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National politicians in Canada have become involved in a row over government computers being used to amend the Wikipedia page describing the controversial F-35 stealth fighter, which the Canadian government intends to buy.

Canada's Conservative government intends to spend as much as CAN$18bn buying F-35s. The jet is manufactured mainly in the United States, but has industrial participation from partner nations. It features stealth and other advanced technologies, and in the US forces is intended to be an affordable counterpart to the F-22 Raptor ultrafighter, purchased in limited numbers primarily for the purpose of wresting control of the skies from powerful enemy air forces. The Raptor is not being offered for export.

The F-35, by contrast, was always meant to be exported to US allies and is intended to focus primarily on ground attack duties - though makers Lockheed say that it will be second only to the Raptor as an air-to-air fighter, a claim hotly disputed by other manufacturers.

The "affordable" stealth jet is the subject of acrimonious debate in the aerospace community worldwide, the more so as its development has been delayed and prices for early deliveries are climbing. The low costs offered by economies of scale - the F-35 will supposedly be ordered in the thousands by the US forces alone, which ought to drive down unit prices - may not appear for decades, if at all.

In most prospective F-35 purchaser nations there is intense argument for and against the plane, and Canada is no exception. Following the classic profile seen elsewhere, the Canadian government want to buy the jet and the Liberal opposition consider it to be overpriced.

The Wikipedia aspect of the row rose to prominence last month when criticism of the Canadian F-35 buy was repeatedly removed from the jet's wiki page and insulting remarks about Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff added - apparently from IP addresses registered to Canada's Department of National Defence. Addresses registered to Defence Research Development Canada (DRDC) computers in Ottawa and at Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake in Alberta appear in the Wiki edit trail.

One edit suggested that a Canadian critic of the F-35 is "an idiot ... must be a socialist", another that Ignatieff is "referred to affectionately as ... Icky". Wikipedia also at one stage stated that Ignatieff "has six toes on each foot".

The Wikipedia F-35 saga popped up in the mainstream Canadian media last week, with Ignatieff and other F-35 critics saying that it offered cast-iron evidence that the government was attempting to suppress free debate. Meanwhile the pro-stealthfighter Wikipedians were ruthlessly suppressed by keen fellow-fiddlers, with the page locked down to unregistered editing at one point.

Canadian defence spokespersons deplored the matter and stated that the perpetrators of the naughty edits will be hunted down.

The F-35 controversy continues to rage in other nations, with the F-35B jumpjet version intended for the UK forces making slow progress in flight testing. With the UK defence budget already under extreme pressure even before last week's decision by the Treasury not to supply extra funds for renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent, Blighty's F-35 purchase may now be in peril.

The Sunday Times reported at the weekend that the Royal Navy is seriously considering altering the design of its new carriers to include catapults and arrester wires, allowing the purchase of much cheaper F-18 Hornet tailhook fighters in place of F-35B stealth jumpjets. ®

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