Prime Minister Stephen Harper scolded the Liberals on Friday over their criticism of the Conservatives' multibillion dollar plan to purchase 65 fighter jets from a U.S. manufacturer.

Ottawa expects to pay $9 billion for the F-35 jets, which would be delivered by 2016. With service costs, however, the price tag could jump to $16 billion.

The issue is likely to become a key divider in the next federal election, where fiscal planning is expected to figure prominently.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has said he would scrap the sole-source purchase, which would replace Canada's aging CF-18s, and open up the process to multiple bidders.

Harper took aim at the Liberals' position during an event at an aerospace facility in Montreal's West Island.

He said it was "irresponsible" of Ignatieff to consider scrapping a plan that he said will offer up to $12 billion in "benefits" for the Canadian economy.

"Contracts like this are not a political game," Harper said. "It is about lives and, as you well know, it is about jobs."

The F-35 has drawn controversy south of the border as well. The Pentagon, which is the largest purchaser of the new jets, has aired concerns over rising costs and other production problems.

In Montreal, Harper said he does not see the F-35 purchase as a potential election issue.

The prime minister has strenuously maintained he does not want an election. But he has been holding campaign-style announcements in recent days, largely in Liberal-held ridings where the Conservatives hope to gain ground.

On Thursday, Harper was at a Toronto printing plant to announce an initiative to cut red tape for small- and medium-sized businesses.

On Friday, he made two aerospace-themed stops in Quebec, which is likely to be a key battleground in the next election.

During the first stop on the West Island, Harper spoke from a blue podium with a background adorned with government Action Plan slogans.

The Conservatives hope star candidate Sen. Larry Smith, a former CFL commissioner, can win a seat in a nearby riding, allowing the Tories to break into the coveted Montreal bastion for the first time in decades.

Harper made it clear the Conservatives are pushing hard for the aerospace vote as part of their strategy to gain ground in the area.

"I do find it disappointing, I find it sad, that some in Parliament are backtracking on the F-35 and some are talking openly about cancelling the contract, should they get the chance," Harper said at the Heroux-Devtek plant in Dorval.

The company's president and CEO, Gilles Labbe, who has made several financial donations to the Conservative party recently, said that Canada should commit to the F-35 purchase immediately.

He said the purchase would mean hundreds of jobs for his firm over the next 20 years.

"The window of opportunity is open now, but it will close when the large-scale production process begins," Labbe said. "It will then be too late for Canada to join the ranks of Lockheed Martins's global supply chain."

Ten countries are participating in the F-35 development program, under which more than 3,000 of the jets are expected to be built. Canadian companies will have a chance to bid on contracts to help build the entire fleet, not just the 65 aircraft under consideration by the federal government.

Ignatieff has argued that the sole-sourced contract wasn't a good deal for Canadians and in the long run, will cost much more than the original quote.

Earlier this week, officials from two European companies told the Commons defence committee that their firms could also produce planes that would meet the strategic needs of the Canadian military.

But the Conservatives counter that only Lockheed Martin makes a fighter that will do the job.

It was a previous Liberal government that signed a memorandum of understanding with Lockheed Martin to develop the fighter, though it didn't commit Canada to buying the jets.

The government says it has invested $168 million in the Joint Strike Fighter program, which has resulted in over $350 million in contracts to Canadian companies.

On Friday, Harper vowed he wouldn't let the Liberals do a repeat of 1993, when a newly elected Liberal government cancelled a contract to replace Canada's Sea King helicopter. The move eventually cost $500 million in cancellation fees.

With files from The Canadian Press