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NDP, Libs want more info on CF-18 deployment

NDP, Libs want more info on CF-18 deploymentA Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornet takes off from Edmonton, Canada, on July 22, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Ulan

OTTAWA - Federal opposition parties are demanding to know where the country's CF-18s are headed in eastern Europe and what they'll be doing as tension rises throughout the region.

Russia threatened on Wednesday to attack Ukraine if its "legitimate interests" were threatened during security operations ordered by Kyiv to root out anti-government protesters, and Moscow called snap military exercises in response to a U.S.-led series of troop-training exercises in the region.

Last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Canada would contribute six jetfighters to a NATO plan to reassure jittery allies in Poland and the Baltic states, but did not include details on when the aircraft would be going, where they would be based and what mission they would undertake.

New Democrat defence critic Jack Harris says the public deserves to know that basic information, given the gravity of events overseas.

"Obviously, this prime minister and this government likes to use the military for photo-ops, but that doesn't diminish the fact that we have made a commitment and so have the other allies," Harris said Wednesday.

Harris said the intent of Harper's announcement six days ago was apparently to send a clear political signal to Moscow, but there should have been a concrete proposal behind it.

"It appears not a lot of planning went into it and the announcement was just made because it suited the need of the prime minister to have an announcement on that day."

The NDP supports the deployment because it's part of Canada's international obligation and is defensive, he added.

The Liberals also agree with dispatching the jets, but wondered whether recent cuts to National Defence have in some way hobbled the military's ability.

"Canada has a vital role to play in deploying as part of the NATO effort to stabilize the situation in Eastern European for the safety and security of the citizens of our NATO partners," said defence critic Joyce Murray.

"Unfortunately all the prime minister has deployed thus far in support of this mission is words. Our allies expect concrete actions; that's what an alliance is all about.

"Perhaps what we're seeing now is the effect of the Conservative government's stealth cuts to the Canadian Armed Forces. When you slash the department's budget for equipment and readiness, it makes the deployment of Canadian assets that much more difficult."

A senior government official, speaking on background last week, said the alliance put out the call for assistance, but hadn't decided where and how to utilize Canada's contribution.

National Defence was asked Wednesday to provide an update, but a spokesman said there was none.

"We are waiting for direction from NATO on where we are needed most. No additional details are available at this time," said Dan LeBouthillier in an email.

The Canadian fighters could take part in air patrols over the Baltic Sea.

Since 2004, NATO members have taken turns sending fighter aircraft to protect the airspace over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania because they lack fighters of their own. The jets respond to any violations of Baltic airspace.

The three nations — all ex-Soviet republics — are new members of the western military alliance and since the crisis in Ukraine, Lithuania has seen Russian jets came close enough to prompt NATO to scramble jets of its own.

Poland will be in charge of the air-policing mission, starting May 1. Britain is in line to contribute four Typhoon fighters and Denmark has offered four F-16s. France has also offered four fighters that would deploy between May and August.

The CF-18s could also be directed to air patrols over Poland, which has asked for a beefed-up NATO presence.

The leading elements of a U.S. paratrooper brigade — roughly 150 soldiers — began arriving in Poland on Wednesday to take part in ground exercises, which according to American media will involve live ammunition.

Canada has committed to take part — along with other allies — in a military training exercise in Ukraine this summer, but the government has refused to spell out the size and scope of the commitment.

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