F-35 fighter jet purchase both alive and dead as Conservatives consider new options

F-35 Lightning II planes arrive at Edwards Air Force Base in California in this May 2010 file photo.
The Conservative government's controversial and increasingly expensive plan to purchase scores of F-35 fighter jets did its best impression of Schrödinger's cat on Friday: It was simultaneously cancelled and not cancelled, depending on one's state of mind.

The Globe and Mail was reporting that, after claiming for years that the only way Canada could replace its aging CF-18 fighter jets was to move forward with a plan to buy cool new gear from Lockheed Martin, the Conservative government has blinked.

The newspaper suggested the government was set to consider alternative options after being faced with yet another report claiming a vastly-higher than expected price tag for the purchase.

[ Related: Stealth fighter fever grips Ottawa as Tories see new F-35 figures ]

A separate report from CBC had the Prime Minister's Office assuring that the F-35 deal has not been abandoned, but the government was apparently conceding they would consider alternative fighter jets.

Whereupon they were once "ears plugged and eyes closed" to other options, this should be considered a significant change of tact on the controversial purchase.

Here's the quick refresher on the whole affair.

Two years ago, the Conservatives announced the purchase of 65 F-35 planes at a cost of $9 billion and were roundly criticized for not seeking competitive bids for the contract.

Since then, reports from the parliamentary budget officer and auditor general have placed the cost of those planes at a minimum of $25 billion.

Reports suggest that an audit to be released by the government next week will place the price tag at about $40 billion over the course of the plane's expected lifespan.

The Globe reports that the government's analysis of alternatives to the F-35 purchase will be vetted by four independent monitors, at least one of whom has been critical of the government's original plan.

Via the Globe:

To demonstrate that they are restarting the procurement process from scratch, Canadian officials will collect information from other plane manufacturers, including U.S.-based Boeing, maker of the Super-Hornet, and the consortium behind the Eurofighter Typhoon. They may also contact Sweden's Saab, manufacturer of the Gripen, and France's Dassault, maker of the Rafale.

The government's willingness to change its mind in the face of years of criticism and humiliation is admirable, but it doesn't make up for it coming to the original decision without considering other options, or stubbornly standing behind it as cost estimates ballooned.

The government had maintained that Lockheed Martin's F-35 stealth fighters were the only acceptable replacement for the retiring CF-18s. That was rebuked by Gen. Tom Lawson, chief of the defence staff, last week.

The Liberals, aggressively opposed to the purchase since its inception, accused the Conservatives of hiding the true cost of the F-35 fighter jet purchase. On Friday, Liberal Leader Bob Rae accused MacKay of essentially working as a double-agent for manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

In a statement, Rae said:

This failure falls squarely on the shoulders of the Minister of Defence whose incompetence is inexcusable. He acted as spokesman-in-chief for Lockheed-Martin for two years, while the Conservatives knowingly misled taxpayers. Canadians have lost all confidence in this Minister and he must resign.

At the time of publication MacKay had not resigned, and one would hope that Rae isn't holding his breath on that point.

[ Related: MacKay under fire over ballooning costs of F-35 program, urged to quit ]

But the government seems to have accepted some fault by agreeing to reconsider its plan. They could still elect to stick with the purchase F-35s but at least they are making a show of it.