Fighter jet price fires up opposition

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New and even higher estimates for what Norway’s new fighter jets might cost have set off new howls of protest from the government’s opposition in Parliament. Now even the generally pro-military parties are demanding answers.

The cost of new fighter jets to replace Norway's current fleet of F16s remains highly unclear. Now government officials have inflated it by as much as NOK 90 billion, with no clear explanation. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Lars Magne Hovtun

Neither the Conservative Party nor the Progress Party would back a proposal from the Socialist Left party (SV), paradoxically a member of the government coalition, earlier this year to order a probe of the costs involved by the state Auditor General. Now they’re raising questions as well, after top military and government officials discussed prices with their counterparts in Canada, which also has been involved in the order for new jets to replace Norway’s aging F16s.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported Tuesday that the government and military are now estimating that purchase, cost and maintenance of 51 new F35 fighter jets from US defense contractor Lockheed Martin will amount to USD 40 billion over 30 years, or around NOK 235 billion. The cost estimates were revealed in transcripts of a meeting that State Secretary Roger Ingebrigtsen and Rear Admiral Arne Røksund, chairman of the fighter jet project in the Defense Ministry, had with the defense committee of the Canadian parliament last month.

At the meeting, Ingebrigtsen said in an exchange with Christine Moore of the Canadian defense committee that the budget for purchase of the jets was now USD 10 billion (around NOK 58 billion) for “51-52 jets.” He noted that was “10 billion dollars today,” cautioning that he was sure the answer could change over the next few months, “when we know more about what’s happening in the USA.” He expected the US would purchase 2,400 jets (the number will affect the price per jet, for economy of scale reasons) but over longer time, and that would “definitely” affect the price for Norway.

Figure ‘not public yet’
Røksund added that including maintenance costs over a 30-year lifetime for the jets, the cost would be USD 40 billion, or NOK 235 billion at expected exchange rates, but he cautioned that he needed to be careful, because that figure hadn’t been made public yet.

That has upset members of the Norwegian Parliament, reports Aftenposten, because the figure they’ve been given is NOK 145 billion. One member of the Progress Party accused the government of a “cover-up” on the fighter jet project.

“What I react to the most is that we have a government that’s conducting a cover-up operation, an act of war against the Parliament, by holding back information on the F35,” Jan Arild Ellingsen of the Progress Party, a member of the foreign relations and defense committee in the Norwegian Parliamant (Stortinget), told Aftenposten.

Ellingsen said it’s been “several months” since the committee was last oriented about the purchase and lifetime costs of the F35. At that time, the sum was NOK 145 billion. The comments made in Canada imply that’s since risen by a whopping NOK 90 billion, although Norwegian politicians have long complained the cost estimates vary widely.

“That’s higher than the sum the parliament here at home knows about, and that’s unacceptable,” Ellingsen said. “It’s a violation of their information obligation towards Stortinget.”

Little or unclear response
Former Defense Minister Anne-Grete Strøm Erichsen had also used a “collective lifetime cost” for the jets of NOK 145 billion in 2009, noting that it even took into account a more unfavourable price in dollars based on exchange rates.

The defense ministry didn’t want Røksund to comment further on his cost estimate, but confirmed he had been correctly cited in the committee transcript. Ingebrigtsen has responded that there are no final numbers available on costs of the jets and that Stortinget will be informed as soon as they are. He said Røksund’s sum was based on “technical adjustments” and he insisted Stortinget had been informed of them.

Ine Eriksen Søreide of the Conservative Party wasn’t impressed by the response from the defense ministry. “I can’t see how technical adjustments can result in such a big difference,” she said, adding that she was concerned it was characterized as a figure that hadn’t been made public.

“If this new figure is correct, it’s very alarming and worthy of strong criticism that it hasn’t been presented to Stortinget,” Søreide said.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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