Harper government poised to roll out renewed defence plan

OTTAWA – The decision to combine three military headquarters as part of a massive budget-cutting exercise could mean savings of up to $18 million annually, says one of the country’s top commanders.

How that will be reflected in the overall bottom line at National Defence remains to be seen, however.

It has been a year since the amalgamation took place and the joint operations command was created.

Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, who is in charge of the combined headquarters, says when stacked against the three commands it replaced, the new organization has saved the department about 25 per cent.

The amalgamation was at the centre of recommendations made two years by retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, who wanted to see an axe taken to the bloated headquarters structure in Ottawa which had been built up during the Afghan war.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Beare said the new organization is leaner, with about 500 military and civilian staff, down from 675 bodies required to run the three previous units.

The numbers are the first clear snapshot of how the defence department, which is the biggest single discretionary line item in the federal budget, has gone about the business of trying to slash $2.5 billion from its overall spending.

It is expected to achieve those savings by 2014-15.

The shakeup saw the country’s overseas command, domestic command, and support services headquarters merged into one group known as Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC).

Beare’s comments comes ahead of a planned announcement Monday when the Harper government is expected to roll out what insiders are describing as a renewed defence plan.

Beare declared the reorganization a success, but downplayed the savings, choosing instead to highlight efficiency gains.

“It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the mission,” said Beare. “We’ve done all this change without skipping a beat in terms of the home front guarantee, without stubbing our toe on international and current operations while we adapt to the world around us that is changing.

“There’s an efficiency and structure, but there’s an effectiveness that we are able to deliver because we’ve unified the commands for all operations as opposed to being competitive for the same resource.”

Whenever regional task forces, in Halifax, Esquimalt, B.C. and elsewhere, call for direction or support in Ottawa they now only have to deal with one person instead of three, Beare added.

The Harper government has thus far committed to keeping the size of the full-time military at around 68,000, meaning those cut in the headquarters shakeup have been reassigned.

Leslie’s report recommended they be sent to front-line units, and not absorbed by other National Defence commands in Ottawa.

Defence expert Dave Perry said the question of where the reallocated military staff went is important.

“It’s a savings to the organization if they were reassigned to front-line units,” said Perry, a Carleton University researcher who has written extensively on defence budgets for the Conference of Defence Associations.

He says defence will find it difficult to meet its budget targets without shrinking the size of the forces, especially since the government doesn’t appear ready to give up any capabilities, such as ships or aircraft.

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