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F-35s needed to fight alongside allies, MacKay says

Canadian Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay responds to a question during a news conference following meetings with his American and Mexican counterparts in Ottawa, Tuesday March 27, 2012.

Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada needs the F-35 fighter to take part in international air missions with allies, Defence Minister Peter MacKay argued Tuesday, as he met with a U.S. counterpart who described the costly jet as the only option for his country.

The Harper government's backing of the F-35 is proving a political handful as it prepares a budget expected to include deep cuts, including to military spending, and the development of the fighter jet has been riddled by cost overruns and technical problems.

But as Mr. MacKay met in Ottawa with counterparts from the United States and Mexico, the Defence Minister stressed it as a critical tool for Canada to participate in military missions abroad.

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U.S. Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta not only reiterated his country's commitment to the F-35 fighter, but said he feels there's no alternative. "It's the fifth-generation fighter," he said. "We absolutely need it for the future."

Mr. MacKay said it's important to have the right equipment for domestic defence, but stressed that Mr. Panetta has often emphasized the need for allies to work on interoperability – having compatible equipment to make it easier to train and fight together – citing that as a key reason to buy the F-35.

"Being able to participate internationally requires – demands – these considerations around interoperability. The F-35 is one example of that. A modern, forward-looking example of that," Mr. MacKay said.

Mr. Panetta said countries all face budget restraint, but have to meet their responsibilities – although he would not comment on specific choices. Mr. MacKay said nations around the world are having to "prioritize" their defence needs.

"It would come as no surprise to anyone here that Canada is going through that exact same process in determining what our defence needs are at home, for continental security in North America including our NORAD responsibilities, and to enable us to participate internationally, as we've seen in Libya, Kosovo and of course our ongoing efforts in Afghanistan," he said.

The Harper government has often said it needs the F-35 stealth-bomber to replace the current CF-18 fighters for domestic defence of Canadian airspace. But the chief advantages it is touted to have, in radar-evading stealth and hard-to-detect data transmission, are most useful for air-combat missions with allies abroad.

But it is still a plane in development – with technical problems outlined by the U.S. Government Accounting Office and Mr. Panetta's own Pentagon experts. Mr. Harper's government is facing questions about whether the plane will be able to meet the performance requirements that Ottawa cites to back up its case that the F-35 is the only fighter for the job.

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Those problems, and the ballooning costs, have now led Mr. Harper's government to say it hasn't made an irrevocable commitment to buy the F-35s. In 2010, Mr. MacKay announced Ottawa would buy a package of 65 planes, at $75-million each, plus a package of spare parts and equipment, but U.S. estimates of the price tag are now nearly double.

Both Mr. MacKay and Mr. Panetta argued that governments will have to be diligent to constrain costs, but said the F-35 will eventually meet the test.

"Obviously, we have to be vigilant, we have to be careful, we have to do as much oversight as possible as it continues to be developed," Mr. Panetta said. "But we remain very confident that this plane can do everything it's being asked to do in terms of performance."

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