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Finnish Defence Minister: Pre-election talk of trimming fighter plane fleet "irresponsible"

Minister Jussi Niinistö responded to news that four of out nine parliamentary party leaders would not rule out cutting the Finnish Air Force to fewer than 64 jets.

Defence Minister Jussi Niinistö appeared on Yle's morning talk show on 19 January. Image: Yle

In a Saturday morning television appearance, Defence Minister Jussi Niinistö criticized results of a fresh pre-election Yle survey of parliamentary party leaders in which the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Left Alliance, Greens and Finns Party leaders said they would be willing to entertain the idea of cutting fighter plane numbers.

"Pretty surprising information, especially when you consider that the Finns Party has joined with the red-green opposition. This is about whether we are interested in defending our country or not. If we cut the number of fighter planes at our disposal, then we need to start haggling over which areas are most in need of defence. This is irresponsible politics, in my opinion," he said on Yle's Ykkösaamu programme.

Finland's fleet of Hornet fighter planes will soon come to the end of its service life, and replacing all 64 of them in the next decade is expected to cost the Finnish state upwards of 10 billion euros, when lifetime service and maintenance costs are included. The Defence Forces has already started the bidding process, with the aim to replace the entire fleet.

Largest opposition party: Nothing written in stone

Party leaders responded to an Yle survey question asking "Can Finland procure fewer fighter jets than the tender request amount of 64?" Representatives of the Greens, SDP, Left Alliance and Finns Party answered 'Yes', while party chairs from the Centre Party, the National Coalition Party (NCP), Blue Reform, Swedish People's Party (SPP) and the Christian Democrats said 'No'.

"It's not about a specific number of planes, but the overall solution. The number of fighter jets to be acquired is not written in stone, as the amount will only be determined once responses to the call for tenders have been properly processed and the different options have been mapped out," said MP Sanna Marin, who stood in for SDP party chair Antti Rinne – who is recovering from pneumonia – ­in the survey.

Left Alliance Chair Li Andersson called for a critical discussion of the fleet investment, while the Greens' head Pekka Haavisto said that all options should remain on the table due to swift technological advancement.

Finns Party chair Jussi Halla-aho accompanied his 'Yes' vote with the following comment:

"Finland is a small country and our defence allocations are very limited. It is very important that we focus on our strengths and avoid any misjudgement."

Defence Minister Jussi Niinistö said in his Saturday morning interview that a fleet of 100 fighter jets would not be far-fetched in Finland, as this would be enough to ensure the continued defence of the entire country. He conceded that the additional planes would bring a considerably higher price tag, but argued that an even larger fleet would also be able to better cover possible faults and repairs.

"We are already showing restraint in our handling of the matter," he said.

Social exclusion as largest internal threat

In early January, Yle asked representatives of Finland's nine parliamentary political parties their opinions on a series of foreign and security policy questions.

Along with the fighter jet question, the party leaders were asked about their stance on NATO membership, with only the NCP's Petteri Orpo and the SPP's Anna-Maja Henriksson supporting Finland joining the military alliance. None of the nine chairs were in support of cancelling Finland's participation in sanctions against Russia.

When the party leaders were asked to name what they feel is the largest internal security threat at present in Finland, eight out of nine wrote social exclusion and inequality

Only the nationalist Finns Party chair Halla-aho penned a different reply: "The quickly growing, poorly integrated immigrant population".