02/24/2012 10:16 EST | Updated 04/25/2012 05:12 EDT

F-35: Canada Will Go Ahead With Stealth Fighter Purchase, Says Peter MacKay

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OTTAWA - Canada has convened two days of international meetings in Washington next week to discuss problems around the controversial F-35 stealth fighter jet program.

The meeting comes as Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Gen. Walt Natynczyk, chief of the defence staff, both affirmed Canada's plan to buy a fleet of F-35 stealth fighter jets at a high-profile military event Friday.

Controversy has surrounded the F-35 procurement as the plane’s manufacturer, the U.S. defence giant Lockheed Martin, and the Pentagon move to restructure the program for a third time.

Canada is part of a joint effort to buy the planes along with Britain, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Italy, Turkey and Australia.

Canada has been trying to set up a meeting of partner countries in advance of a scheduled meeting with Lockheed Martin set for later in March.

A well-placed Defence Department source confirmed Friday that two days of talks are set for next Thursday and Friday in Washington. The talks are expected to take place at the Canadian Embassy.

Canada proposed the meeting "to address common issues," said the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the procurement.

Ahead of that, MacKay and Natynczyk used a major gathering of defence insiders, analysts, diplomats and business executives to reiterate the government's support to purchase a fleet of F-35 to replace Canada's aging fleet of CF-18 jetfighters.

MacKay and Natynczyk made their pledges before an audience of hundreds at a major military conference in Ottawa.

MacKay also said the Harper government won't pay a penny more than budgeted for the fleet of 65 stealth fighter jets.

"We have been clear that we will operate within that budget," he said in a speech to the Conference of Defence Associations annual meeting.

"And we will give our air men and women the best available aircraft, which I believe is the fifth-generation, F-35 Lightning II."

The comment elicited a smattering of applause.

Natynczyk said in his speech that the fighter pilots who returned from Italy after flying in the NATO mission in support of Libya told him they want to fly the F-35.

"From my perspective and from what I know, the Joint Strike Fighter is the most capable aircraft out there and represents the best value for Canada's air force," said Natynczyk.

The Harper government insists it will pay US$75 million for each aircraft, but critics say the true cost could be more than double that.

The price tag has been the subject of heated debate in Parliament, with the government sticking to its original cost estimate.

"We will make sure the Royal Canadian Air Force has the aircraft necessary to do the dangerous and important work that we ask of them," said MacKay.

With a federal budget on the horizon, the government is planning deep spending cuts to bring down the deficit.

But MacKay affirmed the government's long-term plan to spend billions on new equipment for the Forces. He touted the recent commitment to a national shipbuilding strategy that will bring decades of work to shipyards in Nova Scotia and British Columbia.

And he said the military is looking to improve its fixed-wing, search-and-rescue capability and will be looking into the use of unmanned aerial drones.

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