09/19/2011 11:21 EDT | Updated 11/19/2011 05:12 EST

Top soldier might repay Caribbean vacation flight, pending review

OTTAWA - Walt Natynczyk, the country's embattled defence chief, had the keys to his retirement cottage in his hands last spring when the Conservative government quietly asked him to break with tradition and serve a fourth year as Canada's top military commander.

Fast forward to Monday, when he was called on the carpet by a Conservative government that appears bent on repeatedly sending a stern message to the career soldier, who shepherded the country's Afghanistan combat mission to its close last summer.

"Some wiser soul than I will tell us who leaked what, but I have no doubt there is politics within politics," said interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae.

The furor over Natynczyk's use of the VIP Challenger jet and the hundreds of thousands of dollars associated with it comes as the Harper government prepares to ram through a series of dramatic spending cuts that will include the military.

A recent review by former Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie warned ominously that National Defence headquarters in Ottawa was especially bloated and ripe for savings.

The image of the defence chief as a high-flyer prompted Prime Minister Stephen Harper to warn last week that Natynczyk might be required to pay back the cost of a 2010 personal flight to the Caribbean island of St. Maarten, where the general joined his family on vacation.

The general, who said the Caribbean expense was authorized by Defence Minister Peter MacKay, initially refused to repay the commercial cost, but backed down Monday and submitted to a review of the expenses by the Prime Minister's Office.

"If the government, as the prime minister indicated, his office looks at the trip — and the interpretation of the Treasury Board guidelines — is incorrect, then I will reimburse as required," he said Monday.

"If I have to pay for the ticket, then I will do that."

Natynczyk met face-to-face with the prime minister and opposition critics Monday.

When the Opposition New Democrats during question period tried to broaden the Challenger spending to include all government use of the jets, Harper made a point of taking the question, which had been handled by MacKay.

The rules under which ministers use government aircraft are clear, he said.

"I've spoken with the chief of defence staff," Harper told the Commons. "He understands what those expectations are and he is prepared to live according to those rules."

Defence observers were startled by the strident tone.

"In my profession, you kind of expect loyalty upwards and downwards," said Douglas Bland, a former soldier and academic at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. "I don't know why (the government is) playing it this way."

The Tories seem to be stuck in a minority government mentality where every flashy headline requires a sledgehammer response, he said.

In contrast, both the Liberals and NDP toned down the specific attacks on Natynczyk after hearing his explanation and instead took aim at the broader question of whether the country needs to operate six Challenger jets in a time of budget hacking.

Rae pointed out that the general works a "90 hour week" and deals with enormous responsibility.

"I mean, how do we expect these guys to do this work? To me, we have to be careful not to nickel and dime ourselves to death here," he said.

NDP defence critic Jack Harris wondered whether the spending review would mean ordinary soldiers and sailors would bear the brunt of the cuts.

Natynczyk has been under fire since a CTV News report last week that claimed he'd spent some $1 million on travel aboard the government jets since being appointed to the top military post in 2008.

Passenger logs, obtained under the access-to-information law, show Natynczyk and some members of his family flew to Toronto from Ottawa for a Maple Leafs hockey game in appreciation of the military, at a cost of $23,231.

Additionally, the CTV report said nearly $400,000 was spent going to six NHL games over three years, and about $340,000 was spent going to CFL games.

"From my standpoint, all of the travel I do is commensurate with my responsibilities as chief of defence staff," Natynczyk said Monday.

The news network calculated the per hour operating cost of the Challenger at $10,105.

However, 2011-12 public accounts records list the total annual cost per hour of flying the VIP jet at $9,379. That figure includes the operating cost and the long-term, amortized expense of ground infrastructure, such as hangars and runway.

The military has argued it is not accurate to calculate flight costs using the amortized figure.

The per-hour operating cost is listed at $2,321 and the military says that figure is best representative of the expenses associated with using the Challengers.