OTTAWA - The Conservative government is sounding decidedly less hawkish on its planned purchase of stealth fighters as it heads into a critical meeting with allies in Washington on the future of the controversial F-35 program.
Despite months of heavy opposition fire, Julian Fantino — the associate defence minister and the government's point man on the troubled fighter file — has stuck faithfully to the Tory script: the costly planes are necessary for the men and women of Canada's military. Period.
That script, however, has been tweaked.
"All I can say, repeatedly, is that we are in fact engaged with all of our partners in this particular issue," Fantino said Wednesday in the House of Commons.
"No contracts have been signed."
The fact Canada is potentially a year — maybe two — away from signing on the dotted line with Lockheed Martin Corp. is not something the Conservatives were eager to trumpet as they stumped around the country trying to convince supporters, opponents and taxpayers to accept the eye-popping $9-billion price tag.
Canada's apparent enthusiasm — despite soaring costs, delays, and technical glitches — even caught the attention of the U.S. media. The Dallas-Fort Worth Star wryly noted last fall that Canada seemed more committed to the F-35 than the U.S. did.
Conservative sources with knowledge of the file say there has been a deliberate pivot in strategy, one meant to acknowledge the obvious: The F-35 is "a developmental aircraft, a developmental program; it's not really a procurement and we don't have a contract."
That does not mean the Conservatives are in any way less committed to buying the plane, the sources added.
It might, for a while at least, relieve some of the political pain the Conservatives have been feeling, including growing alarm among caucus members about the barrage of screaming headlines from the U.S. on the program's mounting cost and its many glitches.
Both the NDP and Liberals have been relentless and gleeful in their assault on the Conservative position, rising almost every day in the House of Commons to point out flaws and mock Fantino for reading from a talking-points script.
The meeting among allied nations, slated for Friday at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, came about partly after Fantino spoke with his Italian and Norwegian counterparts who have similar concerns, said one of the Conservative sources.
The one-day session is a precursor to a larger meeting in Australia in a few weeks.
One of the biggest concerns for the United States is the estimated life-time sustainment costs of the radar-evading jet. It's been estimated that servicing the American fleet of 2,243 aircraft could cost up to $1 trillion over 50 years.
New figures from the Pentagon suggest operational costs on Canada's fleet of 65 fighters could run in the range of US$14 billion, depending upon how long the country chooses to fly them.
The estimate bolsters a report last year by parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, which challenged the Harper government and the Defence Department's claim that it would cost in the neighbourhood of US$7 billion over 20 years to keep the jets aloft.
Page's assessment, released prior to the last election, was dismissed as inaccurate speculation.
But the U.S. Defence Department quietly noted earlier last week that the F-35 will cost about US$30,000 per hour to fly and maintain over the decades it's expected to be in service.
When those figures are calculated for the Royal Canadian Air Force, it works out to US$7.2 million per aircraft per year — or US$468 million annually for the entire fleet.
How long the multi-role fighters are to remain in service was a point of bitter dispute between Page and defence officials, with the federal government insisting the planes would only see two decades of action.
If that is the case, the maintenance bill could run as low as US$9.3 billion, a total that's still far higher than the numbers National Defence has chosen to use.
The price tag climbs to US $14.04 billion for three decades of use, which is what Page estimated in his controversial report.
The budget watchdog also tossed in an extra $5 billion for the inevitable overhaul and upgrades each aircraft would need after at least 20 years of flying — bringing his grand total to $19 billion.
The calculation is based on the F-35s flying an average of 240 hours per year.
Observers say the only way the air force could meet its projections would be if the F-35s are flown much less than the existing squadrons of CF-18s, which documents tabled in Parliament show have been in the air an average of 223 hours per year since they were purchased in the 1980s.
The Pentagon has acknowledged it considers the sustainment costs too high and is working to bring down the figures.
The F-35 program office is also still working on a comprehensive review of the operation and maintenance costs.