April 2012 Commentary

Defence Cuts: The US and Canada

by J. L. Granatstein

These are not good times for the military. All across NATO, defence budgets are being slashed, ships mothballed, contracts cancelled or deferred, and troop numbers reduced. The economic crisis that grips  the European Union—and the absence of any immediate threat—is driving the cutbacks with no one, except the generals and admirals, to complain.

In Canada, the effort to reduce the deficit has resulted in a roughly $2 billion reduction in the $21 billion budget of the Department of National Defence. While troop strength in both the regular and reserve force will be maintained at 68,000 and 27,000 respectively, civilian employees will bear the brunt of the pain. And several billions of dollars in contracted purchases will be delayed up to seven years which likely means that the army’s old trucks will get even older. The Auditor-General’s devastating unravelling of the F35 debacle certainly will do nothing to reduce the pressure to cut the Canadian Forces even more.

But the biggest defence cuts of all will take place in the United States where President Obama and Defense Secretary Panetta, looking at a 2010-11 defense budget of $660 billion and a military of 1.4 million (30 times Canada’s defence budget and more than 20 times its personnel),  are intending a $1 trillion cut in defense spending over the next decade. One trillion! That puts the $2 billion chopped off the Canadian defence budget into perspective. Even if the Republicans take the White House in November, the cuts will likely proceed, though perhaps at a slower pace. That almost every member of the U.S. military seems to be an Obama-hating Republican may have some impact.

The lavish scale of the American defence complex simply boggles the mind. I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days at a mid-sized U.S. Air Force base where I was housed at the 500-room base hotel in a well-furnished and completely equipped 2-room suite for $53.25 a night. There were beers in the refrigerator for $1 each, and hard liquor for a few cents more. Had I been a serviceman taking my family on vacation (to a military base!) or one of the 800 airmen and women due to be assigned there in the near future, I could have used the kilometres of private and pristine white sand beach on the base shoreline or stored my runabout at the base marina. For those posted there, the golf course was available as was the superbly equipped new gymnasium, skeet shooting, bowling, and hunting on the base’s wooded area. My young children could get day care on the base and the teenagers could go to programs run by the youth centre. And if I wanted to finish my high school education or work toward a Master’s degree, the education services centre was there to assist.

Though it was not very far away from a good-sized tourist city, this base had all the amenities of a small town within its precincts. Fighting two wars for most of the last decade, sending its soldiers, sailors and airmen around the world on one dangerous posting after another, the U.S. military tries to keep its people happy—and re-enlisting.

How much of this will survive the coming Department of Defense budget cuts is unclear. Representatives and Senators in Congress are already lobbying and being lobbied to ensure that base closures and cutbacks fall in someone else’s state, but to find the hundreds of billions to be saved will require political determination and a sharp scalpel. Still, it is difficult to believe that the marina, the skeet shooting and the bowling alley will survive much longer.

Canadian Forces Bases are spartan by comparison, smaller in size and in the numbers of personnel they support and the amenities they can offer. Permanent Married Quarters located at CFBs are ordinarily adequate, and likely of comparable standard to that on American posts, but the strain of repeated deployments that has fallen on the members of the Canadian army, the Royal Canadian Navy, and some in the Royal Canadian Air Force doesn’t get quite the same care and attention the United States offers its uniformed personnel.

Canadians’ attitude to their soldiers has improved since the fighting in Afghanistan reminded them that their sons and daughters put their lives on the line. Stephen Harper’s government without question has been the friendliest to the Canadian Forces in more than a half-century. But in Canada and in the US, the brutal economics of government are driving the budgets. The defence  cuts are upon us, and they won’t be pretty.

J.L. Granatstein is a senior research fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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