Canada's minister responsible for military procurement now appears open to adjusting the defence department's order for F-35 fighter jets, citing an economic environment "we may not have any control over."
Speaking with host Evan Solomon on CBC News Network's Power & Politics on Monday, Associate Minister of Defence Julian Fantino was asked if he was open to reconsidering the purchase.
"I think Canada, as with all other countries, has to be very much plugged in to the environment, the economics of the day if you will, but we remain committed to ensuring that we purchase or we acquire the best resources for our men and women, and also at the very same time address the absolute certainty that Canada, Canadian taxpayers will receive the best possible outcome," Fantino said.
Solomon specifically asked Fantino if Canada may buy fewer planes, given that the development costs for the plane are over budget and the actual price of the jet may be much higher than the $16 billion Canada had previously budgeted for the purchase of 65 F-35 fighter jets.
"That's not the issue right now," Fantino said. "The issue is that we remain plugged in, that we continue to dialogue. All I'm saying is that we must be, as with other countries, in tune with the environment, the things that we may not have any control over."
Reporters put similar questions to Defence Minister Peter MacKay at a news conference on Tuesday morning.
MacKay praised Fantino's handling of the file, saying he has been "very clear," but MacKay also would not commit to buying any specific number of planes.
"We are committed to giving the Canadian air force the best opportunity for mission success," MacKay said. "The determination has been made, in fact we entered into this program as a country, before our government came to office."
On Tuesday during question period in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Stephen Harper also noted that the government has been working with its allies for a decade on a replacement for Canada's aging CF-18 fleet.
"There's a budget for that and the government's been clear it will operate within that budget," Harper said.
Vast variations in the projected price of the aircraft lie at the heart of the public debate over the purchase, and manufacturer Lockheed-Martin has warned that the price of the planes will be higher than earlier estimates. Solomon asked Fantino on Monday to clarify how much Canada will be paying per plane.
"I don't have that information for you at this point in time," Fantino said. "These are things that are evolving."
F-35 partners to meet
Changes in the Amercian F-35 order owing to cuts to the Pentagon's budget, on top of cuts, delays or changes to the previous purchase plans of other NATO partners, have thrown the timelines and costing for the jet's development into disarray.
Fantino told Solomon on Monday there is "no country that I know of right now that's backed out," and noted that Japan recently signed on after a long evaluation process.
The associate minister also confirmed that Canada will host a meeting at its embassy in Washington on March 2 so other partners in the project can "deal with misinformation, miscommunication and a whole lot of other misunderstandings with respect to this aircraft."
Fantino characterized this meeting and other bilateral meetings Canada participates in as part of the "development process" for the jet, going back to 1997.
Australia is hosting another meeting later in March.
"There are issues no doubt with every prototype and every type of such a sophisticated piece of equipment that are being addressed and being dealt with," Fantino explained, saying these meetings were a chance to speak to those issues.
"I think it’s quite reasonable that countries including Canada keep on monitoring the situation," Fantino said. "We all know that the economic reality of the day is certainly vastly different from when we started back on this project in 1997. It would be ludicrous I believe for us to say that under no circumstances are we not prepared to discuss, to reconsider or consider."
MacKay on Tuesday morning also characterized discussions between countries about the issues with the F-35s as an expected part of the process, suggesting his junior minister, Fantino, is "showing initiative" in calling a meeting.
"The entire program has not been without problems, in both terms of timeline and cost estimates, and so having these discussions is a normal course."
Getting together with the supplier Lockheed Martin allows us to ask direct questions," MacKay said. "This is a capability that is extremely important to the Canadian Forces, to the Royal Canadian Air Force, and to our entire capability to protect North America, to participate internationally."
Opposition says government 'panicking'
Earlier Monday during question period in the House of Commons, the NDP's Peter Julian characterized the F-35 procurement as a "fiasco" and a "$30-billion boondoggle."
His Opposition colleague, Brian Masse, suggested the Washington meeting was called because the government is "panicking" and that its assertion that the purchase is on track is a "fantasy."
"There is no emergency meeting," Fantino told the Commons. "However, the rhetoric and the untruths seem to prevail."
Following question period, the NDP's Peter Julian told reporters "there is real concern around this plane and the escalating costs, and what we have is a government that keeps saying we’ll pay whatever it takes to buy these planes. That, I think, is irresponsible."
Julian pointed out that the parliamentary budget officer puts the cost of the F-35 purchase at $30 billion, not the $16 billion figure previously supplied by the Harper government. The Opposition also has been critical of the lack of the usual government tendering process for this procurement.
"It could well be more now because of the Pentagon stepping back from this plane," Julian said. "They botched this file from the beginning to the end and they need to come clean with Canadian taxpayers."
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae echoed the same theme, telling reporters "the deal is now a different deal than the one that we thought we originally had so clearly there’s a problem."
"This is a government that is targeting Old Age Security because they say that’s unsustainable. But when it comes to a jet contract whose ultimate price we do not know, how many planes we do not know, its affordability we do not know, they say, 'Oh that, that is sacrosanct,'" Rae said. "So clearly they’ve made their priorities."
Last Thursday, Fantino raised eyebrows in the House of Commons when he appeared to lose his cool and said that a journal article slamming the procurement was "critical of everything that is holy and decent about the government's efforts" to equip the Canadian Forces.
It prompted NDP critic Matthew Kellway to joke that "it's on a wing and a prayer that they're moving forward on the F-35."