12/13/2011 04:54 EST | Updated 02/12/2012 05:12 EST

F-35: Canada's Air Commander Contradicts Julian Fantino On Moving Jet Training Home

OTTAWA - Canadian fighter pilots will be training on the F-35 jet in Florida for almost a decade and the military will have to study how to set up a similar program at home, says the country's top air commander.

The comments by Lt.-Gen. Andre Deschamps stand in contrast to the iron-clad assurances Julian Fantino, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's associate defence minister, gave the House of Commons last month when it was first revealed stealth fighter instruction would take place in the U.S.

"At some point, we would like to repatriate the training to Canada in whatever shape or form that would be suitable for us," the chief of air staff said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

But Deschamps said there is a lot of homework to be done before that would happen, including a detailed assessment of how the U.S. and other allies strike a balance between airtime and simulator training on the highly advanced, multi-role fighter.

The goal would be to continue fighter pilot instruction at Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake, Alta. However infrastructure and cost will be among the considerations as the military adopts the new jets.

"All of these things we have to learn and then we'll be able to make a more rational decision on if we want to repatriate that training and how do we keep it within the current affordable boundaries of training expenditures," said Deschamps.

Fantino was much more categorical on Nov. 4 when he dismissed NDP questions about the training program.

"The member should know that in order to get traction (on a story), he should have his facts straight," Fantino told New Democrat defence critic David Christopherson.

"Long-term training on the F-35s will take place in Canada, just as currently is done with the CF-18s. It is reasonable that Canadians will do initial training with those from whom we purchase the aircraft, which has always been the case."

In fact, air force internal documents also contradict his assurances and state there is the "potential for NO pilot training in Canada," and suggest that a "pooled" training system with international partners is likely the most cost-effective plan.

Indeed, that is how the U.S. manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, sees instruction unfolding and it has poured millions of dollars into a state-of-the-art centre at Eglin Air Force Base.

The regime, according to internal Defence Department documents, would see all instruction take place at the centre and each nation's operational squadron equipped with simulators to hone skills and practise missions.

New Democrat critic Matthew Kellway accused Fantino of being misleading and said taxpayers deserved straight answers on what will be the country's most expensive individual military procurement.

"There needs to be a consistent story told to Canadians about what the plan is for the F-35," Kellway said Tuesday. "There is a lot this government has to answer for. There is a lot it needs to tell Canadians."

A spokesman for Fantino says the cost of buying flight simulators is part of the estimated $9 billion purchase cost.

But Chris McCluskey was asked if the government would guarantee funding to upgrade and maintain the existing centre to accommodate full-fledged F-35 training. He would only say that "the RCAF will continue to explore the optimum timing for repatriating pilot training in Canada."

"Decision on the timing for the training will be made in due course," said McCluskey.

"All decisions must ensure the best results for the Canadian Forces, Canadian workers and Canadian taxpayers."

The prospect that advanced flight training — with its economic spin offs — could end at Cold Lake is political trouble for the Conservatives, especially in Alberta, the heartland of their support.

Questioned about the implications last month, staff in Defence Minister Peter MacKay's office said closing the decades-old centre "was not something a Conservative government is willing to consider."

With a population of 13,000, the air base, including the training centre, is one of the town's economic pillars.

Deschamps told the House of Commons defence committee on Thursday that inviting allies to do training is one option for Cold Lake, similar to what was offered for years at CFB Goose Bay, N.L.

The air force isn't expected to begin receiving the new fighter-bombers until 2016 and even then there will only be handful of planes for Canadian pilots to fly by 2020.

Repeated production delays have pushed back delivery.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version carried an incorrect spelling of Lt.-Gen. Andre Deschamps' last name.

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