07/14/2013 03:46 EDT | Updated 09/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Hard-won lessons of Afghan war on 'life support,' outgoing army commander warns

OTTAWA - Budget restraint and under-spending at National Defence have left some of the army's hard-won capabilities from the Afghan war on "life support," says the outgoing commander of the Canadian Army.

The federal government needs to recognize that intelligence operators are as much a part of today's front line as soldiers and tanks, said Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin, whose three-year tenure as Canada's top soldier comes to an end Thursday.

"I am unusually proud that there is an army that has been reloaded and I've spent an incredible amount of energy and effort to pay respect to the lessons that were learned with blood in Afghanistan," Devlin said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

Much of Devlin's 35-year career in the military was spent in the field in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq as an exchange officer with the U.S. Army.

But the transition from the front line to Ottawa's political trench warfare can be daunting, and Devlin's candid — but tactful — assessments of the effect of budget-slashing at National Defence have been like fingernails on a chalkboard to a government that's staked much of its reputation on embracing the military.

Before a Senate committee last December, Devlin revealed the army's baseline budget had been cut by 22 per cent and warned there was little fat to cut throughout the organization — a view that did not sit well in political circles.

It has been a scramble to maintain not only training, but elements Devlin described as the "softer skills" essential to fighting modern wars, such as intelligence, surveillance and expertise in countering improvised explosive devices.

"Some of them, to be quite frank, are on life support," he said. "Some are important; others we have had to make rough choices."

Each of those elements figured prominently in the hit-and-run war against the Taliban, and yet the army has found itself redirecting soldiers from infantry, armoured and artillery regiments in order to maintain the necessary intelligence capability.

The ranks of troops who conduct information and electronic warfare — more important than ever on the modern-day battlefield — are stretched thin, Devlin said. "The definition of what soldiers are considered the pointy end of the stick is much broader now, and I would argue that the intelligence analyst is a pointy-ended soldier today."

The army is pushing it, he said, but has "just enough" door gunners for training to man the new CH-47F Chinook helicopters, which began arriving last month.

Equipment such as surveillance balloons and electronics towers, used to keep 24-hour watch over the battlefield, are instead packed up in storage and used sparingly for training because of shrinking budgets, he added.

"If our training scenarios are not rich enough to keep those skills honed at the level they should be, it will mean we will take extra time, extra training and extra resources to bring them up to an appropriate level to represent Canada professionally — the way Canada needs to be represented — domestically or internationally."

A series of internal briefings, released to The Canadian Press over the last year, echo Devlin's concerns, including one memo that warns of possible "degradation," particularly in intelligence.

“Recent operational experience has reinforced the conviction that deployed land forces ... depend on a sophisticated (human intelligence) network that draws from all sources,” said the April 8, 2011, briefing, obtained under the Access to Information Act.

The army found itself hobbled at the beginning of the Kandahar mission in 2005, by the absence of that sophisticated ground network of sources, and by its lack of experience in interrogating prisoners.

Defence analysts have been warning for months that while the army has been able to maintain training at the highest level for quick reaction units, which are designed to deploy in a crisis, its ability to mount a sustained operation similar to the one in Afghanistan has been compromised by cuts to training and readiness.

Devlin's comments come just days after the parliamentary budget office revealed that National Defence had under-spent its budget by as much as $2.3 billion last year — bringing the cumulative total of unused funds to $9.6 billion since 2006.

The department claims some of that cash is the result of government belt-tightening in the form of strategic review and deficit reduction, which combined could carve as much as 13 per cent a year out of the defence budget.

When asked last week, the department refused to provide detailed figures. But Stephen O'Connor, the associate deputy minister of financial services, told CTV on Friday that the figures for under-spending last year were not as bad as the budget office made it seem.

O'Connor estimated the number at slightly less than $1.5 billion. "That's still a large number, we understand that, but there are reasons behind that number," he said.