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Military muscle at risk

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Defence experts have been warning that Canada's military could soon be as moribund and hopeless as it was in the 1990s -- the "decade of darkness," as former general Rick Hillier called it -- because of the downward trend in federal spending plans over the last few years.

The Conservative government has budgeted for spending decreases over the last three years, but actual spending has remained steady at about $20 billion a year, which adds up to a decrease because of inflationary pressures.

The precise reduction in military spending this fiscal year is still unknown because the Conservatives haven't released the departmental spending plans that normally accompany budget documents, but the information will eventually be released in some form.

For now, however, it's clear the military will have to get by with less cash than in the past. The army alone, for example, has said its budget has fallen by 22 per cent.

Defence analysts say the cuts will affect the military in two areas, procurement and in what is known as operational "readiness." There will be less money for maintenance and training.

The bold plans announced by the Harper government in the past for new ships, military vehicles and airplanes have been forward-dated, meaning the planned expenses won't be made when originally scheduled. Of course it also means everything will be more expensive when, or if, the government decides to proceed, or the military could simply be told it will get less kit than originally planned, two instead of three new supply ships, for example.

Despite dire predictions of doom and gloom, however, the military is in better shape today than it was in 2001, when a single battalion of Canadian infantry landed in Afghanistan with green camouflage, no helicopters and outdated vehicles. The troops made an impression on the Americans who greeted them at the airport, but it was not of a military that was ready for action.

Defence spending then was 0.9 per cent of GDP. It rose to 1.1 per cent for several years before reaching 1.4 per cent in 2009, falling to an estimated 1.09 per cent for the current fiscal year.

Military advocates believe Canada should be spending around 1.5 per cent of GDP in order to retain a credible force, but the country's spending has been within the range of many of its allies, although not the U.S.

Every NATO country has responded to the economic decline by cutting military budgets to eliminate deficits and balance the books, but the trick is to cut the fat and the waste before striking the muscle.

In Canada's case, however, it's not clear the military is getting the biggest bang for the buck.

The Armed Forces have a long logistical tail to support the sharp end of the stick -- some 20,000 uniformed and civilian defence employees work in Ottawa alone -- while most infantry battalions are below strength. In fact, the entire military bureaucracy had a difficult time sustaining 2,000 soldiers in Afghanistan out of a total force of 68,000 regular-force personnel and 28,000 reservists.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself has complained about the high administrative overhead in the military, but the problem seems entrenched, which is frequently the case in large organizations. In 2007, the military had one officer for every three soldiers, sailors and airmen, a ratio that is hard to grasp and clearly out of whack with operational requirements, compared to one-in-five in 1964. By comparison, a 1,000-man battalion in the First World War had just 35 officers.

The government should revisit a 2011 report that said $1 billion in savings could be found through administrative cuts and reorganization. The tail needs to be cut and the teeth sharpened.

The alternative, if current trends continue, is a military that will show up at the next crisis with inadequate equipment and training, or not at all.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 1, 2013 A8

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