OTTAWA - As many as 4,800 military and civilian staff at the Department of National Defence could find themselves doing other work, training for new positions or perhaps even out of a job over the next four or five years.
It's part of a so-called defence renewal strategy unveiled Monday by the Harper government.
The plan could save as much as $1.2 billion a year by 2017-18, but the savings will be plowed back into the department to maintain readiness, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson told a media briefing.
"The intent here is not to reduce the number of regular force, reserve force or civilian employees," Nicholson said.
Rather, the goal is to rebalance the workforce and move administrative staff towards non-administrative positions at military bases across the country.
But while the plan is not meant to reduce the number of staff, senior defence officials at a technical background briefing said there could be some "individual" job losses among those who can't retrain or move.
Those officials also took pains to emphasize that the new plan is separate from the budget-cutting exercises of strategic review and the deficit reduction action plan, both of which saw the department eliminate jobs.
Those two activities combined are expected to chop $2.1 billion a year out of the $19-billion defence appropriation by the time all of the measures are fully implemented in 2014.
The Union of National Defence Employees heaped scorn on the claim that the plan was not about cutting jobs.
"We were given the same verbal assurances today as we have been given countless times in the past that this is not an exercise in reduction," said Mark Miller, a vice-president with the union, which represents 17,000 defence employees.
"However, recent history has made us pay close attention to whatever it is we're being told."
As part of its budget-cutting process, the federal government has issued notices to 1,700 federal defence workers that their jobs will be eliminated, according to union figures.
"I'll take what's been said with a grain of salt," said Miller.
Changes under the new renewal strategy will be carried out "humanely," but will "maximize the use if attrition, alternation and retraining wherever possible," background documents say.
They also say there will be "fewer managers" and that approximately half of the department's current bosses "manage too few people."
Officials would not say how many jobs at National Defence headquarters in Ottawa could be declared redundant, but documents suggest up to 1,034 staff might be affected.
Miller also said he's concerned about the fact the government has offered no details on proposed retraining of employees.
The renewal document is seen as an answer to a benchmark report two years ago by retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, who recommended slashing the bloated Ottawa-based headquarters structure that was assembled during the mission in Afghanistan.
The plan leans heavily on technology, noting that more flight training will be done in simulators and the military will use a more efficient maintenance system.
Done right, officials said, the renewal program should give the navy more sea days, the air force more flight time and the army more training days in the field.
Buried deep in the documents is a reference to divesting the department of some of its property — something former defence minister Peter MacKay alluded to last spring.
Defence experts, including retired general Rick Hillier, have said the government will not be able to meet its budget targets at National Defence without reducing the size of the regular force from its current level of about 68,000 members.
One of the big Conservative election promises in 2006 was to grow the size of the military to 75,000, a figure that was later scaled back to 70,000 and finally 68,000.
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