10/05/2012 04:14 EDT | Updated 12/05/2012 05:12 EST

Deficit-minded military folds three commands into one; savings uncertain

OTTAWA - One of National Defence's signature deficit-fighting measures was realized Friday with the establishment of a single command to handle domestic, overseas and support operations.

But it remains a mystery as to how much the new Canadian Joint Operational Command will contribute toward the bottom line of a department expected to cut as much as $2.5 billion over the next two years.

The single organization, based in Ottawa, replaces three separate commands set up in 2005-06 by former defence chief, retired general Rick Hillier.

The new joint commander, Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, says the old organizations required about 580 staff, but his new command will operate with roughly 450 members, making it about 25 per cent "leaner."

But most of the senior staff affected will be given field assignments or other duties, something envisioned in a benchmark report on the military written by the retired head of the army.

Beare did not indicate what the potential savings might be.

The new joint command was formally inaugurated Friday in a ceremony that mixed military tradition with modern music, including a slimmed down, tame version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

Former lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie's benchmark study concluded last year that the military was ill-served by a bloated headquarters bureaucracy and too many private contractors.

He estimated as much as $1 billion in savings could be had in a reorganization that shuffled headquarters staff back to front-line units.

Although, the Harper government has accepted the report — and in some quarters, privately cheered it — little has come out of it publicly, other than the command amalgamation, which was announced last summer.

A research paper, written by defence expert Dave Perry, was skeptical of the move.

"While this move will help staff new departmental organizations for space and cyber-warfare, it is unlikely to save any money," said the analysis, written with the support of Carleton University's Centre for Security and Defence Studies.

Conservatives poured cold water on the analysis when questioned about it this week.

Conservative Sen. Marjory LeBreton, leader of the government in the Senate, dismissed the study, saying what she reads out of universities is always taken with a grain of salt.

"Every day one group or another proclaims various things that will be happening in the government," she said.

"In this case, I saw that report. I did not find it to be credible. Everyone has their opinions on all of these things, but they turn out, more often than not, to be not even close to the facts. Obviously, the Department of National Defence, like other departments, is looking for savings."

But the government's 2011 budget was vague in how National Defence was going to meet its goals, using words like "rationalizing" and phrases like "increasing efficiency," and even "savings to be identified."

Roughly $414 million was included in those categories.

Full details of the 2012 budget cuts are not slated to be revealed until next spring.

Gen. Walt Natynczyk, the current top military commander, described the amalgamation as "historic" and the "next logical step" in the evolution of the Forces in an uncertain world.

"We have never been really good at predicting the future. We have never been able to do that," said Natynczyk who will soon hand over command to Lt.-Gen. Tom Lawson.

"Any one of the operations we've been involved with, other than the Olympics, was a surprise and that's the real world."

Beare was asked about escalating tensions between Syria and Turkey where the two nations have traded cross-border shots.

He acknowledged military planners are keeping an eye on it, but the government has not indicated its intention, and his focus remains on areas, such as Afghanistan and the Golan Heights, where Canadian troops are training and operating.