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The Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter is shown after it was unveiled in a ceremony in Fort Worth, Texas, in this July 7, 2006, file photo.

Ron T. Ennis/The Associated Press

Stephen Harper tried to reassure Canadians Tuesday that taxpayers won't get soaked by a rising price tag for 65 stealth fighter-bombers the Conservatives are buying from the Americans.

The Department of National Defence said this week it's been warned to expect the per-unit price of the F-35 jets might be higher than the $75-million it's been advertising to Canadians.

This follows two developments that could spell trouble for the Conservatives: a recent Pentagon report detailing rising production costs for the jets as well as leaked U.S. defence paper that suggests 30 years of maintenance costs could be three times higher than Ottawa has acknowledged.

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The Conservatives say they've built extra room for cost overruns into the $9-billion purchase price they released to Canadians last summer.

Mr. Harper, campaigning in Quebec's Eastern Townships Tuesday, said it's incorrect to match up U.S. reports with Canadian estimates. His party has long insisted Canada is immune from rising research and development costs.

"Many of these reports you are citing are comparing apples to oranges," Mr. Harper said. "Our experts have put out their detailed figures and everything we've seen is within those figures and their contingencies, the contingencies that have been allowed."

Michael Ignatieff's Liberals have vowed they would cancel the deal if they won power and instead allow open bidding to supply Canada's next warplane. The Conservatives chose the F-35 jet without allowing an open competition among suppliers.

NDP Leader Jack Layton, meanwhile, says new fighter planes are not a key defence priority right now - although he later acknowledged replacement fighters will "have to be part of the mix."

Mr. Layton has attacked the Conservatives plan to buy F-35s, arguing the costs remain unknown and appear likely to be far higher than the government's official estimates. But he was vague on what he thinks Canada needs, while suggesting that fighter jets are not crucial to what he sees as Canada's defence priorities.

A document from a Pentagon cost-analysis unit leaked to Bloomberg News, forecasts lifetime maintenance costs for the F-35s at roughly $375-million per jet.

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Calculations by Canadian Press indicate this would lead to a 30 year maintenance bill for Canada of more than $24-billion - far above Ottawa's estimates and even higher than what Parliamentary budget watchdog Kevin Page recently forecast.

The Department of National Defence forecasts maintenance costs of $7-billion over 20 years but Mr. Page says a 30-year timeline is more realistic and adds that upgrades after two decades will help push the lifetime upkeep costs to $19.5-billion.

Mr. Layton, appearing on a Montreal TV morning show, said he sees protecting Canadian sovereignty, defending the country, and responding to disasters at home and abroad as priorities for defence. "And are fighter planes key to these projects? I think probably not," Mr. Layton said.

He later told reporters that Canada's existing CF-18 fighters won't last forever, so some kind of replacement will "clearly have to be part of the mix."

Just what kind of mix the NDP prefers remains vague. The party's defence policy calls for publishing a white paper within a year to examine defence priorities, and then what equipment would be needed to meet them - rather than outlining a more detailed policy now.

"There's been this arbitrary approach, saying, 'we'll go and get the fanciest fighters available that are increasingly expensive,'" Mr. Layton said. "Nobody knows now how much they're going to cost, they may or may not have engines on them when we buy them. The maintenance costs seem to be going up. The main purchaser in the United States seem to have grave doubts about the whole program now."

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In fact, the Obama Administration remains officially committed to the F-35s, though in smaller numbers - but Congress's Government Accounting Office has warned of technical problems and projected costs that are roughly double those estimated by Canada's department of defence.

Mr. Layton said the NDP would put more emphasis on the navy, notably replacing its decrepit supply ships, needed to re-fuel Canadian warships if they are to sail as an independent task force over long distances.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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