OTTAWA - Money being cut from National Defence will inevitably slice into the Canadian military's ability to carry out sustained missions at home and abroad, a defence expert says.
A new set of estimates tabled this week in Parliament, ahead of the federal budget, suggest all three branches will feel the pain of austerity in something known as "readiness."
That's the amount of money the Defence Department spends to keep soldiers, sailors and aircrew, as well as their equipment and vehicles, trained and ready to deploy to trouble spots in Canada and around the world.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper made clear in a pointed letter to Defence Minister Peter MacKay last year he wanted readiness preserved and more attention paid to cutting administration, or "the tail."
Harper reinforced the message at the induction of the country's new defence chief last fall, telling Gen. Tom Lawson he must aim for "more teeth and less tail" and to "ensure administrative burdens are reduced and resources freed up for the front line."
But this week's spending projections, which could change when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty delivers his budget in a few weeks, show as much as $1 billion out of a possible total of $2.3 billion in cuts will come out of military readiness.
Overall defence is set to lose more than 10 per cent of its budget this year, but defence sources said the impact on individual branches will be much deeper.
The army could lose as much as 22 per cent of its spending power and the navy faces a reduction of between 17 and 20 per cent, said well-informed sources.
The air force faces a slightly smaller reduction.
More cuts are expected next year as a series overseas commitments come to an end, and the government has not budgeted for new ones.
Defence expert Dave Perry, who conducted a groundbreaking analysis last fall of the impact the Conservative austerity drive on the military, said the balance of planned cuts does not reflect what the prime minister ordered.
In the House of Commons on Tuesday, MacKay defended the government's record of investing in the military.
"Let me inject a little reality into the House," he said.
"In fact, the Conservative government has seen increases of roughly 34 per cent in the defence budget since 2005-06. Let us roll the clock back when this member was part of the (Liberal) government that presided over a decade of darkness, that saw the Canadian Forces rusted out."
He didn't address the details of impending cuts, but has noted in several speeches defence intends to do its part to rein in the deficit.
A spokeswoman for MacKay added late Tuesday that reductions have been expected.
"With the return to a more (regular) operational tempo after the end of our combat mission in Afghanistan, our spending levels will naturally be reduced," said Paloma Aguilar in an email.
But the cumulative effect of the reductions, as they are currently laid out, will be felt on the country's ability to sustain missions once they're ordered, Perry said.
An initial force could go into the field for a few months, but less high-level training and preparation means that extended commitments, like the Kandahar mission, would be almost impossible to organize.
The country would be back to the state it was early in the Afghan war, where it could only join Allied missions for six months at a time, Perry said.
The cuts to the front line are approaching the severity of ones made 20 years ago under both Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien's governments, he added.
"The pace of reduction during this round of austerity started three years ago, is roughly comparable to what it was in the early 90s," said Perry, a defence researcher at Carleton University and the Conference of Defence Associations.
When adjusted for inflation, the Canadian military shrank by almost 30 per cent during the last round of cuts.
He said the cuts will need to extend into next year's budget to surpass the so-called decade of darkness, the term Conservatives use to describe Liberal treatment of the military.
Reductions in the 1990s were made over longer period and the compressed, tighter timelines of the Harper government's agenda will bite, Perry added.
"It's hard to make an exact comparison, but this looks like a significant amount of money coming out over a shorter period of time."
He's not surprised defence is expected to make up over half the anticipated cuts in the 2013 budget.
"It's really hard to balance the books unless you cut DND, or unless you are prepared to be absolutely ruthless with cuts to every other discretionary department," Perry said.