OTTAWA — Defence Minister Peter MacKay led a co-ordinated ministerial attack Wednesday on critics of the Tory government’s plan to spend up to $9 billion on stealth fighters.
He told the Commons defence committee that without the F-35 Lightning II, Canada might not be able to effectively defend its airspace in the future.
MacKay called the Joint Strike Fighter the right plane, purchased at the right time and in the right numbers.
“The F-35 will allow us to see threats before they see us,” MacKay told the committee. “The stealth capability makes it the right aircraft, not only on the existing threats, but what may come.”
Both Industry Minister Tony Clement and Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose launched their own defence of the sole-source purchase.
Clement says Canadian defence contractors could land as much as $12 billion in work on not only the 65 Canadian fighters, but up to 5,000 aircraft being delivered to allied nations.
“There will be significant industrial-economic opportunities presented to Canada and Canadian industry in the years ahead,” he said.
Ambrose brushed aside criticism that no competition has been held. She said the Americans decided in 2001 which defence contractor would build the newest generation of fighter aircraft.
“Competitions do not need to be held when there is only one product available that meets the requirements set by the client,” Ambrose said. “Frankly, it would be dishonest. It would be a waste of time and a waste of resources.”
Critics such as Alan Williams, the former head of defence procurement, have called that position outrageous. He pointed out the Pentagon selected defence contractor Lockheed-Martin based upon its defence requirements and not what Canada might need.
NDP defence critic Jack Harris demanded to see the military’s statement of requirements, which singled out the F-35 as the only choice, but MacKay said it was classified.
Ambrose warned that withdrawing from the deal would “close the door” on future Canadian participation in the program.
Bloc Quebecois MP Claude Bachand says he’s skeptical that the country’s aerospace industry will get what’s promised.
Normally when aircraft are purchased, governments get iron-clad guarantees, called industrial regional benefits, that commit companies to spend dollar-for-dollar the value of the contract in Canada.
Clement conceded the arrangement with Lockheed Martin provides no such guarantees and that Canadian companies will have to bid on opportunities, but if they win, they’ll be providing parts and services to the entire fleet.
“This is a unique project in the world,” Clement told the committee. “There’s no precedent for this. It’s the first time it’s ever been done this way.”
Canadian companies have already signed $350 million in contracts related to the new fighter, he said.
There have been questions about how much it will cost to service the aircraft. Some estimates say the price tag would add as much as $7 billion to the purchase price.
But MacKay said the latest figures suggest it would cost $250 million per year over 20 years — or approximately $5 billion.
But defence experts say National Defence can only guess at the cost because the F-35 is just off the drawing board and has no maintenance track record.