02/14/2013 05:49 EST | Updated 04/16/2013 05:12 EDT

National Defence to buy fewer bombs if F-35 selected as new air force fighter

OTTAWA - If the Harper government proceeds with its controversial F-35 program, the stealth fighters might not drop as many bombs or fire as many missiles as previously estimated.

National Defence has drastically revised how much it would spend on weapons for the multi-role fighter, according to a Parliamentary Library research publication tabled this week.

The analysis attempts to chart the conflicting cost estimates that have dogged the procurement since Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced in 2010 the Lockheed Martin-built jet would replace the CF-18s.

Last spring, auditor general Michael Ferguson criticized National Defence for low-balling the cost of the program, and not including estimates for operating the high-tech jet well into the future.

The new research publication lays out the Defence Department's response to Ferguson against previous statements, and lists a series of revisions, including significant cuts to the amount of money set aside for weapons, infrastructure and project management.

The amount National Defence has set aside for weapons has been cut to just $52 million for the estimated 30-year operational life of the jets, compared with estimates in two previous reports of $270 million and $300 million.

Modern bombs and missiles are expensive. Laser-guided munitions — known as JDAMS — cost an average of $24,000 each, while Hellfire air-to-ground missiles cost $58,000 apiece.

Sparrow air-to-air missiles are the most expensive at $125,000 a pop.

Paul Maillet, a retired air force colonel and defence planner, said the revision of the figures is "striking."

In its report last December, the Public Works secretariat that took over management of the F-35 file from National Defence noted some of the weapons stock belonging to the CF-18s could be retained for the stealth fighter.

The document notes that "over the life cycle of the replacement fleet, the acquisition of newer weapons will be considered and funded as separate projects."

Maillet said some hard questions need to be asked about the revision, regardless of the fact that the government has not decided whether to proceed with the purchase. The fighter secretariat is conducting a market analysis of what aircraft other than the F-35 are available to replace the CF-18s.

Maillet, who worked on the acquisition of the current fighter fleet, said funding the weapons separately is moving an important long-term cost off the books, something that violates the spirit of all-in accounting.

The move could also mean the air force is considering modifying the F-35's role, making it more of a surveillance platform than a warfighter, Maillet added.

Using the accounting firm KPMG, the fighter secretariat ordered its own independent analysis of National Defence's often-conflicting stealth fighter estimates last year.

It put out a tender Thursday for the next round of number-crunching for this year's report.