02/20/2014 03:16 EST | Updated 04/22/2014 05:59 EDT

Sharing among allies new normal in age of austerity, says Brit defence chief

OTTAWA - Britain's top military commander says leaner defence budgets are here to stay and allied nations will likely find themselves sharing resources in ways they may not have done in the past.

Much like his Canadian counterpart, Gen. Sir Nick Houghton has been grappling with drastic budget cuts that will see the size of the British regular force reduced by 20,000 members over the next six years.

Most of the cuts will affect the army, but the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force will also feel the pain. At the same time, Britain will increase the size of its reserves.

The Harper government's most recent budget left the Canadian military's bottom line alone, but shifted $3.1 billion of capital spending off to sometime in the future. National Defence has already been through recent cuts that took upwards of $2.1 billion out of an annual $20-billion appropriation.

At the moment, Canada has not moved to cut the size of either its regular or reserve force.

The Pentagon, too, has faced cuts through sequestration when U.S. lawmakers failed to agree on how to tackle Washington's tide of red ink.

"I sense that austerity will be an enduring factor, not just a passing one," Houghton told The Canadian Press in an interview Thursday during the Conference of Defence Associations annual forum in Ottawa.

Defence analysts have echoed that thought, suggesting that in order to finance costly election promises as the 2015 campaign draws near, the Harper government will not be restoring earlier military funding levels any time soon.

The circumstances are different in London, where the Ministry of Defence oversees a larger force, one replete with expensive aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines.

Houghton warned in speeches last year that while the British military has excellent equipment, there needs to be a better balance of manning and recruiting in order for the keep the cuts from hollowing out the force.

The reality of smaller defence budgets means that instead of each nation having everything it needs for international missions, countries will be forced to share resources, such as drones, aircraft and transports.

"Our ability to genuinely get into partnerships that pool and share capability should be a model for the future," Houghton said.

"There is still an awful lot of sovereign protectionism about not wanting to seriously — as it were — get into bed with other nations and genuinely share capability."

Sharing capabilities is a line NATO has been pushing, and Canadians are familiar with it.

In Afghanistan, Canadian troops were forced to hitch rides on U.S., British and Dutch battlefield helicopters until the Harper government provided them with their own. Until C-17 transports were procured, transport planes were often rented.

Canada has, in fact, moved away from the notion of sharing by quitting two NATO programs where drone and ground surveillance resources are pooled, as well as the organization's airborne early warning program, known as AWACs.

Both measures were straight budget cuts.

It is that sort of inconsistency that the Conference of Defence Associations takes aim at in a no-holds-barred assessment released in advance of its forum, which concludes Friday.

"Fiscal pressures are leading to cuts to defence, based more on the balance sheet than on what a nation wishes to do in the world," said the report's authors George Petrolekas and Ferry de Kerckhove.

"For Canada, cuts to capability, delay or elimination of procurements, or reduction in readiness are imposed without the benefit of a foreign policy and defence review to articulate our national interests."

The Harper Conservatives have been sitting on a rewritten defence strategy since the late fall.

Decisions, such as the cancellation of the $2-billion close combat vehicle program, are already being guided by the document. Yet, there's no indication when the strategy will be released for public assessment.

The government's position borders on delinquency, the association warned.

"This is deeply troubling. Absent an articulated vision of its role in the world, and the provision of the right means to achieve it, Canada risks doing little and mattering even less in world affairs."