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Defence Minister Peter MacKay checks out the cockpit of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter after a military procurement announcement in Ottawa on July 16, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Defence Minister Peter MacKay checks out the cockpit of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter after a military procurement announcement in Ottawa on July 16, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Tories convert Russian-bomber incident into pitch <br/>for expensive new fighter jets Add to ...

The Conservative publicity machine scrambled into action as a common confrontation between Canadian and Russian military planes turned into a campaign for $16-billion in new fighter jets.

The story started on Wednesday when NORAD officials spotted two incoming planes, identified as Russian TU-95 long-range bombers, heading toward Labrador.

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The aircraft never entered Canadian territory, which starts 200 nautical miles outside of the land border, but they were clearly within the 300-nautical-mile "buffer zone," according to Canadian defence officials.

Two CF-18s scrambled out of CFB Bagotville, Que., and started shadowing the Russian planes about 50 nautical miles outside the Canadian territory, until they headed northeast and out of the "area of interest."

While similar incidents occur 12 to 18 times a year, a story on the confrontation appeared on Friday morning in the Sun Media chain. Within a few hours, the Conservative Party issued talking points on the matter designed to boost the Harper government's plan to buy Joint Strike Fighter F-35 fighter jets to start replacing the CF-18s in 2017.

"This incident demonstrates why it is vitally important for the Canadian Armed Forces to have the best technology and equipment available," the Conservative Party said.

The Conservatives went on to attack the Liberal opposition, which has vowed to put the purchase on hold and re-evaluate the CF-18 replacement program if it comes to power.

"Mere days ago, [Liberal Leader]Michael Ignatieff pledged to cancel the new fighter jets the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces urgently need. Embarrassingly for him, Russian bomber flights over the Arctic - just two days ago - underscore why our men and women in uniform need modern equipment to do their jobs," the Conservative talking points stated.

The Conservative parliamentary secretary for national defence, Laurie Hawn, added on his Twitter account that F-35 critics were " out to lunch."

The planned F-35 purchase is the subject of heated debate, given that the government is not opening up a tendering process to Lockheed-Martin's competitors, such as the Boeing SuperHornet and the Eurofighter Typhoon.

It was revealed this week that an official at the Department of National Defence in Ottawa was suspected of attempting to delete references to the controversy from the Wikipedia website, which is edited by users. An investigation into the use of government computers for partisan purposes has been launched at DND, although the culprit is not expected to be publicly named.

The Liberal Party on Friday applauded Ottawa's decision to send out the CF-18s, while raising questions over the publicity surrounding the incident with the Russians. The Liberals pointed out that faster two-engine fighter jets might be better equipped than the single-engine F-35 to handle such confrontations.

"The Russians have been doing these incursions routinely ... to see if we are doing our homework," said Liberal MP Marc Garneau, a former military man and astronaut.

"What I find surprising is that the Conservatives are jumping all over this. I think it's part of their plan to bring attention to their purchase of F-35s."

Defence Minister Peter MacKay was outraged at the allegation that his government is using a crisis to further its political interests.

"I find it astounding there could be any suggestion that we would manufacture Russians approaching our airspace. That's bordering on ludicrous," he said.

Mr. MacKay said the Russian airplanes had flown more than 40 hours, necessitating in-air refuelling, and had not provided advance notice of their arrival.

"This is something we haven't seen that frequently," he said.

Russia replied that the flight was a training exercise and that the aircraft didn't enter Canadian territory.

"We haven't violated Canadian airspace," said a Russian official at the embassy in Ottawa. "There is no problem here."

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