at a time of tight public finances.

The so-called fifth generation fighter was built with features designed to help avoid enemy radar and ensure supremacy in the skies for decades.

But it has been criticized for a series of cost overruns and delays, and now there is potential competition from China, which in January unveiled its first radar-evading combat aircraft.

At the same time, the contract awarded in 2001 had been planned to last 10 years, but has been extended to 2016 because of testing and design issues.

The United States is covering 90 percent of its development costs but has participation from Britain, Italy, Turkey, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Australia and Canada.

Other nations, including Israel and Singapore, have signed contracts to buy the plane.

Canada’s main opposition Liberals, which committed to the F-35 program when in power in 1997, are now using the lack of open competition to replace Canada’s aging fleet of fighter jets to press for a change in government.

« This is an unconscionable amount, the Harper Conservatives have again misled Canadians and parliament, » said Liberal MP and defence critic Dominic LeBlanc.

« To put this in perspective, $30 billion is equivalent to $1,000 for every man, woman and child in Canada, and equals the entire federal government’s annual spending on health care. »

But Jay Paxton, spokesman for Defense Minister Peter MacKay, stood by the original procurement cost projections of CAN$9 billion (US$9.2 billion) to buy and CAN$250-300 million (US$256-308 million) annually to maintain over 20 years.

« The F35 is the only jet that can meet the needs of the air force, as noted by Mr. Page, » Paxton added. « Simply put, this is the best plane for the best price. »

Source: AFP

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