09/07/2012 09:28 EDT | Updated 11/07/2012 05:12 EST

KPMG picked to crunch Defence Department's stealth fighter numbers

OTTAWA - The Harper government has hired the accounting firm KPMG to crunch the numbers on the F-35 stealth fighter program.

It will cost taxpayers $643,535 to conduct the independent assessment, which was ordered in the wake of a scathing auditor general's report that accused both National Defence and Public Works of hiding the true cost of the project.

The government promised last spring the review would be complete and tabled in Parliament by June, but it was forced to re-issue the tender last month after the original contract didn't allow the accountants enough flexibility to complete the work.

The accuracy of the cost estimates provided by the Defence Department has been the subject of furious debate since the Harper government signalled in the summer of 2010 that it intended to purchase the Lockheed Martin-built fighter.

The government insisted that the program would cost between $14.7 billion and $16 billion, but auditor general Michael Ferguson and the Parliamentary budget officer disputed those figures.

Ferguson accused the Defence Department of low-balling the estimate by not including operating expenses, which could amount to $10 billion over the 30-year life of the aircraft.

KPMG will review those assessments, as well as develop an estimate for the full lifetime cost.

Critics have complained that the exercise duplicates figures that are already available through the Pentagon, which is co-ordinating international sales of the multi-role fighter.