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General Walter Natynczyk, the Chief of Defence Staff, appears before a Commons committee in Ottawa on Nov. 3, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canada's top soldier says the 65 stealth fighters the government is planning to buy are the minimum number the military needs – but he hinted the back-up if jets are destroyed is that more will be for sale later.

General Walter Natynczyk, the Chief of Defence Staff, told members of the Commons defence committee Thursday that the 65 F-35 fighters the government is planning to buy "is the minimum operational essential for the needs of Canada."

He said the government's policy is not to buy "attrition aircraft" for any kind of plane – in other words, not to buy spares in case some are shot down, crash, or break. But he added that the good thing is that the next-generation aircraft will be coming off the production line in big numbers for many years.

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"I think the positive with the F-35, it's going to be built in the thousands over a long period of time," he told reporters.

Defence Minister Peter Mackay maintains the fleet of 65 jets will be enough, but military planners have expressed concerns in briefing notes about how the military will handle the gap when planes are lost.

Gen. Natynczyk didn't say how big a fleet of fighters would make the military feel comfortable that it can handle losses. He repeated that the government policy is not to buy for attrition, and that the military's focus is on getting 65 when it needs them, between 2017 and 2020.

"Sixty-five is the minimal operational requirement for us," he told the defence committee. "We need to have these aircraft both for our sovereignty of Canada and to meet our international obligations as set by the government of Canada."

The F-35 acquisition, to be the most expensive purchase of military equipment in Canadian history, is riddled with questions. Cost estimates in the United States now far exceed Ottawa's estimates that it will pay $14.7-billion to buy and maintain the planes for 20 years. Production is being delayed, a Pentagon official has urged training on the aircraft to be delayed for 10 months because it is still too risky, and both U.S. military officials and politicians have raised concerns the planes won't be affordable .

Gen. Natynczyk told the committee the problem is that there are few fighter planes on the market, and to prepare for unpredictable long-term threats, the F-35 is the best technology available – a so-called "fifth-generation" fighter with low-visibility stealth technology and control systems. And he told reporters that Canadian fighter pilots say that's what they think is the best. The plane, however, has yet to emerge from early flight testing.

The F-35s are slated to replace Canada's current fleet of about 77 CF-18 fighters – seven of which are now returning from operations in Libya.

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Attrition has been a fact of life with the CF-18s. Canada initially bought 138 of the fighters, but decided to upgrade only 80 of the remaining jets in 2001. The Defence Department expects attrition, at a rate of losing one CF-18 from the fleet every two years.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of CF-18s Canada initially purchased. This version has been corrected.

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