MacKay and Panetta firm on F-35 purchase

Defence Minister Peter MacKay and U.S. defence secretary Leon Panetta said both Canada and the U.S. are fully committed to the controversial F-35 procurement when they spoke Friday at the Halifax International Security Forum.

Canada, U.S. defence


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Defence Minister Peter MacKay and his U.S. counterpart, Leon Panetta, speak about joint defence issues at the Halifax International Security Forum. 26:14

Defence Minister Peter MacKay and U.S. Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta dismissed speculation that budget pressures will cause their countries to pull back from the F-35 jet purchase on Friday when they spoke at the Halifax International Security Forum.

Panetta caused a stir earlier in the week when he warned that the Joint Strike Fighter program that involves Canada, the U.S., and seven other countries together buying fighter jets from Lockheed Martin, could be on the chopping block as his department looks for savings.

He said Friday that Congress has asked the defence department to find more than $450 billion over the next 10 years and that all areas are being reviewed to find savings, including procurement programs.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay, left, and U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta addressed questions about the purchase of F-35 fighter jets and the state of the Afghanistan training mission at the 2011 Halifax International Security Forum. (CBC)

"We've made no decisions as to what areas we will in fact make the reductions but I think its fair to say that everything is on the table and we will do nothing without consulting with our allies so they are aware of the decisions we make," Panetta said at a news conference with MacKay following their bilateral meeting.

But Panetta said he is committed to the F-35 program and is confident it will go forward despite the massive budget cuts.

"I feel very confident that we'll get funding for the F-35 program. This is the fighter plane for the future, and in some ways we really have no alternative."

Opposition MPs in Canada have been asking the Conservative government this week about a "Plan B" if the U.S. withdraws from the joint purchasing program. If one country pulls out or pulls back on the number of planes, the remaining countries could pay a price.

MacKay remained firm on Canada's plan to buy 65 of the jets and said he knows the U.S. is committed to it also. "There is no fifth generation aircraft other than the F-35 available to Canada and the United States," MacKay said.

 "All of the hypothetical discussions and quite negative discussions, quite frankly, about this program are really just clatter and noise. This program is going ahead," the defence minister said.

"Clearly budgetary pressures are going to lead to speculation, we are dealing with our budgets as all countries are dealing with [their] budgets but we are not wavering on our commitment to this program," MacKay said.

He touted the planes and their features, saying they will be critical for the protection of North America's airspace and for Canadian sovereignty.

MacKay said he and Panetta discussed the F-35 program during their meeting, as well as Libya and Afghanistan.

U.S. military facing 'fiscal realities'

They are attending the 2011 Halifax International Security Forum on Friday along with 300 government and business leaders, academics, authors and media.

Panetta kicked off the event with a speech about America's relationship with Canada and other allies. He says the U.S. is confronting "the fiscal realities of limited resources." He said the country has to adopt a smaller, more agile armed forces, complemented by intelligence, diplomacy and technology.

"But it must also be complemented by strong alliances. Partnerships. Regional efforts at cooperation. All have to be part of the answer. The US alliance system remains the bedrock of our approach to security across the globe, and an enduring strategic advantage and force multiplier that no rival possesses," he said.

A number of high-level politicians are scheduled to attend the conference, including Israel's deputy prime minister and defence minister, Ehud Barak, and U.S. Senator John McCain.