Tory story on F-35 jets doesn’t fly

If the definition of insanity really is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then it appeared the NDP needed some quick intervention.

If the definition of insanity really is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then it appeared the NDP needed some quick intervention.

As reliable as the Centennial Flame, a New Democrat would rise each afternoon around 2:25 or so to ask whether the government was rethinking its multibillion-dollar purchase of 65 F-35 fighter jets.

With the same regularity, Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino would rise to read a prepared answer, assuring everyone that the government was proceeding with the best jet at the best price.

But it turns out there was a method to the opposition madness.

As, one by one, Ottawa’s allies in this bulk buying spree backed off, delayed or cut back its order, Fantino’s answers took on the air of a fairy tale.

And now it is no longer a question of when the Conservatives move to a Plan B on their jet procurement program, but when — and how.

It has taken months, but the “jets and jails” argument made by the opposition parties to paint the Conservatives as profligate spenders on agenda items Canadians don’t see as priorities is finally being heard.

The crack in the F-35 fairy tale finally came Tuesday morning when Defence Minister Peter MacKay was pushed on the number of fighter jets to be purchased by the government.

When MacKay launched into the non-answer about giving the Royal Canadian Air Force its best opportunity at mission success, Radio-Canada reporter Marc Godbout persisted.

“Same number or not,’’ he asked. “Same number or not?”

The minister smirked and repeated his rote answer.

We’ll take the smirk as confirmation that reality has invaded the government bubble.

The U.S. has cancelled 13 F-35s and has postponed orders for another 179.

Even Barack Obama’s allies say he did not go far enough.

The liberal Center for American Progress called the management of the F-35 program a “complete disaster’’ and said the plane is on track to become the most expensive weapons program ever.

In Oslo on Tuesday, the plane’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, said the slowdown in U.S. orders will leader to a higher average cost for the fighters on order there and in other countries, including Canada.

Britain has cut its order and delayed its decision on further orders, while Australia has decided to buy upgraded F-18s until the F-35s are ready.

Turkey has halved its initial delivery request for four planes, but has not yet reduced its larger order in the future.

Italy, which announced as far back as 2002 that it would order 131 of the planes by 2018, confirmed Tuesday that it is cutting back its order in its next budget. Italian media have reported at least 40 planes will be cut.

The future of Norway’s order of 52 fighters is unclear and The Netherlands says it will put a decision to buy 85 F-35s on hold until a new cabinet takes office.

The price tag Ottawa has placed on the planes — $16 billion — was surely conjured by Aesop and its insistence on delivery dates had to be penned by the Brothers Grimm.

The bargain bulk buying price that was quoted because the plane would be in “peak production” starting in 2016 is gone.

The U.S. estimate is almost double the cost per plane.

There were only ever two guarantees associated with this untendered deal — cost overruns and production delays.

There should now be a third guarantee. This government will drastically reduce the size of this deal — why 65? — or seek to extend the life of

the CF-18s, or both.

The government will announce it following a meeting it has convened in Washington with other purchasers or after a subsequent meeting of the bruised buyers in Australia.

They may stick it in the federal budget in the name of austerity, or they may release the decision under cover of Friday evening darkness.

If they don’t, it will show that we were looking for insanity in all the wrong places.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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