Canada could reconsider an agreement to buy new F-35 joint strike fighter jets, Julian Fantino suggested Tuesday, as partner countries re-evaluate their own commitments.
"We have not as yet discounted, the possibility, of course, of backing out of any of the program," Fantino, associate minister of national defence, told the House defence committee Tuesday.
"None of the partners have. We are not. And we’ll just have to think it through further as time goes on, but we are confident that we will not leave Canada or our men and women in uniform in a lurch, but it’s hypothetical to go any further right now."
Fantino also said the government won't decide on the purchase until it knows how much it will cost.
"We will be expending the allotted amount, $9 billion, for the acquisition if we are going to go there," he said.
"That decision will be made if and when those factors are known to us and the decision will be made as to whether or not Canada will actually enter into a contract to purchase the F-35."
Fantino's comments mark a change in tone from previous answers to questions about the possibility of rising costs and design problems with the Lockheed Martin fighter jets. He had previously left no possibility the government is exploring other options or considering pulling out of the agreement with allies like the United States, Norway, Italy and Australia.
NDP military procurement critic Matthew Kellway seized on Fantino's use of the words "backing out" regarding the F-35 program during his committee appearance.
"He’s been very clear, I think he’s emphasized in his talking points, these two contradictory things: the continuing commitment to the program, but also the fact that there’s no contract signed yet. And there might not be. 'If and when,'" Kellway said, quoting from Fantino's testimony.
Evolving answers on F-35s
"A contract has not been signed as yet for the replacement aircraft. We have set a budget for replacement. We have been clear that we will operate within that budget." — Julian Fantino, Feb. 29, 2012, House of Commons
"If I can repeat for the honourable member who is not listening, our plan is on track. We will be delivering to our men and women in the air force the best equipment to enable them to carry out their duties in an effective and safe manner." — Julian Fantino, Dec. 13, 2011, House of Commons
"We will stay with that program." — Julian Fantino, Nov. 25, 2011, House of Commons
"This is the aircraft that is absolutely essential to what we need to do in this country to maintain our sovereignty." — Julian Fantino, Oct. 4, 2011, on CBC's Power & Politics
Fantino, the minister responsible for military purchasing, hosted a meeting in Washington, D.C., earlier this month with the partner countries involved in the initial agreement to buy the planes. Canada hasn't signed a contract guaranteeing the purchase.
Decision to buy 65 jets 'not as yet' made
Canada had planned to buy 65 jets for no more than $9 billion, government officials said. The plan was to buy them at a specific point in the production cycle so that they were less expensive than the first planes to come off the line. But delays in production and partner countries who cut their orders have increased costs, which would mean either spending more to get them on time or delaying their arrival.
"One of the things that I know for certain is that Canada remains involved in the joint strike fighter program," Fantino said.
"The decision, the determinate decision, has not as yet been made as to whether or not we are going to actually purchase, buy, acquire, the F-35."
The official in charge of equipment for the Department of National Defence says the department has "a small project planning team" working on implications of a new fighter jet on infrastructure and training, but didn't seem convinced Canada has another option to the F-35.
"We continue to monitor the options available to us around the world. We really don’t see any change in what’s available out there," said Dan Ross, the assistant deputy minister of materiel.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Fantino said Canada is committed to the program, but hasn't yet placed the order.
"We're going to at some point and time make the definitive decision because, as I stated, we have not as yet signed a contract to purchase," he said.
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said the government has to open a new competition to replace Canada's aging CF-18 jets.
"Inevitably, they'll have to find a new model, because the F-35 model doesn't work for Canada," Rae said.
"What obviously happened in Washington was that Lockheed Martin made it crystal clear that this is not a $75-million buy. And even though the prime minister said months ago that Canada had a firm, firm contract at $75 million, what Mr. Fantino is saying today is completely different: There is no contract, it’s not a matter of when but if and when."