Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Is Canada's navy ready for the high seas? Nay

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The motto of the Royal Canadian Navy is Ready, aye, ready -- but internal naval documents reveal our navy is anything but.

The papers, acquired through an access-to-information request, reveal "critical positions are vacant, but staffing is at a standstill" in the navy, which has been struggling with major budget cuts and an aging and retiring workforce over the past few years.

The "core capabilities" of Canada's fleet are impaired by job cuts and mounting retirements, then-Maritime Forces Atlantic commander Rear Admiral David Gardam wrote.

It's a crisis a few years in the making.

With the end of the Afghanistan mission in sight, the Harper government began to cut military spending, which had risen dramatically, as part of its deficit reduction.

David Perry, a defence economist with the Conference of Defence Associations, found in 2013 that the $20-billion defence budget had been cut by $2.1 billion, or more than 10 per cent. Funding for the navy had fallen by 11 per cent.

And the cuts, focusing on civilians, are continuing.

In 2011, the Canadian Forces set up a study to recommend savings. Retired Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie, who commanded our troops in Afghanistan, found that while headquarters staff had grown by 46 per cent from 2004, personnel on the deployment side had increased by only 10 per cent. And some $2.7 billion was being spent each year on contractors and consultants. Lt.-Gen. Leslie recommended cutting overhead, headquarters staff and consultants and moving staff into high-priority areas.

His recommendations were not implemented, although Maritime Forces Atlantic is working on a reorganization.

But according to a 2014 research paper by the defence associations conference, the current move to improve efficiency and invest in new priorities isn't any more likely to succeed because of lack of co-ordination and continuity in leadership in the military.

The 2012 budget said the Department of National Defence would streamline contracting and centralize some functions, but it has also been saving money by not rehiring staff and cutting training exercises.

And the navy is "severely restricted," said the Gardam report, in its ability to hire civilians in areas such as procurement, warehousing, transportation and food services.

Canada has billions of dollars invested in ships and sailors, but no ship can be deployed without proper support services, often staffed by civilians, in place.

Whether it's to respond to a humanitarian crisis abroad or a call for support from an ally, we need a navy that is nimble and quick.

Ottawa should be asking DND some tough questions about the apparently shelved Leslie report and why at least some of its recommendations have not been implemented -- and DND must make sure internal cuts target waste, overhead and inefficiency rather than staff, including civilians, who are critical to deployment.

For it won't do us much good as a nation to pay the high cost of maintaining standing armed forces if they cannot, when needed, break into a run.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 15, 2014 A12

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