OTTAWA - At least $1.4 billion is expected to be carved out of spending at National Defence in the coming fiscal year, but a longtime critic says some politically-motivated programs should not survive Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's budget axe.
The coming March 29 budget is expected to see $19.8 billion set aside for the military, a seven per cent decrease compared with last year's defence spending plan, according to preliminary federal estimates.
And those forecasts do not reflect the five or 10 per cent reductions the Conservatives have asked all federal departments to deliver.
Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, the former chair of the senate defence and security committee, said if the Harper government wants to make appropriate defence cuts it would look at its pet project of Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships.
The $4.3 billion program was established to build between six and eight light naval icebreakers — slated to be the first military vessels constructed in Halifax under the recently announced national shipbuilding plan.
Expected to be in the range of 6,000 tonnes each, the ships when completed around 2014-15 will operate in the Arctic for up to eight months a year.
"They're just a dumb idea," said Kenny. "They don't break ice and they go 16 knots and that's slower than a fishing boat."
The Arctic ships are the compromise result of the 2006 Conservative election promise to build military icebreakers to enforce Canada's Arctic sovereignty. Initially, the plan was to build three heavily-armed ships capable of cutting through multi-year ice.
A series of budget and design adjustments turned the project into lightly-armed ships that break through only one-year-old ice, a fact which has prompted critics to label them "slush breakers."
Kenny said, with budget reductions underway, the money would be better spent fast-tracking the replacement of the country's nearly 40-year-old flagship command destroyers, as the Navy intended to do before the government saddled it with the Arctic ships.
A spokesman for Defence Minister Peter MacKay declined to comment on the senator's arguments Wednesday.
A spokesman for Julian Fantino, the associate defence minister, said the patrol ships are a key element of not only the government's Arctic strategy, but for the economy.
"Our strategy will result in the creation of thousands of new jobs and billions in economic growth in cities and communities across Canada," said Chris McCluskey in an emailed response.
"This job-creating investment will improve the stability of Canada’s shipbuilding industry, and provide vital equipment for our men and women in uniform."
The commander of the Royal Canadian Navy said in a recent interview the flagship destroyers will operate as long as they are needed, but documents released under access to information laws show the Navy is facing a crunch in the availability of ships in the coming years.
Not replacing the Iroquois class warships soon imperils the Navy's ability to put Canadian task forces to sea, meaning the country's naval contingents would have to be commanded by other nations.
Finding crews for the Arctic ships is also straining already thin ranks.
"The Navy has reduced in size," said the Navy's 2010 strategic assessment, which was released late last year. "There is now a steadily increasing strategic risk to both our operational output in the coming years as well as the Navy's institutional capabilities.
"In the next five years, the personnel demands associated with the introduction and sustainment of (Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships), the Orca class and modest Maritime Security requirements necessitate an increase in the Navy's overall establishment."
Kenny says there is a need to show the flag in the Arctic.
"The government could get the same political bang by putting money into a (coast guard) icebreaker or two, and that would actually be something useful for sovereignty," he said.
Research done by Kenny's office shows that the coast guard could get between three and four heavy icebreakers for the amount of money being put into the patrol ships.
Testifying before the all-party House of Commons defence committee earlier this week, MacKay acknowledged that the end of the war in Afghanistan means an era of "belt tightening" has arrived in his department.
"We also recognize our responsibility to carefully manage public funds and to contribute to the overall fiscal health of the entire government and to be responsible to taxpayers," he said.
"We are taking the opportunity to examine our structure and our processes, and to integrate that which we have learned in Afghanistan to streamline operations, to make the Canadian Forces more efficient and effective, and so we get the greatest overall effort from Canada and the greatest benefits for Canadian taxpayers."
The budget estimate does give the military an operating bump of $333 million, but that increase is offset by reductions in other expenses.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version wrongly identified the associate defence minister's spokesman