Ottawa is asking Canada's aerospace industry to avoid making waves over the F-35 controversy as it sets up a new process to purchase its next fleet of fighter jets.
While Canadian firms have expressed nervousness at the confusion surrounding the file, government officials told the country's main players in the aerospace field that they are still committed to the Joint Strike Fighter program.
The continued Canadian participation in the program ensures that contracts can keep flowing as Ottawa reviews its decision to enter into a contract with manufacturer Lockheed Martin to purchase the jets that will replace the CF-18s at the end of the decade.
One of the top bureaucrats in Ottawa's new national fighter jet secretariat, Tom Ring, told a meeting of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada this week that he is hoping for less media coverage as the new federal body is being established.
Mr. Ring, assistant deputy minister of acquisitions, spoke to the AIAC to explain the Harper government's seven-point plan, which was established in reaction to last month's hard-hitting report by the Auditor-General into the muddled process to date to purchase the fighter jets.
Sources said his message included an attempt to persuade the aerospace industry to avoid rocking the boat. A person at the event said: "Tom [Ring]would like to let the noise on the file die down."
Another source at the meeting said that Mr. Ring mentioned "there has been lots of media reports – including many that are not accurate – and it wouldn't be helpful to add to those in the near term as the secretariat takes time to get organized."
In recent weeks, key members of Canada's aerospace industry have urged the Harper government to reaffirm its commitment to the F-35 project, lamenting that the future of billions of dollars in contracts to develop and build the stealth fighter appear to be up in the air.
The Harper government, meanwhile, remains unsure about how far it will go to mollify critics of its tight-fisted approach to revealing cost estimates for the controversial warplanes.
It has come under fire for touting the purchase as a $15-billion acquisition for 20 years of ownership when internal figures showed the full bill, including personnel and fuel, was $25-billion.
Auditor-General Michael Ferguson's April 3 report noted the full life of the planes was actually 36 years and called on Ottawa to be more forthcoming about costs.
The Conservatives in turn pledged to be more open but are still debating whether to provide cost estimates for the full 36-year lifespan of the F-35 Lightning II – or stick to 20 years. Government officials "haven't made that choice," a source familiar with deliberations said.
In recent weeks, senior Tory MPs have signalled the Harper government is still trying to defend cost forecasts that reach only 20 years into the future, a point before major upgrades are required.
"You know full well that the Department of National Defence, under Liberal governments, [under]Conservative governments, has, as a standard for aircraft acquisitions, used a 20-year life-cycle framework," Chris Alexander, the parliamentary secretary to the Defence Minister, recently said at a Commons committee on the warplane costs.
The government defends itself by saying it's very hard to estimate future costs with any degree of accuracy even 20 years out.
Defence officials were heartened last week when a senior official at the Treasury Board secretariat – an agency that is effectively the management board of government – supported limiting estimates to costs over 20 years.
"We consider it high risk to go beyond that timeframe for the purposes of costing for an acquisition," Michelle d'Auray told the Commons public accounts committee May 3.
NDP defence procurement critic Matthew Kellway said the Conservative government should consider itself obliged to provide as much information as possible even if the forecast figure is only a rough estimate.
"If you're going to own them for 36 years than it's incumbent on you to provide the full cost of ownership for 36 years," Mr. Kellway said.