Canada’s new top soldier, under pressure to cope with defence spending cuts, is rejecting the notion that the military is rich with fat to be trimmed – and suggesting he might look at scaling back planned equipment purchases to save money.
General Tom Lawson, a former CF-104 Starfighter pilot who took over as Chief of the Defence Staff Monday, has been ordered to make cuts without affecting Canada’s fighting capability.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper even made a point of reminding the new general of this during a transfer-of-command ceremony Monday in Ottawa, telling an audience of soldiers, sailors and airmen that Gen. Lawson must aim for “more teeth and less tail” as he overhauls the forces to “ensure administrative burdens are reduced and resources freed up for the front line.”
But Gen. Lawson, speaking to reporters later, was vague on how he’d accomplish all this while he’s also committed to keeping the size of the military’s regular force at the levels ordered by the Conservatives. The Tories vowed to bring regular forces to 70,000 in their 2008 defence strategy statement – during budget good times – but have since throttled this back to 68,000.
“I would like to say there’s very little fat,” Gen. Lawson told reporters, repeating later, “You’re asking me where is the fat and I am saying there is very little fat.”
The former head of the army, Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, left the impression in 2011 that there was bloat at National Defence when a report he authored recommended taking an axe to its headquarters by dismissing or reassigning thousands of workers to save money.
Liberal and Conservative governments increased military spending by more than 50 per cent between 2004 and 2010, justifying this as necessary to properly equip and support troops fighting in Afghanistan.
Over those six years, the number of people serving in National Defence grew 18 per cent. But the number of regular Forces personnel – the people who carry guns, fly planes and man ships – grew only 11 per cent, while the civilian work force swelled by 33 per cent.
Gen. Lawson acknowledged he could trim headquarter staff but suggested the end of Canada’s combat missions in Afghanistan and Libya would be effective in saving the Forces money.
“Primarily what we’re going to see is as we come back from two sets of combat missions, we’re immediately going to be finding a savings … that comes with the decrease in operations.”
However, the military received extra cash infusions for Afghanistan outside of its regular budget and it no longer has these reserves to draw upon.
A leaked letter made public last week showed Mr. Harper told Defence Minister Peter MacKay last spring that his initial budget plans did not cut deep enough. It’s expected defence cuts will add up to $2.5-billion a year by 2014.
Gen. Lawson was sanguine about the budget squeeze. He said probably two-thirds of his 35-year career has been spent “within budgets that were very tight.”
He also signalled the military might shelve some planned equipment purchases. “Some of those numbers that we see in the Canada First Defence Strategy on some of the fleets and platforms that we’re seeking to purchase – there’s a range of numbers and it may mean we’re at the low end of those ranges.”
In keeping with an era of belt-tightening, the 2012 change-of-command ceremony Monday was a lower-key affair than the 2008 military sendoff that ushered in General Walter Natynczyk and bade farewell to former chief of the defence staff General Rick Hillier.
In 2008, the ceremonies included aerial acrobatics by the Canadian Snowbirds team and jumps by the Skyhawks, a military parachutist team.
In 2008, taxpayers shelled out nearly $270,000 for a pomp-and-circumstance-charged farewell to Mr. Hillier, including $6,600 so that he could ride off into retirement aboard a tank.
There were no planes or parachutists or rolling armour this time to carry away Gen. Natynczyk, who is retiring after serving more than four years in the Ottawa post. Instead, he got a Chief of the Defence Staff pennant awarded in these situations.
The command passed to an airman for the first time since 2005 after two chiefs from the Canadian Army.
Gen. Lawson, the former top Canadian at NORAD, was promoted to a full general and officially appointed as Canada’s new Chief of the Defence Staff in a ceremony at the Canadian War Museum that included a bagpiper, a 21-gun salute and the playing of God Save the Queen.