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A Canadian Forces pilot has his picture taken in front of a F-35 Strike Fighter mock-up before a news conference in Ottawa on July 16, 2010.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Harper government has committed to buying a fleet of $140-million-a-pop fighter jets at the outset of an era of austerity, sparking questions about whether post-Cold-War Canada still needs pricey cutting-edge airpower.

Marched in to a military band, Defence Minister Peter MacKay touted the new fleet of next-generation F-35s, fitted with stealth technology, state-of-the-art operating systems and super-secure communications, as the "best" that Canadian pilots need to defend the country's sovereignty and fight in missions abroad.

But the price tag for 65 planes - $9-billion to buy them, and an estimated $16-billion when a maintenance contract is completed - has heightened questions about whether they are really crucial to Canada's future military needs.

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With no Soviet Union across the North Pole, critics say the Conservative government has yet to demonstrate a strategic need for fighters.

"There is a whole lot of bells and whistles on the F-35 that they don't really need," said Michael Wallace, a University of British Columbia defence and international relations professor. "It's basically a Cold War upgrade, and the Cold War is over, so there's nobody it's really useful against."

The F-35 Lightning II jets, developed by a cartel of nine nations led by the United States and including Canada, are the first "fifth-generation" fighter planes that U.S. allies can buy.

The announcement of one of the biggest military equipment purchases in recent Canadian history is symbolically at odds with the Conservatives' planned five-year round of budget cutting to start next year.

Government ministers emphasized the potential economic benefits of the contract: By buying into a massive allied fighter program worth more than $400-billion, Ottawa enables Canadian companies to bid on subcontracts from manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

Controversially, the Harper government did not ask for other bids, saying Canada needs the same high-tech fighter that the United States and its allies will fly.

"There are a large number of our allies who are moving in the direction of purchasing this same aircraft," Mr. MacKay said. "There is a need to be current, combat-capable and inter-operable."

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He outlined the general purpose for the fighters: to "defend the sovereignty" of Canadian airspace, remain a reliable North American defence partner for the United States and take part in international military operations. But he didn't say what kind of threat Canada might be up against.

One Conservative said privately that the jets are in part a statement about protecting Canada's Arctic sovereignty. And the United States might question Canada's role in the NORAD alliance if it did not have modern fighters - the U.S. military is buying more than 2,000 F-35s.

There are other questions: Some military analysts wonder whether Canada will ever need fighter airpower in a conflict against an opposing air force. Fighters are less effective against the kind of insurgency Canadian troops are battling in Afghanistan, which some analysts believe will be the pattern of future conflicts.

Some argue that the F-35 is too much plane for Canada's real needs. Michael Wallace, a University of British Columbia defence and international relations professor, said the life of the existing CF-18s, expected to wear out between 2017 and 2020, could be extended by replacing their airframes.

But other analysts insist that's short-sighted: Canada needs a fast-flying interception plane to secure its airspace, and the F-35 is really the only option other than old technology. The only other real alternative - although too bold for Canada - would be to wait a few years for unmanned drone fighters to be feasible, he said.

Carleton University political scientist Elinor Sloan, a former Defence Department analyst, said fighters still play a fundamental role: preserving Canadian sovereignty by protecting its airspace from foreign incursions over the Arctic, or shooting down a hijacked plane.

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In 2007, flush with money from high oil prices, Russia resumed regular air exercises in the name of protecting its own Arctic sovereignty.

"There's that North American air defence mission that continues on. It's arguably more important since 9/11," Prof. Sloan said. "Also, there's an increased Russian bomber activity ... so that mission is coming back."

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