Canada on Monday said it would retire almost half the planes in its air force for cost reasons but denied critics’ accusations that this would slash the number of patrols designed to maintain sovereignty over the country’s enormous coastline.
Air force spokesman Captain Darren Steele said the total number of active aircraft and helicopters would be cut from around 500 to just 280.
But he said many of the planes being scrapped were obsolescent training aircraft which the air force would replace by leasing more modern equivalents.
“The air force is going to have to make do with less. A lot of it is related to the budget. It’s a question of affordability,” he told Reuters.
He said the number of frontline CF-18 fighters would be reduced from 125 to 80 to help pay for the modernization of the jet planes. The fleet of Aurora long-distance patrol planes will be cut from 21 to 16.
“What we are doing is investing in and modernizing and upgrading our air force,” Defence Minister Art Eggleton told Parliament.
“The upgrades that will go in terms of the CF-18s will make them among the best, most effective fighting equipment in the world,” he said.
Eggleton denied the cuts would pose a threat to the already hard-pressed Auroras, which are responsible for detecting illegal fishing, ships smuggling refugees, as well as maintaining Canadian sovereignty.
“We will continue to meet all our obligations in terms of the protection of this country and in terms of patrol and surveillance of our coastal waters,” he said.
But this did little to satisfy opposition members of Parliament, who said the cuts would force Canada to rely more on help from the United States.
“How can the minister of defence justify such reckless cuts that will leave us with very little coastal patrols to defend against illegal fishing, illegal refugees coming in and environmental hazards?” asked Elsie Wayne of the minority Conservatives.
“The cuts to our air force will virtually leave our coastlines unprotected while forcing us to rely heavily on the United States. How can this minister defend actions that so clearly threaten the independence of our country?”
Eggleton denied the cuts would imperil Canada’s sovereignty, saying that although the Aurora fleet’s annual flying hours would be reduced from 11,000 to 8,000 by 2004, improved training methods meant no patrol time would be lost.
Steele said the cuts included a massive reduction in the number of antiquated Canadair CT 114 Tutor training jets, which will drop from 136 planes to just 17.
The air force will replace them by leasing more modern propeller powered Harvard planes made by U.S. defence contractor Raytheon Co and Hawk jets made by Canadian firm Bombardier Inc.
“The cuts will be offset by different technology coming into play with more efficient aircraft,” he said.