Combat cutbacks: Conservatives target the military budget -

Combat cutbacks: Conservatives target the military budget

John Geddes takes a close look at the Conservative brand and defence spending

Combat cutbacks: Conservatives target the military budget

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Back when Canada’s military was deploying waves of combat troops to Afghanistan, top officers would often talk about the demanding “operational tempo.” In those days, the tempo of political events designed to highlight enthusiastic Conservative support for the troops was pretty brisk, too. Soon after winning power in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood before soldiers mustered on the air field in Kandahar to pledge that “cutting and running is not my way.” In 2008, Harper used a Halifax drill hall as the backdrop for unveiling his 20-year, $490-billion Canada First Defence Strategy, promising, among other things, new ships, helicopters, planes and armoured vehicles. In 2010, Defence Minister Peter MacKay climbed into a model of a Lockheed Martin F-35 in Ottawa to announce the government’s commitment to buy 65 of the advanced fighter jets.

But the once heady atmosphere around Canada’s expanding military has turned subdued and anxious. The troops withdrew from combat in Kandahar in 2011, and their follow-up mission to train the Afghan army is slated to wrap up next year, with Afghanistan’s stability still in grave doubt. The buoyant years of rapidly ramping up spending ended when the 2012 budget imposed three years of cuts; another squeeze is among the most anticipated items in the 2013 budget expected late this month. As for all that new hardware, not only is the widely criticized F-35 buy being reconsidered, much of the program to upgrade equipment is plagued by delays and questions about the real costs.

Asked by Maclean’s how the Tories hope to maintain their image as unswervingly pro-military, MacKay suggested the investments of those former years outweigh the current and coming restraint. “I would put it this way—we’ve put a lot in the bag,” he said.

Indeed, the Harper government hiked annual Department of National Defence spending to $22.8 billion for 2011-12, up from $15 billion when it took office in 2005-06. As the additional billions flowed, backing the forces became a pillar of Conservative election messaging. Along with spending heavily, the Tories made strategic symbolic moves, notably by bringing back the word “royal”— as in Royal Canadian Air Force—four decades after the adjective binding Canada’s military heritage to British tradition was erased by the Liberal government of the day.

Even that nostalgia play, though, might not inoculate the Conservatives against criticism. David Perry, a doctoral fellow at Carleton University’s Centre for Security and Defence Studies, has analyzed the cuts and says they are already biting deeper than is widely understood. And he says the next round of decisions about where to find even more savings is bound to put new stress on military and bureaucratic planners.

Perry’s fine-grained analysis starts by setting aside the major parts of defence spending that are, at least in theory, protected from cuts. Last year’s fiscal plan called for more than $1 billion a year to be cut from the defence department’s overall budget of more than $20 billion by 2014-15. That doesn’t seem so tough. But the Conservatives pledged to do that while keeping up the troop strength of the Canadian Forces, at about 68,000 regular members and 27,000 in the reserves, and also protecting most planned capital spending. According to Perry, that means about $12 billion a year was deemed uncuttable—leaving all the reductions to be found somehow in the remaining $8 billion that is spent on the civilian workforce and on military “operations, maintenance and readiness.”

How hard is it to achieve those savings? The clearest indication so far came from Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin, the commander of the army, in surprising testimony he gave late last year before a Senate committee. Devlin said his land force’s operating budget has been shrunk by an eye-popping 22 per cent—a figure that doesn’t show up anywhere in publicly available defence documents. “As you would expect,” Devlin said with classic officer-class understatement, “that has an effect on people, infrastructure and training.” And he took pains to counter any suggestion that the army should be eliminating desk jobs to save field assets, stressing that administrative and head-office functions occupy only four per cent of his workforce.

But that’s just the army itself. Tough questions about National Defence’s multi-layered Ottawa operations could dominate the next round of debate about cuts. The department employs about 20,000 in the capital, from senior brass down through ordinary bureaucrats. Last June 15, Harper wrote to MacKay, in a private letter reported on by the Canadian Press and later obtained by Maclean’s, instructing him to find savings in administration. The Prime Minister’s letter said that only about 44 per cent of the defence budget is attributable to “the ready force,” and the rest to management, institutional support and services. Harper called that “a serious imbalance in our current defence organization.” He instructed MacKay to “present detailed proposals that critically examine corporate and institutional overhead with a view to avoiding budgetary reductions that impact on operational capabilities, the part-time reserves, training within Canada, and the promotion and protection of our national sovereignty.”

Harper’s letter echoed the thrust of Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie’s 2011 “transformation” report. Leslie, who has since retired, conducted an extensive study of defence spending and concluded that the department must “ruthlessly focus” on reducing its spending on outside consultants and private contractors, with the aim of redistributing resources to military units. He delivered his report two years ago. Yet the latest figures available show that the defence department’s spending on professional services and consultants continued to climb to $3.25 billion in 2011-12 from $2.77 billion in 2009-10. And that increase came after a period when head-office growth outstripped the expansion of the fighting forces. According to Leslie’s report, headquarters personnel numbers grew 40 per cent from 2004 to 2010, while the regular forces grew by just 11 per cent.

As the military struggles to absorb cuts in its operations, high-profile procurements are coming under more intense scrutiny. Doubts are growing about the defence department’s capacity to simultaneously manage all the major projects called for in the Conservatives’ ambitious 2008 strategy. As well, Perry argues that the credibility of the blueprint for re-equipping the forces is undermined by inadequate funding. “There isn’t actually enough money in the capital program both to buy everything that’s on the list and then to maintain it once it’s in service,” he says. That view gained a prominent piece of supporting evidence recently, when Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer whose tenure as a spending watchdog ends this month, released a detailed report that looks closely at just one multi-billion-dollar project—the planned acquisition of new naval supply ships.

The project goes back to 2004, when the then-Liberal government earmarked $2.1 billion to design, develop and acquire three new supply vessels. By 2009, the Conservatives realized that wasn’t nearly enough, and scaled down that project to buying just two ships, while boosting its budget to $2.6 billion. However, Page’s report, released late last month, estimated a more realistic cost for two ships of $3.3 billion. Worse, he said that, given the uncertainties surrounding this sort of military purchase, the U.S. government’s “best practice” policy suggests Ottawa should more prudently budget at least $4.1 billion for the supply ships—or about 60 per cent more than the amount currently budgeted. Why the huge gap? Page said his “best guess” is that the government is sticking with a low number to avoid confronting hard truths. “You make the requirements fit within the budget constraint,” he said.

Controversy about administrative overhead costs, complaints that cuts are already hampering troop training and readiness, doubts about the credibility of procurement plans—it’s a messy combination. Despite any misgivings, though, prominent Conservatives continue to tout their pro-military bona fides in the run-up to the 2013 budget. In a key speech to Conservatives in Ottawa earlier this month, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney capped a summing-up of what the party stands for—from law and order to entrepreneurship—by touting “pride in our Canadian armed forces and our history of military sacrifice and glory.” With the glory and sacrifice of the Kandahar mission fading into memory, the military’s new chapter is dominated by cost-cutting and recrimination. For the Harper government, saving money might turn out to be easier than safeguarding such a critical part of their political brand.


Combat cutbacks: Conservatives target the military budget

  1. In addition to cutting HQs as Leslie suggested there are other savings that should be made regardless of DND’s budget cuts:

    1) The Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships: These are simply to pretend the CF is interested in the arctic. They will be over budget and delayed, Cancel.
    2) Close Combat Vehicle: Planned while we were still in Afghanistan. Cancel.
    3) CH-47F Chinooks: 15 ordered while we were still in Afghanistan. Tremendously expensive to operate. Cut the order by 50%.

    4) Surface Combatant Ships. 15 ordered with no explanation why. The navy can get by with fewer. They will be over budget and delayed. Cut the order by five.
    5) Joint Support Ship: A silly idea to put a hospital, army HQ, barracks and the fleet oil resupply ship all in one hull with only two on order. Cancel and order three fleet oilers of a proven design.
    6) Snowbirds: Any organization that claims to be getting ready for emergencies but doesn’t have enough cash must be expected to get rid of all non-operational activities. Disband.
    7) Military colleges: We have plenty of excellent universities. Close.
    8) Musical bands. see 6) Disband.

    9) Reserve pick-up truck/ G-Wagon regiments. equip with armoured vehicles or disband.
    10) Special Operations Command: Amalgamate CSOR and JTF and assign the remaining units to the army. Cancel the JTF move to Trenton. Disband the CANSOF command HQ.
    and most importantly;
    11) F-35. Remove it from consideration. Buy 65 F-18s.

    • With respect to 1, 4, and 5.. I think you might find an explanation for these in the Pentagon’s report on climate change. By the looks of it, these ships are designed to turn back basically rag-tag groups seeking to leave their devastated countries and come to ours. The Joint Support ship particularly makes for an ideal floating detainment area while we attempt to process political refugees from environmental ones.

      • DND’s analysis of military threats to the arctic found none. There are lots of places to land between us and the tropics. I doubt climate refugees would detour through our arctic. Filling the navy’s only supply ship with refugees probably isn’t prudent.

        Law enforcement at sea should be the job of the Coast Guard & RCMP. The CG will have all the real icebreakers in any event.

        Th Canada First Defence Strategy has nothing to do with defending Canada. It’s simply a phrase chosen to get the folks who worry about the arctic on side with defence spending. The vast majority of the planned spending is for expeditions. The CF is so unconcerned about the north that it scaled back the arctic air base to a gravel strip and a couple of huts, the army units assigned to the north are reserve companies based in the south and the planned naval vessel- the AOPS- will at best only be able to be used in new ice.

        • Canada has the largest Coast line to defend in the world (currently we have no where near enough ships to defend it) so why is it you suggest practically leaving us with no navy capability at all .. are you from China? or do you somehow think you can just say to an aggressor hey wait a minute could you wait a couple days please while our whopping five ships that were dealing with issues in the Atlantic cruise on over to the pacific to stop you? No? I didn’t think so .. but hey People like FT Ward think its a great idea.. also 65 jets are not enough either .. a number put up (another controversy) to be able to afford the F-35.. but no where near enough for our defence.. a US General doing a study on North American Defence stated Canada would need atleast 300 air to air capable fighter jets to defend all it’s major cities in the event of a war.. The USA will worry about US skies first and foremost in any war.. the damage done to Canada is irrelevant as long as they can prevent enemy troops from staging bases here. Canada needs More Destroyers / Frigates / Corvettes / Supply Ships / Helicopter Carriers (MIstral) /Heavy Ice Capable Armed Destroyers (say 2 or 3) as opposed to pea shooting slush breaking AOPs, Canada should at the very least have a 60 ship Navy, Armed Coast Guard and atleast 100 operational fighter jets with air superiority there main duty (meaning a jet designed for Air Superiority as a priority). These days with modern technology enhanced weapons it takes years (as you’ve noticed) for any and all military procurements.. so in the event of a war you should already be prepared because all you ‘ll have to fight with is what you already have…hence the reasoning for Chinas build up… and the US maintaining a large military..

          • Our Pacific coast is 600 miles long. There is no threat to the Arctic or Atlantic. An attack on the US is an attack on us. The navy would only defend Canada in event of a general war against a nuclear and industrial power. The chances of that happening are close to zero.The navy can’t crew what it has.

            You can dream all you like about a larger military. It’s unnecessary. The public don’t want to pay for it. Canadians don’t want to join it. It’s not happening. The choices are a smaller CF that hasn’t wasted billions on gear that’s come late, is useless, or grossly over budget and has a manning table that fits our capabilities and not aspirations or a bloated bureaucracy juggling failed programs.

    • You must be stupid… Disband CANSOF… Buy more 30 year old jets. Oh sure and should we also ask China if they would like to have our country? Learn what you are talking about before you make more ignorant comments. Anyone who really knows about a military wouldn’t say this pile of shit. They’d also laugh at your suggestions. Clearly you’re a civilian who has read bias material and thinks he knows what he is talking about or you are a low ranking individual in the military who thinks that “because I’m in the military I know everything.” Stick to your day job or your pay grade.

  2. One way of cutting personnel costs is to lower and flatten the rank structure:

    1) Make the CDS a LGen
    2) Lower all other general and colonel positions to conform to the CDS. A few, such as brigade commanders, would remain at their current rank but of the 500 or so most would go down one rank. People wouldn’t be demoted. As incumbents left the rank to replace them would drop. A similar drop would occur for the PS.

    3) Increase the time in rank needed to be promoted to Captain by one year
    4) Increase the time in rank needed to be promoted to Lt by one year.

    5) Increase the time in command for regular commanding officers to three years from two.
    6) Withdraw all CF officers from NATO HQs and exchanges.

    7) Remove all Sgt Major positions above unit level.
    8) Freeze pays rates for three years. People’s pay would still go up as they added seniority or were promoted but the rates for those increases would be fixed. Most CF members get two pay raises every year. This would cut it to one.

    The result of the above is that the number of positions and courses that must be found to warehouse extra senior officers will fall and take with it many clerks and junior officer and NCO assistants. HQs could then be made smaller. The number of physical postings (which are very expensive) will fall saving tens of millions. As fewer officers are required standards can be raised at no cost.

    • I served 12 years, retired as a capt.
      I still find it difficult to understand why, in Canada, a bty/sqn/coy needs a major as OC. In the USA these units are commanded by a capt.
      In a CDN sqn of tanks commanded by a major, there are two (2) capts; the 2IC and a Battle Capt. Are these ranks necesssary? An infantry coy and artillery bty there is one capt. or with regard to the arty, I may be wrong.

      • Sub-units are supposed to be commanded by majors. In the US major is more of a staff officer rank although we have adopted their system of having the ops o of a battalion be a major- the old British system called for the ops o to be a captain so he wouldn’t outrank the company commanders and in effect become the 3 i/c.

        In the US captains are sent on the sub-unit commanders course that is normally attended by majors here but US company commanders aren’t usually staff college grads.

        Does it matter if you call the OC major or captain? Not really. The big savings are in reducing posting costs, swans and the cost of creating empires in the HQs.

        • Thank you, FT Ward – it has been far too long since I have been able to enjoy your analysis and insights. One small point overlooked, is the cost-cutting measure of culling the herd overall – the new physical fitness standard appears to be on track to eliminate quite a few personnel from the Canadian Armed Forces (sadly, returning to the Dark Ages when the ability to think was less important than the ability to run like a gazelle). The Fifth Column is alive and well – we have met the enemy, and he is us (said Pogo)

          • I wouldn’t worry about the new fitness test unless you had health problems or were a very small female and then I’d expect officers to look the other way if you were in any way good at your job or were a specialist. The standards are very low and will have been set not to represent conditions in the field but to ensure the vast majority can pass. The ability to move sandbags for just over three minutes represents…….? The ability to simulate fire and movement while wearing gym gear…..?

            The army’s Battle Fitness Test requires the member to carry 55 lbs on a 8 mile march; or 30% less than a normal rifleman would carry in the days before body armour for a couple of hours. It’s done as a group so people can be helped, doesn’t require the member to be capable of fighting on completion (you can tell when a units done it as its lines will be filled with people shuffling around in running shoes because their feet hurt) and blind eyes are turned for failures.

            The CF isn’t really serious about fitness. My evidence is 1) the CF stopped testing recruits for fitness with the provision that if they weren’t able to keep up on co-ed, tri-service recruit training they’d do extra PT and 2) CF members stand out for obesity whenever compared to any other NATO force. I wouldn’t lose sleep if I was less fit than I perhaps want or should be.

    • last time I checked I never had one and I am maxed at rank incentive and I am qualified to be promoted but there are too many at the snco rank

      • As you say if you max out on incentives and don’t get promoted you would get only one pay raise in a normal year when the rates are increased.

        Most members either go up an incentive or get promoted annually. Some do both. If a pay rate increase is authorized a member could get three pay raises in the year- one for going up an incentive level, one for the pay rate increase to that incentive level and a third if promoted. None of this includes allowances or tax breaks that he may get on operations or for qualifying for an allowance- i.e. jump pay.

  3. The governmeny has it backwardas if they do plan to have cuts in the military budget. The cuts should be in the higher administration departments while they should support and increase the military departments for forces and equiptment etc. The ideas they have now is very wrong and does go against what Harper promised Canadians of protecting our far north and territories. This is a direct contridiction to what he has promised Canadians on protecting our Lands and Soventy etc. He had promised to increase the spending to our military and resources to be able to equipt them much more efficiently than they have had been for so many long years and made Canada an embassment to all Canadians etc and the fact that we our country has stooped so low to make the US Americans protect our far north where it is Canadas duty to do and not theirs. Yes the US has a reason to protect Canada which is also to protect themselves as well etc. Guess What? as of right now! If a missile or an attack force came from our far north, the defense mecanisms of the Americans would be blowing up right here in Canada before it reached the US. Don’t believe me! Check it out and see for yourself weather this is true or not. I know I would be pretty scared and even more scared how our government is poorly protecting our Country and Soverenty etc.

  4. An Airlifter, a 24 jets, fleet of Attack helicopters, very well outfitted troops, subs that work and high tech capability… perhaps a few Hummers which seem to last forever like. I think the list can be refined and Canada can afford to outfit our troops. Personal readiness is paramount for any deployment.