Cabinet ministers defend fighter jets

OTTAWA — Four cabinet ministers are flying to the defence of the decision to spend $9 billion on fighter jets, in an attempt to counter the whipping three others are likely to receive over the deal at a parliamentary committee. From Lunenb

OTTAWA — Four cabinet ministers are flying to the defence of the decision to spend $9 billion on fighter jets, in an attempt to counter the whipping three others are likely to receive over the deal at a parliamentary committee.

From Lunenburg, N.S., to Vancouver, cabinet ministers and a minister of state will be making the case to Canadians on Wednesday that the sole-sourced purchase is worth it, both for the economy and for the military.

The national public relations effort is also aimed at soothing international nerves that Canada is waffling on its commitment to the U.S.-led, multinational joint strike fighter program.

The F-35 was jointly conceived and developed by several nations in the 1990s, who later paid for the privilege of being part of the deal, in turn giving Canadian companies opportunities to bid on contacts associated with the project.

“The political risk and the risk to the industry is sending out an uncertain message,” said Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, who kicked off the public-relations tour Tuesday at an aerospace company in Dorval, Que.

“We want there to be a clear message from the government of Canada and the Parliament of Canada that we are fully behind the (memorandum of understanding) for the joint strike fighter program.”

Canada’s contract for 65 new F-35 stealth fighters was awarded to U.S. defence giant Lockheed Martin without competing bids.

The standard 20-year maintenance contract could see the cost of the F-35 purchase climb as high as $16 billion, making the deal the largest military procurement in Canada’s history.

The deal has been widely criticized as an astronomical sum at a time of financial uncertainty, and the sole-source contract has led to criticisms the government didn’t get the best price.

Those issues will be up for debate before the House of Commons defence committee Wednesday, which will hear from Ambrose, Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Industry Minister Tony Clement.

High-ranking military officials, industry leaders and academics are also testifying.

Meanwhile, Treasury Board Minister Stockwell Day will appear in Vancouver, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews in Winnipeg, International Trade Minister Peter Van Loan in Mississauga, Ont., Minister of State for Economic Development Denis Lebel in Montreal and Fisheries Minister Gail Shea in Lunenburg.

The five senior MPs on the road will all be at companies who’ve already gotten a piece of the procurement pie on the deal, which the government estimates could be worth as much as $12 billion.

“This is incredibly important for job creation and for the sustainability of the aerospace industry,” Ambrose said.

Canadian contractors have already won $375 million worth of work on the planes, including the company Ambrose visited Tuesday, Heroux-Devtek, which employs 1,500 people in five plants.

The company makes each of 11 types of mechanical locks found on the plane.