Lockheed Martin The Defence Department kept Parliament in the dark about spiralling problems with the multibillion-dollar plan to buy a new fleet of stealth jet fighters, the auditor general has concluded in a report destined to become political dynamite. A Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is shown in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO- Lockheed Martin

OTTAWA— Canada should not commit to buying new stealth fighter jets until its own military pilots can test them in open competition, says a defence procurement expert critical of the F-35 program.

“Use your own pilots and when they have comments about the airplanes, listen to them. We don’t do that in my country, and we’re paying through the nose because of that, both in terms of cost and combat capability,” said Winslow Wheeler, a former U.S. defence procurement auditor.

He argued it would be foolish to commit to purchasing the F-35 aircraft until they are done being tested and developed seven years from now.

“Anybody, including my country, who buys this airplane before then, is a fool because you don’t know what you’re getting in terms of performance,” said Wheeler, who noted the next-generation fighter jet is only 25 per cent of the way through its flight test program and already needs millions of dollars in modifications. “And you don’t know what you’re getting in terms of cost.”

A government source said Canadian pilots have flown the F-35 flight simulator extensively.

The long-time critic of the controversial F-35 program was one of four experts to appear on Parliament Hill on Tuesday before a panel of four New Democrat MPs.

Auditor General Michael Fergus released a scathing report in April, which concluded a plan to purchase F-35 fighter jets would cost $10 billion more than the defence department had publicly acknowledged.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded by freezing the budget for the purchase and removing the responsibility for the procurement process from the defence department, giving it to a new secretariat within Public Works and Government Services.

“We will ensure that we have full confidence in the numbers before any decision to proceed is taken,” Chris McCluskey, spokesman for Associate Defence Minister Bernard Valcourt, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Philippe Lagassé, assistant professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, urged both the Conservative government and the opposition to look beyond the cost of purchasing the F-35 jets and set a national defence policy to determine how they should be used.

“Make that clear. Tell Canadians. Tell Parliament. Why do we need this aircraft and what will it do? And from there we can have a discussion about whether it’s worth the cost,” Lagassé told reporters after the meeting. “Because if you simply address the cost issue without the why question, you’re not arriving at a clear understanding of what it is you are buying this aircraft for and whether it is worth the cost.”

Jack Harris, the NDP defence critic, said the summer meeting was a way to keep the issue alive and the public informed, even if the majority Conservative government will likely manage to succeed in ending the Commons public account committee’s investigation into the auditor general’s findings this fall.

“We believe in democracy. We are doing our job as parliamentarians to take this debate to the people of the country,” Harris told reporters after the meeting. “I don’t give up on democracy between elections.”

The NDP said it invited the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries, several former high-ranking Canadian military officials and Boeing to participate in the meeting but all declined.

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