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CF-18's in CFB Cold Lake, AB September 28, 2010 are line up on the tarmac before take off.

JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail/JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

The Canadian government is investigating whether it can squeeze more life out of its aging CF-18 fighters as it takes stock of decisions by cash-strapped allies to delay or trim orders for the replacement F-35 Lightning jet.

The Harper government must now decide whether there's a benefit to postponing part of Canada's order of 65 jets so that its Lightning fighter bombers are built in the same years as the bulk of orders placed by other countries – when the production cost is lower.

It's not clear now which years offer what officials call the "sweet spot" for purchases because allies including the U.S. have confirmed plans to defer orders while others such as Italy have announced they're trimming their F-35 buys.

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Canada has called a meeting of F-35 customers for early March at its Washington embassy so buyers can compare notes on what's happening to the next generation fighter program.

What is certain, however, is that Canada's CF-18s can't fly indefinitely.

The Canadian government had planned to start taking delivery of new F-35 fighter bombers in 2016 or 2017 and has publicly described 2020 as the retirement date for most of its fleet of CF-18 Hornets.

A government official with knowledge of the file said the military is now assessing whether 2020 is the absolute maximum life expectancy for the Hornets or whether there's a little bit more flying time left in the jets – planes purchased between 1984 and 1988.

Canada has already retrofitted the CF-18s in order to make them last until 2020.

Options for extending the use of CF-18s beyond that date include cutting the annual flying time allotted for each jet or further upgrading the planes.

If Canada can't keep sufficient CF-18s operating to bridge the gap, it may have to start taking delivery of planes earlier rather than later – even if the costs are higher in early years.

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The Defence Department had previously said the F-35 jets would cost about $75-million each.

Officials said if costs for 65 planes exceeded the cash allotted, Canada could reduce its order.

National Defence is now refusing to answer questions about the current price tag for the new fighters. Twice in the last two days, Defence Department officials have ignored requests to confirm the cost of the F-35s or whether the $9-billion envelope of dedicated funding contains $800-million to handle cost overruns.

"The Department of National Defence is always assessing the implications of decisions resulting from uncertain global economic realities on the Canadian Forces future readiness," Captain Alexandre Munoz said in a prepared statement.

Julian Fantino, the associate minister for defence, has also ducked price tag questions recently, telling CBC-TV on Feb. 14, that "these are things that are evolving," giving the impression that Canada is now open to changing its order.

"We all know that the economic reality of the day is certainly vastly different from when we started back on this project in 1997," the minister said. "It would be ludicrous, I believe, for us to say that under no circumstances are we not prepared to discuss, to reconsider or consider."

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