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Military shrinks to lowest level in years – and could shrink further

by Lee Berthiaume (feat. David Perry)

Ottawa Citizen
January 26, 2016

The Canadian Armed Forces have been bleeding personnel at an increasing rate, as attrition and recruiting problems push the number of men and women in uniform down to levels not seen in years.

The numbers are likely a sign of things to come as the Liberal government moves on its promise to create a “leaner, more agile” force.

The previous Conservative government expanded the military after coming to power a decade ago, adding thousands of men and women to the ranks. After the 2009 financial crisis, the government promised to keep 68,000 full-time military members and 27,000 reservists in uniform despite billions in spending cuts.

But a Defence Department report tabled in the House of Commons this week shows a shortage of nearly 1,900 regular force members and 5,300 part-time reservists as of March 2015, thanks to higher than expected attrition and, for reservists, “challenges in meeting recruiting quotas.”

That compares with a shortage of 900 full-time military personnel and 4,500 reservists the previous year. The military has said it needs more than 4,000 new recruits each year just to offset attrition and keep 68,000 full-time troops in uniform.

The report doesn’t explain the difficulties in recruiting and retaining personnel, but the shortfall created problems, at least in the short term. Of 95 occupations in the regular forces, 24 were “stressed” – that is, understaffed – though the report said new recruits in the system would “gradually” make up the difference.

The shortage of reservists was especially acute as the part-time force has been called upon numerous times to help with missions such as Afghanistan, or in crises at home such as floods and forest fires. The shortage of army and navy reservists was cited as a particular concern.

Defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute said the numbers in the report put the Canadian Armed Forces at their smallest size since at least 2009. But rather than rushing to the rescue, the Liberal government could end up shrinking the military even more.

The Liberal government has ruled out any significant budget increases for defence. Instead, it has promised a comprehensive defence review to create the first defence white paper in more than 20 years, with a plan to making the military “leaner, more agile.”

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan confirmed Tuesday that one of the things the government will be looking at is the size of the force.

“It’s going to look not just look at the procurement, it’s going to look at our number of forces, how it connects into our global footprint,” he told reporters outside the House of Commons. “We want to make sure that the Defence Review is done in a manner that sets us ­ Canada up for the next 10, 20 years and how we fit as part of the world.”

The Conservatives were sensitive about reducing the size of the military after criticizing previous Liberal governments for doing exactly that in the 1990s. 

But the Tories’ refusal to reduce the number of personnel in uniform at the same time it was cutting billions of dollars in defence spending put a disproportionate amount of budgetary pressure on other parts of the military, including maintenance and procurement.

One former defence chief, retired general Rick Hillier, warned in 2013 that reducing the size of the military was the only way to ensure the force remained strong and stable. He said the number of full-time members should be reduced from 68,000 to 50,000.

Most analysts agree that the mandated staffing levels and planned procurement projects are unsustainable under the current defence budget.

“Something has to give,” said Perry, who has estimated that cutting the size of the force by 1,000 regular-force members would save about $105 million a year.

National Defence also reported that it was short about 2,200 civilian employees, against an authorized strength of more than 24,000. The Conservative government did not have a target for the number of civilian workers, though it did put a priority on employing those in uniform.


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