The Chickens Have Come Home To Roost

May 1, 2001 by Legion Magazine

by Ray Dick

Hit by a triple whammy of bad press, declining enlistments and more than a decade of shrinking budgets, the Canadian Forces is soldiering on and making do at home and increasingly abroad despite reports of threadbare and patched uniforms, shaky infrastructure and outdated and rusty equipment. “Right now there is just not enough resources to maintain the infrastructure, maintain the kind of programs, retain the reserve structure, maintain the status quo and invest in the future,” says Colonel Howard Marsh, a key adviser to the head of the army.

That view is shared by many others, both inside and outside the military structure, who agree that the Canadian military is in dire straits and needs, among other things, an immediate infusion of cash to maintain its effectiveness and its credibility. Morale is suffering from past scandals, many forces members are leaving and few are seeking enlistment, the air force is considering cutting its fleet by almost half, the navy has ships tied up at docks because they lack the crews to go to sea, and the army has cut back its training and the purchase of spare parts and equipment. Adding to the financial woes of the army, considered to be the worst off of the three services, is a rust-out problem with everything from wheels on its thousands of trucks to deteriorating infrastructure maintenance of buildings, roads and water systems at its bases across the country. A recent reminder of the perilous state of Canadian troops in the field came from Legion Dominion Vice-President Ron Scriven who visited troops in Bosnia and Croatia last November. He reported that the Canadians are “bored, poorly equipped and tired” and that their combat uniforms were “threadbare, stained and patched” compared to troops from other countries in the theatre. His report made national news earlier this year when Conservative MP Elsie Wayne brought it up in the House of Commons. She called the report “shocking” and said the reported state of the Canadian soldiers is “a disgrace” for the country.

The Canadian Forces, for its part, has been scrimping by cutting costs, contracting out and making do with budget cuts that have reduced its annual allocation from $12 billion in 1993 to just over $10 billion in 2000. But when it comes to looking to the future, suggestions for survival are varied and sometimes controversial, including the politically hot potato of closing bases, changing the focus of the military to include smaller but better-equipped units, selling off aircraft and other defence property, more contracting out of military support services to private industry and the always controversial possibility of the necessity to merge the Canadian Forces with those of the United States.

One suggestion, from Liberal MP for Nepean-Carleton David Pratt, would have Canada and the United States form an elite fighting unit modelled after the legendary Devil’s Brigade or First Special Service Force of World War II. The unit would be sent to trouble spots around the world.

Putting talk of mergers and special forces aside for the moment, the common refrain heard inside and outside of military circles is that Canada’s military is seriously underfunded. “The bottom line is that it is desperately short of cash,” says analyst Martin Shadwick of York University in Toronto. The question that must be asked, he adds, is whether Canadians want a military. “If they do, then they are going to have to pay for it.”

Funding has dropped steadily since the early years of Pierre Trudeau’s government when North Atlantic Treaty Organization commitments, especially in Europe, were scaled back. It was a time in the mid-70s described by Shadwick as “a procurement wasteland for all three services.” A slimmed down military in 1994 readjusted its sights in recognition of declining enrolment and shrinking budgets, and a government white paper called for smaller, combat-ready units that could be sent to any world trouble spot in a hurry and be adequately supported in the field.

But after years of neglect, especially in maintenance of infrastructure and new procurement, the chickens have come home to roost. In the army, thousands of trucks have been pulled out of service because of rusted wheel rims, and the once front-line Leopard tank is being modernized for a secondary role. The air fleet is being modernized and cut almost by half. The navy, with some of its ships tied up at dockside because of lack of crew, wants its aging destroyers and supply ships replaced.

When Marsh, the Land Force Command inspector, looks to the future of the Canadian military he does so with pessimism as senior military leaders work on a variety of options on how to deal with the forces financial problems. “Overall I am pessimistic,” says Marsh. “The army is well led, with capable officers, but they just can’t square the circle.” He sees shutting down bases, wiser shopping for new equipment without the requirements for buying more expensive Canadian products to support local industry, shared facilities and expenses with private industry and a further cutting of troops from an already sports stadium-sized complement of approximately 56,000.

The problem with acting on such proposals is that they “touch on the domain of the political,” says Marsh, and the government would be reluctant to close bases, such as Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, or to allow the forces to further decrease manpower that many analysts believe is at a critical level. The army has bases in Ottawa, Petawawa, Kingston, Ont., Valcartier, Que., Gagetown, N.B., and Edmonton. It could save millions of dollars a year by cutting the number of expensive bases down to two–one in Gagetown and one in Edmonton–and fielding smaller, but better-equipped units.

In an essay on future challenges facing the military, Marsh says rising government costs, a national debt in the trillions and public pressure to save money over the next two decades will cause widespread changes not only in the military but in public health services, health care and social and pension plan systems. That is why some people are looking at a scenario that would merge Canadian and U.S. militaries. “With the realization that training, possibly doctrine, and command support are no longer germane to the (Canadian Forces) and that most of the country’s military capability is interoperable with the U.S.A., public discussion on amalgamating the two nations’ armed forces is initiated,” writes Marsh. “That, of course, surrenders an element of sovereignty,” he added in an interview, at a time when Arctic patrolling will become even more important with global warming on the horizon.

In the more immediate future, the deteriorating condition of the military infrastructure is a major concern for Rem Westland, director general of realty planning and policies for the Department of National Defence, who says the department may have to dispose of some of its prime realty holdings because it doesn’t get enough funding for upkeep and repairs. The holdings in realties are massive, old and outdated and would cost an estimated $12 billion to replace. More than half of all buildings and more than 70 per cent of other infrastructure from sewers to roads are more than 30 years old. The problem is that sufficient funding, an estimated $226 million a year, is not being provided to maintain the facilities, about 30 per cent less than what private industry would spend to maintain a similar infrastructure.

“So what do you do?” asks Westland– “add more money, use inventive ways to attract other users such as in multi-use and sharing, or do we dispose of some assets.” The key was in using all three strategies at once. The government already has a 2005 target date to reduce its infrastructure by 10 per cent. He expects large savings could come from combining army, navy and air elements on a single base and by sharing facilities with rent-paying users, such as training facilities with police forces.

Shadwick says what the forces needs is more capital, and that a money-saving proposal such as closing bases is the short answer. “You can’t base the navy on one coast, and you can’t put all the air force in one base. And you must have a presence in the Arctic. Somebody is going to have to pump some more money in there.” He was commenting on reports that DND, blaming budget cuts, plans to cut the air fleet by about half by next year–from 505 planes and helicopters to 280. The plans call for the grounding of a third of the country’s CF-18 fighter jets, from 125 jets to 80. It also recommends that the fleet of Aurora long-range patrol aircraft be cut to 16 from 21 and that the number of hours in the air for the Auroras be reduced to 8,000 next year from the present 19,000. The 80 remaining CF-18s would be upgraded, while 40 would be scrapped or sold. The 16 Auroras will also be upgraded. Two others, along with three less capable Arcturus versions, would be retired.

Reaction to those reports has been swift, especially from opposition politicians and environmental groups who say the patrols are essential for monitoring such things as pollution, overfishing, sovereignty in the Arctic, illegal immigrants and environmental hazards.

Although Defence Minister Art Eggleton has not confirmed the plane-reduction numbers, he has said the cuts will provide the country with a leaner and better air force and will not jeopardize national security. He denied charges that the cuts are reckless, saying “in fact what we are doing is investing in modernizing and upgrading our air force.”

The defence minister had a bit of good financial news for the long-suffering forces. He says more money is being made available for equipment and human resources over and above the $2.3 billion infusion of cash over a four- year period that was announced in the 2000 spring budget.

The new money would be spent on improving quality of life, including pay increases, and infrastructure such as rapid deployment equipment. He also responded to Legion Vice-President Scriven’s report on the “threadbare, stained and patched” uniforms of Canadian peacekeepers in the Balkans and how it was affecting the morale of the troops. “I do know that in the next rotation (of 1,800 troops ) there will be the new clothe-the-soldier program uniforms that will be available to them,” he says. “I am concerned about anything that would be called a disgrace, because our troops are certainly not that and they shouldn’t wear anything that indicates that.” The clothe-the-soldier program will replace the army’s old fatigues with modern battledress similar to the camouflage kit of other NATO soldiers. It includes state-of-the-art armoured vests and plates to protect soldiers from shrapnel and bullets.

The report from Scriven was passed on to Eggleton by Dominion President Bill Barclay, and to Lieutenant-General R.R. Henault, deputy chief of defence staff, by Legion Defence Committee Chairman Lou Cuppens. Both stressed that the report was not intended as a criticism of the forces operation but rather as the perspective of a “concerned family member.”

Cuppens, a retired lieutenant-general, has his own deep concerns about the financial state of the Canadian Forces. “There is a big, dark cloud over the military. I am really pessimistic about the future if more government money is not forthcoming.” If the government didn’t take corrective action, the military would lose services that would never be regained. “The military cannot shave the ice cube any more without trimming off its capabilities.” One example of the sad state of military equipment, he said, was that the military had to rent a low-bed (truck) to drag four guns to Parliament Hill for the opening of Parliament early this year because military trucks normally used for this function had been taken off the road because of rusty wheel rims. “The military couldn’t tow its own guns.”

Cuppens was less than enthusiastic about the possible merger of the U.S. and Canadian Forces down the road, using an old Winston Churchill phrase: “If you don’t have your own army, you are certain to get someone else’s.”

Military analyst Sean Henry of the Conference of Defence Associations is also pessimistic, saying the condition of Canadian defence has been scandalous for many years and the government has done little to address the problem. Funding cuts and failure to support the essence of the military culture has created terrible damage, with personnel strength, equipment and training all falling below what is needed to maintain an effective and credible organization. “This leaves only the desperation options we see today, such as tying up ships, selling planes and closing bases. Increases in the defence budget in the last two years provided only emergency aid, amounting to some 50 per cent of what is needed to stabilize the decline.”

“The additional funds are welcome,” Henry says in a CDA report on the benefits of investment in defence, “but another $2 billion needs to be added over the next few years to halt the serious decline of the Canadian Forces.” The auditor general has also emerged on the side of those clamouring for more funds for the military, identifying a need for an additional $1 billion per year over the next five to six years to start the rebuilding process. Canada contributed about six per cent of government spending, or 1.1 per cent of its gross domestic product, to defence, one of the lowest rates in the world and second lowest in NATO where the average is 2.1 per cent. Partly because of its recent military shortfalls, Canada had become less influential in international affairs which has had a negative impact on Canadian diplomacy and trade, the “lifeblood of the nation.”

“Canadian military contributions to overseas military operations have multiple value,” says Henry. “They maintain and reinforce international peace and stability, thus assuring Canada’s vital trade relations. As well, they enhance Canada’s reputation as a useful ally, willing to assume its proper share on international responsibilities, including those relating to humanitarian and human security objectives.”

But lack of money may not be the root of all evil in the forces, according to a paper produced by the military affairs and defence committee of the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto, a private group that includes retired military officers and business and industrial leaders. Stating that “the fate of this vital national institution is in grave danger,” the committee under chairman Matthew Gaasenbeek argues that “present, albeit inadequate, budgets are badly allocated and that a more efficient, realistic allocation of funds could materially enhance and restructure the combat capability of our forces.” The paper argues that some defence department purchases have not always been timely, were not always what the services needed or requested and in some cases gaps in the inventory have been ignored.

The paper draws comparisons between Canada and the similar-sized military services of Australia and the Netherlands, countries that have all-arms services and which seem to have been able to restructure and acquire new equipment to produce relatively small, but combat-ready forces to face the realities of a post-Cold War world. It points out innovative acquisition programs such as Spain and the Netherlands working together to design their amphibious ships. Australia had reorganized its personnel and had built an effective, mobile combat force for service at home or abroad. “Canada’s forces, in contrast, lack direction and muddle along with inferior equipment, poor manpower utilization and a deteriorating reserve force.

“These ills have deterred promising people from joining the forces and have driven many of the brightest and the best from the services,” the paper states. “The effects of this loss of talent are self-evident.”

What is also self-evident to those planners inside the military and to those outside analysts is that the Canadian military is in trouble and that lack of adequate funding is a root, if not the root, of all the problems in the Canadian Forces. And, as analyst Sean Henry says, “blue berets and peace doves on $10 bills just don’t cut it.”

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