Canada still keen to buy F-35s despite problems
* Air force head says firmly focused on F-35
* April report slammed Canada decision to buy jets
* Critics say Canada could end up with no fighters
By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA, May 1 (Reuters) - Canada still wants to buy F-35 fighter jets made by Lockheed Martin, the head of the air force said on Tuesday, despite an official report that blasted the way military officials selected the plane.
Canada announced in July 2010 it would buy 65 of the Joint Strike Fighters, which have been hit by a string of cost overruns and delays. Ottawa did not hold an open competition.
Last month, the government's spending watchdog said the decision to buy the jets was based on bad data from military officials who deliberately downplayed the costs and risks.
Critics say the defense ministry needs to start again and look at other planes, which could include Boeing Co's F-18 Super Hornet. But the air force commander, Lieutenant-General Andre Deschamps, made it clear that this is not an option.
"The F-35 is the aircraft that we assessed in 2010 as the platform that met our needs, all our requirements," he told the House of Commons public accounts committee as officials testified on the watchdog's report.
Asked whether this meant he was looking at other options, he replied: "Currently, from an air force perspective, we are focused on delivering the transition to the F-35."
Canada wants the new jets to replace its aging fleet of CF-18 fighters. The government last month responded to the watchdog's report by stripping the defense ministry of responsibility for the project.
Opposition legislators said the decision to stick with the F-35s could turn out to be a very expensive mistake, given the problems the plane is experiencing.
"If the F-35 is not available by the time the CF-18 is rendered obsolete, what do we do then?" Gerry Byrne of the Liberals told reporters. "We are about to engage in a C$25 billion-plus boondoggle which may not actually even fulfill our ... requirements for national defense."
Canada, which said in 2008 it would spend C$9 billion ($9.2 billion) on new fighters, initially said it would cost another C$6 billion to operate and maintain them for 20 years. Defense officials now say the total will be around C$25 billion, which includes covering the costs of fuel and pilots.
Robert Fonberg, the most senior bureaucrat at the defense ministry, said his officials had given the C$25 billion figure to cabinet. No one was immediately available in the office of Defence Minister Peter MacKay to explain why Ottawa initially referred to the C$15 billion figure.
Lockheed is developing three variants for the U.S. military and eight partner nations: Britain, Canada, Italy, Turkey, Australia, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands.
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