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Strong. Proud. Ready ?

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Rob Nicholson and Peter MacKay looked cheery enough as they shared a laugh after swapping the defence and justice portfolios in a Canadian cabinet shuffle last month. Only MacKay, the new justice minister, however, had good reason to smile.

He inherits a department in which most of the Conservative government's law-and-order agenda already has been implemented and leaves one in which difficult spending cuts lie ahead.

It is Nicholson, widely seen as a capable politician, who must now choose what to cut while also wrestling with problems over orders for new fighter jets and ships.

His appointment follows those of new commanders for all three Armed Forces, so a new team is in charge of Canada's defence -- a subject especially close to the heart of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Canada is hardly alone in trying to trim its defence budget. Most of its allies, including Britain, France, Germany and the United States, are also trying to do the same with less. Since he took office in 2006, however, Harper has made support for the Armed Forces a personal trademark. He has used it to differentiate his government from its Liberal predecessors, which ushered in what the generals called "the decade of darkness," when funding was cut as part of a successful effort to eliminate the budget deficit in the 1990s.

The Conservatives set out to reverse what they claimed was neglect of the Armed Forces, pouring money into troops and equipment. Defence spending already had started to rise again in the last few years of the Liberal government, but in the first two years of a Conservative one, it shot up to $17.1 billion in 2008-09. To existing orders for support vehicles, search-and-rescue helicopters and howitzers, the Conservatives added plans to buy F-35 fighter jets for the air force, support ships and Arctic patrol vessels for the navy, a polar icebreaker for the coast guard and some transport helicopters. The opposition parties called the 2008 "Canada First" defence strategy more a shopping list than a policy.

The Conservatives also have worked to change the image of the Canadian Armed Forces from peacekeepers -- a Liberal idea -- to fighters. They celebrated military milestones. The government spent $28 million to mark the bicentenary of the War of 1812 between what was then a group of British colonies and the United States. Red Fridays, when Canadians wear red to support the troops, won political support. The image makeover was helped by the fact Canadian forces were fighting in Afghanistan and were led by a charismatic and outspoken chief of staff, Gen. Rick Hillier.

Circumstances have changed. Hillier has retired, and Canada is no longer fighting in Afghanistan, although 950 trainers will remain until next year as part of the international effort to create an Afghan army. Money is tight. The federal budget slipped back into deficit in 2008-09, and the government's determination to return to surplus before the next election in 2015 means even a favoured department such as Defence is not being spared. It lost a bit more than $2 billion in the first two rounds of government-wide cuts, and looks likely to lose as much again by 2015. The "Canada First" strategy is unaffordable, and there are mutterings about a new decade of darkness.

That need not happen. Nicholson could dig out a 2011 report on military reform commissioned by the government, which spells out how the ministry could save money yet still invest in future needs such as cyber-security and enhanced Arctic capabilities.

Its main recommendation was to cut the bloated bureaucracy at headquarters, which swelled during the years of plenty, and send officers back into the field. It also recommended reducing the amount spent on consultants, contractors and professional services, which rose 54 per cent to $2.7 billion a year, during the six-year period of review and jumped to $3.2 billion the following year. Canada's forces need to trim the "tail" in order to invest in the "teeth," says Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie, the report's author.

Defence has done almost the opposite, however. It has cut money for operations and maintenance, reducing readiness, while preserving the number of full-time troops at about 68,000 and proceeding with the procurement program, albeit with a slight delay.

Such a strategy makes sense only if full funding is restored quickly, according to defence analyst David Perry, in a paper for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, a think-tank. Otherwise the Armed Forces risk being fully equipped and, on paper, fully staffed but unable to deploy troops. Leslie says the navy already is short 900 active-duty sailors while "expensively trained naval operators are sailing their desks up and down the corridors in Ottawa."

Nicholson has given no sign that he will dust off the Leslie report. Still, the clean sweep at the top has prompted speculation Harper himself has decided to take charge.

That could be a good thing, says Jack Harris, the defence spokesman for the Opposition New Democratic Party, because the prime minister has said in the past that he wants troops in the field rather than at their desks.

With less cash, officials have fallen back on cheaper ways of reviving past military glory. Two years ago, the navy and air force inserted the word "royal" into their official names. The army plans to revert to historical titles for privates, who now become sappers, bombardiers, fusiliers or troopers.

Two weeks ago, the army adopted a new badge and a new tag line: "Strong. Proud. Ready." Canadians would not argue with the first two, but some think the third is now in doubt.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2013 A15

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