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Defence Minister Peter MacKay says the new fighter jets are 'the best that we can provide our men and women in uniform.' ((CBC))

The Canadian government said Friday it plans to spend $9 billion to purchase a new generation of fighter jets, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay told a news conference in Ottawa that the jets would be purchased from Lockheed Martin, with the first one expected for delivery by 2016

The contract, one of the biggest military equipment purchases in Canadian history, is worth $9 billion, but the full cost could rise to as much $18 billion once the government signs a maintenance contract.

'When you think purely about response times, there is nothing else that can get across the country as fast as a fighter jet.'—Mercedes Stephenson, military analyst 

MacKay said the government would make further announcements on additional costs at a later date.

The new jets would replace an aging fleet of CF-18s that recently underwent a $2.6-billion upgrade.

"This aircraft is the best that we can provide our men and women in uniform, and this government is committed to giving them the very best," MacKay said at a news conference.

Sole-source contract questioned

But the government is fending off criticism that it is making one of the biggest military purchases in Canadian history without a single competing bid.

The Liberals say the massive purchase of 65 jets should have been subjected to competitive bids.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is calling on the House of Commons defence committee to reconvene as soon as possible to examine what he calls the Tory government's "secretive, unaccountable decision to proceed with this contract."

The Liberals want the committee to question other potential bidders and procurement experts to determine whether a sole-sourced contract gives maximum value to the government and taxpayers.

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The F-35 Lightning II fighter jets set for purchase by the federal government are made by Lockheed Martin. The Liberals, however, say the purchase should have been subjected to competitive bids. ((Defence Department/Canadian Press))

"I think Canadians are amazed that the largest procurement deal in the history of the country is a single-sourced — so, it's not a competitive — deal," Ignatieff told reporters.

"We don't know whether we're getting value for money. And they're releasing it on a Friday … in the middle of July, when they think no Canadian is watching and when Parliament is not sitting."

A previous Liberal government signed a memorandum of understanding with Lockheed Martin to develop the Joint Strike Fighter but that did not commit Canada to buy the aircraft.

"I am questioning the hypocrisy which seems to soar higher than this aircraft in now criticizing purchasing the very plane that the previous government signalled very early on that they were going to do," MacKay said.

Jets 'absolutely necessary': analyst

Military analyst Mercedes Stephenson told CBC News that the purchase is "absolutely necessary."

She added: "We have to have fighter jets. Canada is a massive country, and when you think purely about response times, there is nothing else that can get across the country as fast as a fighter jet.

"Also, when you are dealing with the Arctic, there is very little that has the kind of survivability of a fighter jet in the air under those kinds of harsh conditions."

She added that the purchase is also important for Canada to meet obligations to its international allies.

"Everybody else is updating their fighter jets, and there simply hasn't been a technology developed that can replace it at this point," Stephenson said.

But the NDP argues even if Canada needs fighter jets, it's not clear it needs these particular ones.

"The issue for the Canadian defence department is, is the F-35 what we want?" said NDP MP Malcolm Allen.

Allen said the jet was built to suit the needs of U.S. forces.

"We are basically buying these for Canadian duties," he said. "New Democrats are fully supportive of the men and women in the armed forces ... but we have to decide what it is they are going to do, and we have not done that."

Allen said that a proper analysis of Canada's defence needs has not been done in 15 years.

With files from The Canadian Press