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Fighter-jet confab merely routine, Fantino says

An F-35 fighter jet takes part in an aircraft test at Florida's Eglin Air Force Base.

The Harper government will meet with allies who like Ottawa have been buffeted by delays and problems with the F-35 fighter – but insists it's "no emergency."

U.S. plans to delay production have the other eight countries involved in the fighter-jet program grappling with how the costs and timing of their orders will be affected. Canada has convened a meeting at its embassy in Washington and the group is to meet again in Australia in mid-March to outline its revised purchase plans.

The opposition NDP says the Conservatives are panicking over delays and cost overruns in the program, but Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino, in charge of big equipment buys, maintains the meeting of the eight allies in the F-35 group is routine.

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"The meeting that the member referred to is no emergency at all. It has been in the works for a long time among all of the members," Mr. Fantino told the Commons Monday.

New Democrat MP Brian Masse said the Harper government is scrambling to adjust, fearful because the existing CF-18 fighters will have to be replaced and "it does not have a Plan B."

The allies' plans to buy the troubled jet are far from set in stone. Italy, facing deep cuts to defence spending as part of its austerity program, is expected to outline reductions to its planned order of F-35s as soon as this week.

Other nations are working out how delays imposed by Washington will affect their bottom line.

U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta recently endorsed the continued development of the F-35 when he outlined planned cuts to military spending. The United States expects to spend $382-billion over 20 years to buy 2,443 of the fighters.

But he also announced delays in production to undo the costly refits required by so-called "concurrency" in the F-35 program – in other words, early copies of the plane are being produced by contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. even as the design in being worked out.

Those delays could be crucial for the price tag that allies, notably Canada, will pay.

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The Conservative government had initially argued it would be able to order the plane at a low price because its purchases, in 2017-2020, would come deep into the production run; that is no longer the case. Pentagon cost estimates for the variant Canada intends to buy now run more than twice the sum Stephen Harper's government has officially estimated.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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