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A maintenance worker checks a U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II fighter jet at Florida's Eglin Air Force on July 14, 2011.Samuel King Jr./The Associated Press

Buying a warplane – like buying a car – is about tradeoffs: versatility, status, safety, reliability, power against cost. Yet almost lost in the raucous debate over whether the Harper government should ditch its plan to buy 65 of the soaringly expensive F-35, stealthy strike fighters – or something more certain and less expensive – is a careful examination of the type of combat missions Ottawa will really send warplanes to fight.

With $9-billion (or $16-billion, depending on who's counting) of taxpayer dollars to spend and national security at stake, the choice will define and limit Canada's air-war options for the first half of the century. Getting it wrong is far more dangerous than a Ferrari "van" for soccer moms.

While Lockheed Martin's F-35 – a so-called fifth-generation strike fighter – is far and away the best available choice for flying bombing runs against a first-rate adversary (think China) in heavily defended airspace full of missiles and modern warplanes, it would be overkill against "softer" targets like Libya.

Warplanes are staggering expensive; the first few F-35s are costing $200-million each but delivery dates and whether ramped-up volumes will knock the price way down – as hoped – remain uncertain. Cheaper alternatives may be no bargain if they can't wage future wars. Or drones may have so eclipsed manned warplanes in a decade that buying them now may be like outfitting a cavalry with new horses.

Readiness to wage the next war that Canada wants to fight is only part of the choice. Ottawa spends billions on big-ticket military purchases with an eye on votes, Canadian content and buttering up key allies as much as overwhelming combat power. The biggest bang – bombs on target, adversaries shot down – for the buck is only one consideration.

But some claims, like Defence Minister Peter MacKay's this week that interoperability with allied air forces made the F-35 the only choice, fly in the face of recent reality. More than a dozen different types of warplanes from nine NATO nations flew a tightly co-ordinated, seven-month air war against Libya this year. Interoperability wasn't a problem. And the United States didn't even bother to deploy its newest warplane – the F-22, which is even more capable that the F-35 – because it wasn't needed.

Mission: Deep strike

Best choice: F-35 is perhaps the only choice for future deep-strike, full-combat operations

Example: Bombing Iran's nuclear sites or a full-blown war

Precedent: Canadian warplanes haven't engaged in aerial combat or bombed well-defended targets since the Second World War.

Options: Russia is developing, and India is buying, the Sukhoi T-50, but the program is as "iffy" as the F-35, it might be more expensive and it would lack the interoperability advantages of a U.S.-built fighter-bomber.

Mission: Bombing "easy" targets

Best choice: Upgraded F-18s. Good enough for the U.S. navy and the Australian air force, the newer version of Canada's existing warplanes costs less and can fly all but the most difficult missions. Israel has declared a willingness to fly deep-strike bombing missions against heavily defended Iranian nuclear sites with fighter-bombers developed more than a decade ago, albeit not quite as old as Canada's CF-18s.

Example: Attacks or air support of ground troops in uncontested skies against weakened adversaries

Precedent: Libya, Bosnia, even Canada's involvement in the first Persian Gulf war against Iraq in 1991 was limited to flying missions in relatively "safe" airspace, after the air-defence missiles and warplanes had been destroyed by U.S. strikes.

Options: Upgraded versions of modern, multi-role strike-fighters such as the F-15, the mainstay of the American, Israeli and Saudi air forces, are available and in production. Although non-stealthy, they are vastly superior to Canada's aging F-18s and better than the warplanes being flown by any likely adversary.

Mission: Defending Canada's cities

Best choice: Any modern fighter is more than good enough to intercept, divert and, if necessary, shoot down a hijacked airliner. Canada's gaping hole in its defence of major cities isn't the warplane, it's where they are based. Currently, U.S. fighters in upstate New York, Washington and Vermont offer the only real rapid response

Example: In the event of a Sept. 11, 2001-type terrorist attack – with hijackers turning a fuel-laden jetliner into a suicide-guided missile – Canada's air force offers almost no chance of defending Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, nor most smaller cities. Canada's aging CF-18 warplanes are based in remote Alberta and northern Quebec, too far away for timely response.

Precedent: No serious manned-bomber air threat against Canada has existed since the Soviet Union shifted to ballistic missiles for its long-range strike capacity. The once-routine, now rare "probes" by Russian long-range (and propeller-driver) "Bear aircraft" pose no military threat and require the most basic interceptor craft.

Options: Even small jet fighter-trainers, like the Bombardier-owned T-155 Hawks used to train Canadian fighter pilots, would make effective, inexpensive interceptors to protect Canadian cities at a fraction of the cost of a full-combat aircraft.

Mission: Sovereignty patrol

Best choice: Drones make sense. A pair of Global Hawks flying 24-hour missions could fly from Victoria to Halifax, skirting Canada's Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic coastlines. Sovereignty patrols are more about knowing what's going on than showing up for a couple of weeks a year with a handful of warplanes.

Example: Usually associated with the iconic photos of Canadian fighters intercepting Russian "Bears," the reality is that Auroras, aging patrol aircraft originally designed for anti-submarine warfare, fly the bulk of "sovereignty" patrols. Less glamorous but far more effective than deploying four F-18s for a few weeks to Inuvik

Precedent: None

Alternatives: Despite the debate, neither F-35s nor any other manned fighter-bomber alternative is needed for routine, long-distance patrols.