2012 Federal Budget: Canadian Military Scrambles To Keep Equipment

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OTTAWA - The budget axe appears to be swinging unevenly throughout National Defence, with some branches and sections uncertain whether they are facing a five or 10 per cent reduction.

Specifics of what equipment will be phased out and which offices closed as a result of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's March 29 budget are now circulating through Ottawa and the various commands.

But the list is by no means complete as different sections of the military seek clarification, asking the vice chief of defence staff's office whether it is really certain it wants to proceed with specific cuts.

"There is a lot of confusion, and I mean a lot," said one official who spoke on the condition of not being named.

A second source said the commotion stems from the Harper government's myriad cost-cutting reviews and proposals that have piled onto one another.

The 2007 federal budget introduced an expenditure management system that saw departments review all their operations and trim what was unnecessary. Just as those cuts worked their way into the defence system, the government asked each department to prepare scenarios by which they could chop their budgets by either five or 10 per cent.

Last week, the Union of National Defence Employees said it was told more than 1,000 civilian positions at DND will be affected by the budget.

The sources said some of the cuts do not match the plans that were laid out.

A political source said the military was "loath to give up capabilities," such as weapons systems. There were persistent rumours that the glitch-plagued submarine fleet had been on the chopping block.

In the end, the boats stayed, but the army agreed to accelerate the phase-out of its air and anti-tank defence vehicles, which were introduced in 1989 and scheduled for replacement in 2018-19.

Published reports say the army plans to sell its stock of TOW bunker-buster missiles, which were purchased in November 2007 for $100 million, as well as cuts to base housing and recruiting centres.

Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin, the commander of the army, also said in an interview last winter that budget restraint would force the postponement of the planned purchase of a modern rocket-driven artillery system.

An internal Defence Department analysis, obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information laws and dated August 2011, shows that capital funding for a series of projects — such as replacement supply ships for the navy and fixed wing search planes — has been moved beyond 2015 when the federal budget is expected to be in balance.

A military analyst said the Defence Department was right to resist scrapping entire capabilities, unlike the cuts of the 1990s which saw the air force give up CH-47 Chinook helicopters, cut the number of CF-18 fighter jets and gut its fleet of Leopard tanks.

Once you lose a capability, "you have a helluva time catching up when you try to replace it," said Douglas Bland, a former soldier, and chair of the defence management studies group at Queen's University.

"Having said that, this isn't the Chretien era."

Holding on to "bits and pieces" of equipment and capabilities, such as airborne training and fleet diving, means the expertise is still around and can grow once budgets stop shrinking, he said.

But Philippe Lagasse, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, says the battle to hold on to various capabilities "is not over by a long shot" as the Harper government looks at budgets down the road.

He says long-term fiscal uncertainty could force the military's hand.

Bland said his biggest concern in the immediate term is the closing of recruiting centres and the government's plan to freeze the size of the military at 68,000 regular members.

During the last round of cuts, the Liberal government virtually stopped recruiting and offered buy-outs to get people out of uniform.

That led to a skill shortage, especially among pilots, a shaky training system, a demographically older military and the absence of enough staff to shepherd new equipment on to the line, Bland said.

"There is a risk now that by cutting recruiting stations, they're going to create an imbalance in the force," he added.

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