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FORT WORTH, Texas — Amid renewed questions about Canada’s commitment to the F-35 fighter jet, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official said the Canadian supply base will remain an essential part of the program, even if the nation does not buy the aircraft.

“I believe those suppliers are part of the team, I don’t see any reason why they would not continue to be part of the team whether Canada [buys jets] or not,” Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for acquisition, told reporters here during a ceremony to celebrate the roll out of Norway’s first F-35. “We make our decisions on participation based on best value, and if Canadian firms are still best value, then they will be part of the program.”

The question of whether Canada will buy the F-35 to replace its aging fighter jets will be decided by the outcome of the country’s federal election on Oct. 19. Canada is weighing whether to move ahead with a planned 65-aircraft F-35 purchase, or hold a competition.

The decision has been the subject of heated debate over the past few weeks, with Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau recently vowing to scrap the multibillion dollar F-35 purchase if he is elected.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shot down this proposal Monday, saying it would “crater” Canada’s aerospace sector. The Tory leader, who is seeking his fourth mandate, pointed to hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts awarded to the country’s aerospace industry since 1997 to help develop the F-35, adding that these suppliers stand to lose billions more.

"The Liberal Party is living in a dream world if they think we could pull out of the development of the F-35 and not lose business," Harper said.

But questions about the incumbent government’s commitment to the F-35 program remain. The Conservative Party, which has been in power for the last nine years and had originally committed Canada to purchase the F-35, has not yet outlined how the acquisition will proceed. In December 2012, the Conservative government announced it would put the program on hold after facing questions over its skyrocketing cost. That acquisition process has yet to restart.

The other contenders to replace Canada’s fleet of CF-18 fighter jets are the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Dassault Rafale and Boeing’s Super Hornet.

Kendall said Tuesday he is hopeful Canada will decide to move forward with the planned buy, which is estimated at CAN $44.8 billion (US$33.8 billion).

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

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