* Watchdog puts total cost at nearly C$30 billion
* Report adds fuel to election speculation
VANCOUVER, March 10 Canada's planned purchase
of 65 fighter jets will cost billions more than government has
projected, according to a report released on Thursday amid
speculation the country will soon face an election.
Opposition parties seized on Parliamentary Budget Officer
Kevin Page's report, saying it was evidence the Conservative
government was misleading voters about the multibillion-dollar
deal with Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N).
The budget watchdog's report also came a day after the
Conservatives were reprimanded for refusing to release
financial details of planned prison construction projects that
the opposition also says will cost much more than the
The budget office estimates it will cost C$29.3 billion
($30.1 billion) to build and maintain the 65 F-35 jets over the
next 30 years, a significantly higher tag than C$16 billion to
C$18 billion the government has forecast.
The planes are expected to cost C$9 billion to build, but
the budget office said after reviewing historical information
it determined the cost of maintaining the aircraft will be much
higher than the government has publicly estimated.
The government said in July it planned to buy the aircraft,
developed under the Joint Strike Fighter program, funded by the
United States, Canada, Turkey, Britain, Italy, Norway, Denmark,
Australia and the Netherlands.
The F-35s will replace Canada's CF-18s, which are due to
end their working lives in about 2020. The first of the new
aircraft would be delivered in 2016.
The main opposition Liberal Party said the report showed
the government's cost claims were "bogus," and they renewed
calls to cancel the Lockheed deal and put the fighter jet
contract out to competitive bids.
"This is an unconscionable amount of money. The
Conservatives have once again misled Canadians about the real
cost of their agenda," Liberal Dominic Leblanc told reporters
Prime Minister Stephen Harper downplayed the report, saying
he was "not going to get into the lengthy debate on the
numbers" and the F-35s was the only acceptable option to
replace the CF-18s before they become too old to maintain.
"This is the only fighter available that serves the
purposes that our air force needs," Harper said in Toronto.
Page said his office was not passing judgment on the
operational merits of the F-35.
Page also said that because Canada has not signed a
contract to buy the planes, it is not under any legal
obligation to pursue the deal if it does not want to.
The Conservative government is scheduled to present its
federal budget on March 22, and the country could be pushed
into a spring election if the legislation is voted down.
The Conservatives hold only a minority of seats in the
House of Commons and need the support of at least one of the
three opposition parties to help pass legislation. The budget
bill is always considered a matter of confidence, and its
defeat would immediately trigger an election.
(Reporting Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson)