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Two F-35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), fighter aircraft are seen as they arrive at Edwards Air Force Base in California in this May 2010 file photograph.

HANDOUT/Reuters

The Conservative government is right to make a fresh start on Canada's future fighter jets, having at least implicitly admitted that the proposed purchase of F-35s would have been a huge extravagance: almost $45-billion over 42 years.

The talk of a "reset button" from both Peter Mackay, the Minister of Defence, and Rona Ambrose, the Minister of Public Works, is not really informative, however. The Conservatives have yet to explain adequately why they did not choose a competitive process on how to replace the CF-18 Hornet fighter jets in the first place. Nor have they given a satisfactory account of why what was announced as a $9-billion project in July, 2010 – plus maintenance – would turn out to be so enormously more expensive.

For the foreseeable future, Canada may need to do without aircraft with full stealth capability, though the government's latest pronouncements do not explicitly exclude some F-35s. Some shopping around and diversification appear to be the order of the day. It will be very hard for the Department of National Defence to make up for lost time; the CF-18s, which the F-35s were intended to replace, originally were assigned a life expectancy set to expire in 2003. For nine years, then, the CF-18s have been functioning after their best-before date.

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Nonetheless, the citizens of Canada should take some coldish comfort in the fact that their government has not actually spent and wasted $45-billion, though the process itself has so far cost about $362.5-million.

The moral of the story may be that the government was in too much of a hurry, thinking it would be easy to leap aboard an American megaproject. The upshot has been long delay. Time having passed, the U.S. government itself (now peeking over a fiscal cliff) may not buy as many F-35s as was expected a decade ago. It all evokes an ancient Greek proverb, "Make haste, slowly."

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