TORONTO (AP) -- The Canadian government said Friday it will spend $8.5 billion to purchase a new wave of fighter jets from U.S. aerospace giant Lockheed Martin Corp.
The deal to purchase 65 F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter jets marks one of the biggest military equipment purchases in the country's history, said Defense Minister Peter MacKay.
MacKay said the new jets would replace the Air Force's aging fleet of CF-18s that recently underwent a $2.4 billion upgrade. The planes will be 40 years old when they need another upgrade in 2020.
"We need to ensure our fighter-aircraft fleet remains the best in the world to meet the threats of the 21st century," said MacKay at a news conference where he spoke in front of a prototype of the jet.
With delivery of the first set of jets expected by 2016, McKay said the deal will ensure Canada remains interoperable with its major allies. He added that the purchase deal costs include associated weapons, supporting infrastructure, training simulators, contingency funds and project operating costs.
"We're very pleased with the decision and are committed to supporting the government of Canada in moving forward with the F-35 Program Integration," Lockeed Martin executive vice president Tom Burbage said in a statement.
The contract is worth $8.5 billion, but the full cost could rise to as much $17 billion once the government signs a maintenance contract.
The Defense Department said the Joint Strike Fighter program is the single largest fighter aircraft program in history, funded by the United States, Canada, Turkey, Britain, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Australia and the Netherlands. The total value of the program is expected to exceed $383 billion, with production expected to top 5,000 aircraft.
Joint Strike Fighter partners are anticipated to acquire more than 3,000 aircraft, and export sales are estimated by Lockheed Martin at more than 2,000 aircraft.
Canada has invested approximately $159 million in the Joint Strike Fighter program, and Canadian companies have received $332 million in contracts, according to military reports.
MacKay said the purchase deal could lead to Canadian contracts worth up to $11 billion for the production of the aircraft over the 40-year life of the program.
"The Joint Strike Fighter program allows Canadian companies to build on existing strengths and establish strategic capabilities," said Industry Minister Tony Clement.
However, the jet purchase and the accompanying long-term maintenance plan has drawn criticism from the Liberal opposition party.
Steven Staples of the Rideau Institute, a defense think tank, said the sorry shape of the economy made this the wrong time to buy these jets.
"These are 'Flying Cadillacs' that are not needed for the defense of Canada, and are unaffordable," Staples said. "The government should wait until national finances are in better shape."