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Conservatives hit 'reset button' on plan to buy 65 fighter jets

Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Industry Minister Tony Clement walk past a mock-up of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter after announcing the Conservative government's plan to purchase 65 of the stealth jets in Ottawa on July 16, 2010.

Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Harper government is starting anew on its multibillion-dollar fighter-jet purchase.

"We're pressing the reset button," a senior government official said on Wednesday.

The need for fresh thinking on the state-of-the-art aircraft acquisition has been made loud and clear by this week's hard-hitting report by the Auditor-General, which is still reverberating across the country with its findings of mismanagement and misinformation.

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The government's new strategy implies scrapping a process going back to 2006, led by the Department of National Defence and operating under the assumption that the Lockheed-Martin F-35 was the only logical choice to replace Canada's aging fleet of CF-18s.

The new team being put in place this week to oversee the purchase, dubbed the next-generation fighter-jet secretariat in government circles, will seek to mimic the strategy used in last year's successful awarding of $33-billion in shipbuilding contracts. The secretariat will be led by officials at Public Works and Government Services Canada, the same department that was kept out of the loop for four years on the purchase. It will also include officials from DND, Finance, Industry, the Privy Council and Treasury Board.

Under opposition attack in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Defence Minister Peter MacKay acknowledged the clear shift in the procurement strategy for the fighter jets, as well as his department's waning influence over the file.

"We will continue now, with the guidance of Public Works, to move forward with a proper acquisition process to replace the aging CF-18s," he said.

Mr. MacKay is the main target of the opposition, which is hoping that heads will roll over the controversy, but the matter is bigger than any individual. In only two days, the file has proven to be embarrassing for the entire Harper government, which takes pride in its reputation of strong fiscal management and is now scrambling to find a way out of the mess.

The purchase of a new fleet of fighter jets is not only the biggest military acquisition in Canadian history, it is also one of the most complex files to ever go through Ottawa, where it was pushed by hawkish officials in the bureaucracy and political realm, until a series of technical and financial problems at lead manufacturer Lockheed-Martin brought it to the attention of Canada's spending watchdog.

The government is expected to announce new plans in the coming months on how to go about purchasing 65 fighter jets. But first, what went wrong with the original strategy, now 12 years in the making?

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Read six chapters in Canada's long, troubled history with the F-35 fighter jets here.

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