OTTAWA - The Defence Department has joined the Harper government in questioning the credibility of the parliamentary budget officer's report on the costs of stealth jet fighter program.

A top military official said Thursday the cost of buying 65 high-tech fighters would be about $15 billion over 20 years, including maintenance costs.

That differs from the recent report of PBO Kevin Page that pegged the entire cost to taxpayers at $22.6 billion over 20 years.

Page has been a thorn in the side of the Conservative government. His fighter jet assessment was criticized by Laurie Hawn, the junior defence minister, who called it speculative and illogical.

Dan Ross, a Defence Department assistant deputy, said Thursday the military has requested a meeting with Page's office to discuss his figures.

Ross told a briefing at Defence Department headquarters in Ottawa that the PBO made a "mathematical error" in calculating the unit cost of the planes, and that its maintenance numbers were off too. His briefing was augmented by an array of slides, and documentation that was distributed to journalists.

The fighter jet purchase is expected to be an incendiary issue if the country is plunged into a federal election in the coming weeks.

The Liberals say they would cancel the purchase of the jets and hold a competition to replace the air force's aging fleet of CF-18 fighters. They say the big ticket military purchase is ill-timed with the government facing a $54 billion deficit, and Canadian families stretched because of the recession.

Ross's briefing came as the Harper government faces a tumultuous week in the House of Commons, where it could be defeated on its next budget or other opposition motions.

Ross said he was not questioning the integrity of the latest Page report. But that didn't stop him from taking a few understated shots at his report.

On at least two occasions, Ross off-handedly said that some of Page's calculations were based on a paper by "a Czech academic."

In his report, Page noted that he had trouble getting answers from the Defence Department.

"The PBO sought clarification from DND on the methodology employed, the data, and the desired confidence interval that form the basis of the government's costing figures. DND confirmed that such analysis has not yet been undertaken," he wrote.

Asked to explain the apparent lack of co-operation by the military, Ross said: "The PBO gave us a list of questions ... We replied to them with a pretty detailed list of answers. And I don't recall being asked to explain or methodology either in their questions or in response to the information that we sent back to them. There wasn't an opportunity to actually meet with them face to face and discuss the details of either their methodology or ours."

Ross said the military was in touch with the PBO earlier in the week, and that there was interest in meeting to discuss the jet procurement.

In his report, Page said the total price tag for the 65 high-tech fighters could reach $29.3 billion if maintenance costs are extended over 30 years to cover the full, expected service life of the aircraft.

Page said that the government was not being transparent in its cost estimates to Canadians.

The political battle over the stealth fighters mirrors a similar dust up in the early 1990s when the Jean Chretien Liberals campaigned against the Conservative government's EH-101 helicopter purchase. Chretien cancelled the helicopter contract, paying $500 million to get out of the deal, when he won power in 1993 ending a two terms of majority Conservative government.