OTTAWA – Six years after ripping into the Conservative government’s cost estimates for F-35 stealth fighters, Parliament’s budgetary watchdog says it is digging into the Liberal plan to purchase “interim” Super Hornet jets.
The Liberal government announced last month it planned to buy 18 Super Hornets as a stop-gap until a competition to find a replacement for the air force’s aging fleet of CF-18 fighter jets could be held in five years.
Ministers have admitted that they have an idea how much the Super Hornets will cost and that it will be more expensive in the long run for taxpayers, but they have refused to say by how much.
The government says the extra costs are necessary as Canada has to provide a certain number of aircraft for the defence of North America as well as NATO, which it currently cannot do at the same time.
Experts and internal Defence Department reports, including one recently pulled from the its website, have raised questions about those requirements and warned that operating two different fighter jets will be prohibitively expensive.
Now parliamentary budget officer Jean-Denis Frechette is trying to get to the bottom of the cost question, at least.
On Dec. 8, Frechette sent a letter to National Defence’s top bureaucrat, John Forster, asking for all cost estimates, data and analysis associated with buying and operating the Super Hornets.
The letter, which has been posted to the PBO’s website, also asks for information on how much more the Super Hornets will cost to maintain and operate than the Royal Canadian Air Force’s existing CF-18s.
Defence officials have been asked to respond by Jan. 6.
Frechette’s letter recalls the spectre of a similar request made by his predecessor as parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, which helped blow the Conservative government’s F-35 plan out of the sky in 2011.
The Tories announced in July 2010 their plan to buy 65 stealth fighters for $16 billion, but the Commons’ finance committee asked Page later that year to look into the matter amid doubts about those numbers.
Page’s final report, produced despite National Defence’s refusal to co-operate, pegged the cost of the jets at $30 billion over 30 years and was held up by critics as proof the Conservatives lied to Canadians.
Questions about the true costs continued to plague the Conservatives and F-35 project until the following year, when auditor general Michael Ferguson’s scathing report largely supported Page’s findings.
The Conservatives pushed pause on the F-35s in December 2012 after National Defence admitted the costs would actually be more than $45 billion through 2052.
Former assistant PBO Sahir Khan, who worked with Page on the F-35 report, said he hopes the Liberal government co-operates with Frechette’s study this time around to ensure an informed debate and discussion about the Super Hornets and fighter jets.
“When this discussion is done without the facts, it gets reduced to soundbites,” he said. “So right now the government has a really good opportunity to have a different type of dialogue than the previous government had. But right now, it’s an opportunity.”