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Frustrating Summer For Canada’s Military

by Ray Dick

The Canadian Forces may have a new political chief at the helm, but the old problems of too few troops, too little cash and too many commitments have not gone away over the summer.

“Our foreign policy is writing cheques our defence policy can’t cash,” said Liberal MP David Pratt, chairman of the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs–known as SCONDVA–as he released the committee’s latest report on the state of Canada’s military.

The committee agreed in its report on a series of measures to beef up the military and increase its current spending of $12 billion a year by 50 per cent in the next three years, or $2 billion a year. This was needed so the Forces could maintain the current level of operations at home and abroad and prepare for future challenges.

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“The current situation is just not sustainable,” said Pratt. “With the money that they have right now they cannot continue to do what they have been doing because people are stretched too thin.” Canada would have to scale down its foreign policy commitments, such as in Bosnia and Afghanistan, unless it spends more on the military.

The committee proposals drew less than enthusiastic support from Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and from the newly appointed defence minister, John McCallum.

The prime minister noted that the federal government recently increased the defence budget following several years of cuts, and that recent tax cuts and costs to support Canadian industries threatened by U.S. trade actions are placing significant demands on the federal treasury. “A lot of people, including (the committee) would like us to spend more money,” he said, “…we don’t have unlimited resources.”

McCallum, a former leading Canadian economist before being recruited to join the Liberals in the 2000 election, replaced Art Eggleton in May.

As the new defence minister whose only military experience was as an air cadet, McCallum landed in a sort of free-fire zone as the controversy over defence spending heated up. He reacted with caution to the SCONDVA report, saying he plans to launch a review of the military’s needs this fall. But he did not agree with author Jack Granatstein who said in a report by the C.D. Howe Institute that military funding has left Canada all but undefended.

“I don’t agree with that at all,” said McCallum. “I just came back (from a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and we received high praise from the U.S. defence secretary for our work in Afghanistan, from my U.K. counterpart for our work in Bosnia.”

The impact, however, of troop shortages and lack of budget funding was evident later when the government announced it would not replace the 880-strong battle group of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in Kandahar after completion of a six-month tour of duty.

Although they have received praise for their actions, the ground troops in Afghanistan returned home with heavy hearts, and without four of their own who were killed in a friendly-fire incident by American aircraft. Eight others of the PPCLI unit based in Edmonton were injured when bombs were dropped by American F-16 pilots on what they considered flashes of artillery fire from the ground. Canadian troops were conducting a live-fire training exercise near the Kandahar airbase.

Inquiries by both Canadian and American officials have laid the blame for the incident on the F-16 pilots.

But it was the report of Auditor General Sheila Fraser that brought home the dire situation of staff shortages, a situation she said could take 30 years to fix.

The armed forces today total some 57,600 men and women of an authorized strength of 60,000. When retirement, sick leave and disciplinary measures are considered, the number of effective members is about 52,300. “Over 3,000 positions are vacant,” said Fraser, “many of them in key occupations such as engineers, technicians, doctors and dentists.” She said the military is also facing a shortage of candidates for promotion as more officers approach retirement age. Gaps in the higher ranks were difficult to correct if not enough people were moving through the system. As a result, Fraser said, it could take 30 years to fix the gap in the military population.

The new defence minister did take one step almost immediately to improve the quality of life in the military. In only his fourth day on the job he announced a pay increase retroactive to April 1 for most members of the Forces. The rank and file will get a four-per-cent raise while officers up to the rank of lieutenant-colonel will get 4.5 per cent.

McCallum said the raises were significantly higher than inflation and “reflect the government’s commitment to improving the conditions of our fighting men and women and their families.”

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