Canada opposition NDP says would keep F-35 in race for new jets

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s opposition New Democrats on Monday defended Lockheed Martin Corp’s right to try to sell Ottawa new fighter jets after a rival said he would not buy the company’s F-35 plane if he won the Oct. 19 election.

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair makes a point during the Globe and Mail Leaders Debate in Calgary, Alberta September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Sturk

Canada’s tortuous and controversial effort to replace its aging CF-18 fighters has run into repeated problems and is now part of a tight election race between the ruling Conservatives and the New Democrats and Liberals, both on the center-left.

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair made his comments backing the U.S. company one day after Justin Trudeau of the Liberals said he would not buy the F-35 jet, which has been hit by cost overruns.

“When he says things like that, he’s just showing his total lack of experience. That’s not the way these things work,” Mulcair told reporters.

“How can he decide the result in advance without a process?”

Mulcair said an NDP government would define quickly what was needed and start a competition to buy new jets rapidly.

The Conservatives announced an agreement in principle in 2010 to buy 65 F-35 jets, but abandoned the plan in 2012 after a probe found officials had deliberately downplayed the costs and risks of the deal.

Ottawa set up a new process, but it is well behind schedule. The four contenders are the F-35, Boeing Co’s F-18 E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Aviation SA’s Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon - jointly made by BAE Systems PLC, Finmeccanica SpA and Airbus Group.

Lockheed spokesman Michael Rein said the company remained convinced that the F-35 was the best solution for Canada.

“We continue to work with the Canadian government on their F-35 program,” Rein said during a tour of the company’s F-35 plant in Fort Worth, Texas. “We stand ready to support the Canadian government through their decision process.”

Separate from the question of which fighter wins is the Canadian government’s participation in the development of the F-35 jets.

In return for hundreds of millions of dollars of money from Ottawa, Canadian companies won many contracts to work on the plane. It is not clear what effect a decision not to buy the F-35 would have on that work.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters on Monday that Trudeau’s actions would help wreck the domestic aerospace industry.

Asked on Monday to explain why an open competition could not include the F-35, Trudeau said it would cost “tens of billions of dollars more than what is necessary for Canada’s air force.”

Trudeau also named Saab AB’s Gripen as a potential contender, even though the Swedish firm had already effectively ruled itself out of the current competition. A Saab spokesman in Stockholm declined to comment.

Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa, Johan Ahlander in Stockholm and Andrea Shalal in Fort Worth, Texas; Editing by Jonathan Oatis