OTTAWA — Manitoba has billions of dollars at stake as the federal Liberals promise not to purchase a fleet of F-35 fighter jets if they form the next government.
Bristol Aerospace is performing the bulk of the work on horizontal tail assemblies for one of the three versions of the Lockheed Martin high-tech stealth warplane.
Bristol, a division of Magellan Aerospace, has a 138,000-square-foot plant on Berry Street in Winnipeg built specifically to handle production of the tail assemblies, the LiftFan vane box assemblies on another version as well as 100 smaller parts.
The Winnipeg contract could be worth $2 billion to the company over two decades and employ about 300 people for a generation. In 2013, there were 100 workers dedicated to the F-35 out of the estimated 700 who work at Bristol in Winnipeg. The company received $60 million in loans from the provincial and federal governments to allow it to compete for F-35 work, and the plant has upgraded with new laser inspection equipment and precision milling machines.
Bristol Aerospace did not make anyone available to speak to the Free Press Monday. The plant has continued to work on the contract despite Canada backing away from buying the F-35s in 2012 while it studied other options.
In 2010, the Harper government announced plans to buy a fleet of 65 F-35s, but cost concerns got in the way.
In 2013, Bristol general manager Don Boitson said if Canada didn't proceed with buying the F-35s, it could be "significant."
It's not clear whether Bristol's contract is contingent on Canada buying the planes, nor whether orders would be diminished if Canada's initial plan to buy 65 planes doesn't go ahead.
Canada was one of eight countries in the development of the F-35, and only companies from those countries could bid for the work.
Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux, who is running for re-election in Winnipeg North, stands by his leader's announcement not to buy the F-35s. He said as a former member of the Air Command of the Armed Forces, he has never been a fan of the F-35. However in 2012, when the federal auditor general slammed the Department of National Defence for failings in assessing the cost of the new planes and hiding information from the government, Lamoureux said Winnipeggers working on the F-35 contract might be nervous.
"There are, no doubt, some nervous employees at Bristol today," Lamoureux told the Free Press in April 2012.
He said Monday he thinks the key is to make a decision on what planes to buy so the work can begin to ensure Winnipeg's aerospace industry does not get shut out the way it was in 1986 when the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney decided to give the CF-18 maintenance contract to a Quebec firm despite Winnipeg's superior and cheaper bid.
— Mia Rabson
Updated on Tuesday, September 22, 2015 at 9:48 AM CDT: Corrects reference to Bristol, a division of Magellan Aerospace