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Defence Minister Peter MacKay speaks during a news conference at National Defence headquarters in Ottawa on Feb. 14, 2012.CHRIS WATTIE

Defence Minister Peter MacKay is affirming Canada's plan to buy a fleet of F-35 stealth fighter-jets.

He made the pledge before an audience of hundreds, including many defence industry executives, at a major military conference in Ottawa.

Mr. 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.

Controversy surrounds 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.

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

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

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

"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," Mr. MacKay said.

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

But the Defence Minister 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.