Gen. Natynczyk says F-35 still best jet for air force
The country's top military commander, Gen. Walt Natynczyk, gave the controversial F-35 stealth fighter jet a vote of confidence on Monday.
"This is a research and development project that has come a long way," Natynczyk said while attending a ceremony in Ottawa marking the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
"It is flying and it will have all of the tools that our men and women need."
Natynczyk also said that he has always told the truth about the costs of the F-35 fighter jet.
With his comments, Natynczyk seemed to distance himself from the raging debate about the price of the program.
Last week, Auditor General Michael Ferguson issued a scathing report that found a $10-billion discrepancy between numbers that the federal government quoted publicly, and the numbers it quoted in private.
Ferguson said it was clear cabinet ministers knew the costs of buying 65 of the jets for Canada's military were likely to reach $25 billion, not $16 billion as they had been saying.
He also slammed the military for keeping Parliament in the dark on the true cost of the procurement.
Ferguson suggested to reporters that cabinet ministers would have known the true cost of buying the new planes was much higher than the numbers they were using publicly.
The Conservative government has faced heated attacks from the opposition, including calls for ministerial resignations.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay, speaking Sunday from his Nova Scotia riding, said the $10-billion discrepancy came down to an accounting difference.
The minister insisted it was not a deliberate attempt to conceal the total price tag of the jets.
In its response to Ferguson's inaugural report, Stephen Harper's government last week committed to specifically reviewing the acquisition and sustainment costs of the F-35.
It also said, among other things, the Defence Department would provide "technical briefs as needed on performance schedule and cost" to the new secretariat that will oversee the replacement of the air force's aging CF-18s.
Analyst questions military's impartiality
But Winslow Wheeler, of the Washington-based Centre for Defence Information, questioned whether the military, which was accused in Ferguson's report of overselling the merits of the plane, is capable of delivering an impartial assessment.
No one in either Canada or the U.S. is asking what they're getting for the billions of dollars they're about to spend and whether the aircraft will perform as promised, he said.
"Even if this flying piano works, it will still be a gigantic disappointment in terms of performance," said Wheeler, who's testified before Parliament on the F-35 and spent years as an analyst at the U.S. General Accounting Office.
Specifically, he says an ongoing, independent analysis should challenge the manufacturer's "glitzy" claims on things such as the term fifth-generation aircraft, which he describes as slick marketing.
Tough questions need to be asked about the aircraft's actual stealth capability because there are certain types of radar, already in existence, that can detect the F-35, said Wheeler.
Other questions need to be asked about the aircraft's ability to defend itself from air-to-air missiles fired at a distance and how it performs as a fighter.
"These are all very basic questions that neither your country, nor mine, has looked into," he said.