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Strong. Proud. Ready?


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Strong. Proud. Ready?

Stephen Harper has championed stronger defence. But impending cuts will take a toll on unreformed armed forces with more tail than teeth

BOTH Rob Nicholson and Peter MacKay looked cheery enough as they shared a laugh after swapping the defence and justice portfolios in a cabinet shuffle last month. But only Mr MacKay, the new justice minister, had good reason to smile. He inherits a department where most of the Conservative government’s law-and-order agenda has already been implemented while leaving one where difficult spending cuts lie ahead. It is Mr Nicholson, widely seen as a capable politician, who must now choose what to cut while also wrestling with problems over orders for new fighter jets and ships. His appointment follows those of new commanders for all three armed forces. So a new team is in charge of Canada’s defence—a subject especially close to the heart of Stephen Harper, the prime minister.

Canada is hardly alone in trying to trim its defence budget. Most of its allies, including the United States, Britain, France and Germany, are also trying to do the same with less. But since he took office in 2006 Mr Harper has made support for the armed forces a personal trademark. He has used it to differentiate his government from its Liberal predecessors, which ushered in what both the generals and the prime minister call “the decade of darkness”, when funding was cut as part of a successful effort to eliminate the budget deficit in the 1990s.

The Conservatives set out to reverse what they claimed was neglect of the armed forces, pouring money into troops and equipment. Defence spending had already started to rise again in the last few years of Liberal government; but in the first two years of a Conservative one it shot up to C$19.2 billion ($17.1 billion) in 2008-09 from C$15.7 billion in 2006-07. To existing orders for support vehicles, search-and-rescue helicopters and howitzers, the Conservatives added plans to buy F-35 fighter jets for the air force, support ships and Arctic patrol vessels for the navy, plus a polar icebreaker for the Coast Guard, and some transport helicopters. The opposition parties called the 2008 “Canada First” defence strategy more of a shopping list than a policy document.

The Conservatives have also worked to change the image of the Canadian armed forces from peacekeepers (a Liberal idea) to fighters. They celebrated military milestones. The government spent C$28m to mark the bicentenary of the War of 1812 between what was then a group of British colonies and the United States. Red Fridays, when Canadians wear red to support the troops, won political support. The image makeover was helped by the fact that Canadian forces were fighting in Afghanistan and were led by a charismatic and outspoken chief of the defence staff, General Rick Hillier.

Circumstances have changed. General Hillier has retired. Canada is no longer fighting in Afghanistan, although 950 trainers will remain until next year as part of the international effort to create an Afghan army. Money is tight. The federal budget slipped back into deficit in 2008-09 and the government’s determination to return to surplus before the next election in 2015 means even a favoured department like defence is not being spared. It lost just over C$2 billion in the first two rounds of government-wide spending cuts and looks likely to lose as much again as the 2015 deadline looms. The “Canada First” strategy is unaffordable and there are mutterings about a new decade of darkness.
That need not happen. Mr Nicholson could rootle out a 2011 report on military reform commissioned by the government, which spells out how the ministry could save money yet still invest in future needs such as cyber-security and enhanced Arctic capabilities. Its main recommendation was to cut the bloated bureaucracy at headquarters, which swelled during the years of plenty, and send officers back into the field. It also recommended reducing the amount spent on consultants, contractors and professional services, which rose 54% to C$2.7 billion a year during the six-year period of review (and jumped to C$3.2 billion the following year). Canada’s forces need to trim the “tail” so they can invest in the “teeth”, says Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, the report’s author.

But the defence department has done almost the opposite. It has cut money for operations and maintenance, reducing readiness, while preserving the number of full-time troops at about 68,000 and proceeding with the procurement programme, albeit with a slight delay. Such a strategy only makes sense if full funding is restored quickly, according to David Perry, a defence analyst, in a paper for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, a think-tank. Otherwise, the armed forces risk being fully equipped and, on paper, fully staffed but unable to deploy troops. Lieut-General Leslie says the navy is already short of 900 active-duty sailors while “expensively trained naval operators are sailing their desks up and down the corridors in Ottawa”.

Mr Nicholson has given no sign that he will dust off the Leslie report. Still, the wholesale clean-out at the top of the department has prompted speculation that Mr Harper himself has decided to take charge. That could be a good thing, says Jack Harris, the defence spokesman for the opposition New Democratic Party, as the prime minister has said in the past he wants troops in the field rather than at their desks. Mr Harris urges a white paper laying out a new defence strategy to replace the outdated “Canada First” policy.

With less cash, officials have fallen back on cheaper ways of reviving past military glory. Two years ago the navy and air force inserted the word “royal” into their official names. The army plans to revert to historical titles for privates, who now become sappers, bombardiers, fusiliers or troopers depending on their function. A fortnight ago the army adopted a new badge and a new tagline: Strong. Proud. Ready. Canadians would not argue with the first two. But some think the third is now in doubt.


I stay out of politics. My knowledge of our military and political history concludes that there is never enough money, etc to make a military what we (CAF mbrs) want it to be. We have long term needs and a short term public/political leadership. I have read this article many times in the past, and will see it again in the future - the names just change.

My comment is that phrases like "strong, proud, ready" refers to the people and not the organization per se. I see it as accurate. The people make the CAF work.  Always have, always will. That is why I have always been proud to be in uniform.  I am the CAF and me being the best I can be will overcome equipment, funding, politics, etc.  The only thing I have control over is me so I do try my best.  I believe most of us do.
Posted:  http://forums.army.ca/forums/threads/82898/post-1247381.html#msg1247381