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Cooper: Who loses in the defence cuts game?

by Barry Cooper

Leader Post
May 17, 2012

Gen. Rick Hillier, former chief of defence staff, famously described the 1990s as a "decade of darkness" for the Canadian Forces. It was a time when Canada's foreign minister spoke at length and with apparent conviction about a "responsibility to protect." He and the government of which he was a member forgot about an ability to protect.

Things began to change with Paul Martin's government. Today we have a reasonably coherent strategic document, the Canada First Defence Strategy, produced by the Department of National Defence (DND).

Harper's governments have continued Martin's initiative, raising the defence budget from $10 billion in 1998 to $20 billion in 2011. Long-overdue air transports led the list of new equipment. A few weeks ago the Strathconas took delivery of the new Leopard-2 tanks, which are significantly more robust than what they used in Afghanistan a few years ago.

Equally important, the Canadian Forces have matured and grown in the unforgiving crucible of combat. Operational achievements in Afghanistan, in the Persian Gulf and in Libya have been worthy of those undertaken in Korea and in the general wars of the 20th century. Today the forces have succeeded in reminding Canadians that although the military can do many things, they must be able to fight. As a result, morale and confidence have improved beyond measure from the 1990s.

The restoration of the Canadian Forces has been one of the most important accomplishments by recent governments. Unquestionably, there is more to do, notably in the Department of Veterans Affairs and at National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ). Retired colonel Pat Stogran made the first problem public when he was the first ombudsman for vets. Retired lieutenant-general Andy Leslie brought the second problem to the attention of the government last fall. It would be useful to recall his findings.

Leslie was under no illusions. He knew as well as any Ottawa veteran that the CF/DND budget expansion after the decade of darkness would be followed by reductions in federal spending, and that both DND and the Canadian Forces would have to do their part. Recent budget cuts could not have been a surprise. He also took note of at least 15 major studies of the military since the end of the Second World War and of their typical fate in the lower drawers of filing cabinets. He even mentioned why: Recommendations were difficult to implement because they threatened the status quo. This has not changed.

Leslie's analysis was as meticulous as it was shocking. Between 2004 and 2010 the number of people in DND/CF grew by 18 per cent. The regular force grew by 11 per cent, but the number of full-time reservists at NDHQ grew by 22 per cent and the number of civilians by 33 per cent. In sum, the non-operational "tail" grew by 40 per cent; the front-line trigger-pullers — the "tooth" — by 10 per cent.

His recommendations were obvious: reduce NDHQ staff, especially civilians, consultants, and full-time reservists, but maintain expenditures on spare parts, capital and infrastructure, to maintain future effectiveness. Unfortunately, the most valuable part of the DND/CF "diarchy," namely the front-line forces, are also the most vulnerable when it comes to cuts.

We all know that Canadians do not admire the Canadian Forces because of the valiant work of tweedy, bow-tied civilian consultants at NDHQ. We also know how good bureaucrats are at protecting themselves and that their measure of success has nothing to do with military effectiveness or taking care of veterans.

This is the context within which to understand the F-35 controversy. Of course the RCAF requires an "affordable replacement" for the CF-18. The serious strategic question is this: 20 years hence, will Canadian pilots be flying an up-to-date or obsolete aircraft?

Gen. Leslie's report has provided the government with principles for decision and excellent detailed advice. They have an opportunity to act in the interest of all Canadians. Even with fiscal restraint, all it takes is leadership.

Barry Cooper is a fellow of the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute and political science professor with the University of Calgary.


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