02/18/2016 12:53 EST | Updated 02/18/2017 05:12 EST

Harjit Sajjan Rules Out Cutting Size Of Military, Despite Economic Woes

National Defence is the largest single discretionary item in the federal budget.

OTTAWA — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has ruled out cutting the size of the Canadian military, despite the country's bleak economic and fiscal picture.

In fact, Sajjan says he eventually wants to see the force grow, but for now the Liberals will concentrate on filling the ranks to the existing approved levels of 68,000 full-time and 27,000 part-time soldiers.

Harjit Sajjan delivers a keynote speech to members of the Conference of Defence Associations in Ottawa, Thursday February 18. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

A recent federal report from last year's budget shows military reserves are running at roughly 20,000 paid members — about 19 per cent short of full strength.

The numbers are only slightly better for the regular forces with roughly 66,000 full-time members in uniform.

Sajjan says recruiting has slowed over the last few years and he wants to see measures stepped up so the country always has an agile, optimal force.

National Defence is the largest single discretionary item in the federal budget and previous governments — Liberal and Conservative — have often used military cuts as a way to balance the books.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have both indicated that the Liberal promise to balance the budget over four years has morphed into returning to black ink over the long-term.

Tories were urged to cut size of force

When the Conservatives were still in power, they were being urged to cut the size of the regular force by respected voices, including former defence chief and retired general Rick Hillier, who said the number of bodies could be trimmed in order to preserve sophisticated capabilities.

Sajjan says the new government's planned defence review — to be carried out this year — will look at the appropriate level of staffing.

He suggested that the exercise will not be aimed at cutting, but rather whether there is an appropriate balance between the army, navy, air force and special forces — something known as "troops to task."

The minister told the annual Conference of Defence Associations Institute meeting that the review will be completed by the end of the year, but the parameters — including public consultation — have not yet been set.

Defence analysts say that is an aggressive timetable, one that the Liberals will have a hard time meeting.

Some at the conference questioned how the government could proceed with a review when it has yet to articulate an overall national security strategy.

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