Cutting size of military could be on the table for Harper government


OTTAWA – When Gen. Tom Lawson was sworn in as the country’s top military commander, he was explicitly told the Harper government did not want to see the Canadian Forces reduced in size or capability in the name of saving money.

Fast forward a year, however, and the uncomfortable notion of cutting the ranks of uniform members is something the Harper government could well be grappling with next month as it reviews an updated defence strategy.

“It is always an option, but the direction has not been given to us yet,” Lawson said Tuesday following a speech to the Canadian Club in Ottawa.

“You have to provide all kinds of optionality to the government when affordability is an issue.”

Faced with an appropriations budget that could shrink by up to $2.5 billion by 2014, Lawson has been engaged in a tightrope act of finding the savings demanded by a deficit-minded government while still preserving the military’s ability to respond to unforeseen crisis.

He was directed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to focus his cuts on overhead and a headquarters administration described as bloated in a benchmark 2011 report.

But defence experts, as well as one of Lawson’s predecessors, have been unanimous in their assessment that the fiscal targets laid out by the Conservatives cannot be met without reducing some of the 68,000 full-time and 27,000 part-time members of military — or giving up some ships, planes or tanks.

Harper’s original instructions could be re-examined as it looks at an updated version of the Canada First Defence Strategy, a refreshed policy that lays out expectations for the military and what equipment it needs to do the job.

Lawson said everything he has done with his staff has been built around keeping the force at its current size.

“Certainly the government has not indicated a desire to cut numbers. We will see in this review if that is one of the things they un-pin,” he said.

“Everything I will be doing with the leadership team will be looking to find these efficiencies; to ensure that we are affordable, and if we cut personnel, really to do it minimally.”

But retired general Rick Hillier, a former chief of defence staff, said last month that the budget targets set out by the government could not be reached without reducing numbers in the military.

“If we do this right, we can still have an agile force, we can still have a superbly trained force and we can still have a force capable in this era of threats,” Hillier told CTV in an interview.

“But it’s going to be smaller, you just can’t get around it.”

Without reducing the size of the Forces, Hillier said the cuts will come to training and operations budgets. He estimated that a full-time force of about 50,000 could be the end result.

Cutting the number of uniformed members could be political poison for the Conservatives, who rode to election victory in 2006 promising to increase the full-time strength to 75,000 members and 35,000 reserves, figures they have never come close to during their time in office.

Retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, whose report on transformation two years ago laid out a blueprint for cuts at National Defence, said the uniformed ranks can be reduced, but those cuts need to be made selectively among the rear echelon.

“If you are talking numbers that relate to operational capability — young men and women who go to sea, who fly, who support the aircraft and the army — those shouldn’t be lumped (in),” Leslie said.

“I think the government direction to the Armed Forces has been clear… To quote the prime minister, ‘Don’t cut teeth, cut tail.'”

Leslie is now planning to run for the federal Liberals in the next election.

Early last month, the Harper government rolled out a signature initiative called defence renewal, the aim of which was to save the department $1.2 billion through a combination of reorganizations and belt-tightening — money that would be reinvested within the institution.

During the briefing senior defence acknowledged that some civilian defence employees could lose their jobs, but said it would be irresponsible to speculate on numbers.

Filed under:

Cutting size of military could be on the table for Harper government

  1. If it comes to a choice between guns and butter, and the Harper Government has promised the voters butter, in the form of boutique tax cuts, we all know how this will turn out. The income splitting promise to families with kids under 18 will cost $4 billion a year, a sizable chunk of the DND budget.

  2. Would the CF be better off with fewer and smaller HQs run by fewer generals? Would it have higher readiness with fewer but larger units? If yes to either then cuts should be made regardless of budget problems or windfalls.

    DND is currently organized to provide not combat power or even mobilization potential but jobs for senior officers and civilians. The current combination of huge HR expenses coupled with a large capital budget that is low-balled will result in chaos unless the personnel costs of DND are cut sooner rather than later. The coming fighter and frigate replacement debacles will make the so-called “decade of darkness” look like good times.

    A start would be to reduce the rank of the CDS to LGen with corresponding drops for all senior positions down to army “division” commanders and to recall all of the senior people we have assigned to NATO. Another step would be to lengthen the tours of command of regular units to three years from two. These two steps would reduce the number of staff positions drastically as generals would not “need” staffs to command and excess colonels would not need to be found jobs to fill. Amalgamating the regular armoured and infantry units into permanent battle groups would result in hundreds of senior jobs disappearing without removing a single bit of combat power and increasing readiness. CANSOFCOM should be disbanded and it’s units assigned to the army and or operations command. I’m sure similar savings if not more can be found in the air force and navy.

    • I’m fully onside with the targeting of DND’s contractual obligations. From a RCAF perspective, the amalgamation of units would be difficult, as this strategy has already been employed, and there is little left to squeeze. For instance, single operational fighter Sqns at each of only two bases, and platform-unique Sqns at all bases. Further, the minimization of our alliance commitments has already begun, and I’d suggest significantly limits our interoperability – if you don’t train to it, you don’t do it. In today’s operational climate, this is a bad idea if Canada hopes to remain involved, and therefore influential. Relatedly, the rank reduction idea would not have a strictly in-house effect on payrolls, again affecting our relations with other nations’ uniformed services. From having been posted with and deployed to joint units, our force structure is not at all top-heavy in comparison to our allies, and already is disadvantageous to our influence. This is not the place to cut – nor the “tail” that Harper mentions.

      Frankly, with budgets having expanded perhaps too quickly over the last decade, the force has become fat not within the ranks, but on the civilian/contractor side. We all know that the massive HR budget increase has not been dedicated to the regular force, neither by troop increases nor salary increases. The explosion in this budget alone drives imbalance, and should be the first place to look for further savings – especially given that, of the over 10% cut to the DND budget over the last two years, very little has come from this slice of the pie.

      • This entire argument amounts to ‘oh what would the neighbours say?’ Who cares. The Yanks are too busy trying to save what they can from the Obama wave of social spending that is coming .I do agree with the reduction on the civilian side of DND but will 9 deputy ministers ever propose to reduce their empires? Its time for the Winston solution of WW2 . He ordered a 40% reduction in Bomber command HQ and those left over soon had 1000 Bombers with full crews over Germany. Harper should do the same thing but more importantly spell out exactly the military power we should procure ,train and support .Make it a Sesame Street exercise for the taxpaying public. How many fighters Army units and Naval vessels. Period .Let the retired Brass golf on their dime .

Sign in to comment.