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budget cuts

Defence Minister Peter MacKay inspects a new Canadian military Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone helicopter at 12 Wing Shearwater in Halifax on Thursday May 26, 2011.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Canada's military is bracing for a prolonged phase of austerity as both its equipment shopping list and spending plans are scaled back to help Ottawa climb out of deficit.

Both the top military commander and the Defence Minister served notice Friday of efforts under way to adjust to a weak economy and deficit-ridden books.

The belt-tightening at the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces since 2012 follows years of hefty increases to the Canadian military by a Conservative Party determined to reverse what it considered underfunding of the Canadian Forces by the former Liberal government.

General Tom Lawson, the Chief of the Defence Staff, used a speech in Ottawa on Friday to demonstrate that he's on board with the Conservative push to eliminate the deficit by 2015.

"There is a budget to balance – and Defence must do its part. That is an immutable fact," Gen. Lawson told a defence conference.

The 2012 budget identified as much as $1.8-billion in cuts over the 2013-14 and 2014-2015 fiscal years, but leaked documents made public last fall showed that Prime Minister Stephen Harper later urged Defence Minister Peter MacKay to do more to cut administration and overhead.

Gen. Lawson acknowledged this during his speech, saying Defence has been "provided direction from the Prime Minister to identify areas for further efficiencies" that could be redirected to front-line soldiering – what Mr. Harper has called "more teeth and less tail."

The commander said "defence renewal " – an effort to identify budget cuts – "will be our centre of gravity for the next one, two and three years."

Speaking from Brussels, where he was participating in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting, Mr. MacKay said the Harper government will release a revised military procurement plan – known as the Canada First Defence Strategy – in the months following the 2013 budget.

This would be the first restatement of the strategy since it was unveiled in 2008 and since the federal government began running big deficits to cope with a recession and slow recovery.

It is widely expected the revised strategy will delay or shrink some purchases. Until the plan is released, senior military brass and defence contractors will be fighting to preserve their favourite equipment procurement purchases.

The defence strategy spelled out a plan for spending $490-billion over 20 years on everything from cutting-edge fighter planes to a fleet of new ships.

Mr. MacKay said a restatement of the defence plan has been in the works for some time.

"This will happen post-budget, and there's a lot of work being done right now to update or make ever-fresh the Canada First Defence Strategy," he told reporters on a conference call.

"There is a necessity to adjust and synchronize that document with realities of both operational tempo and of course the fiscal realities," he said.

"The document itself will be updated and it will reflect those commitments we have already met, and the intention is to bring that document into that place that reflects where we are today as opposed to when it was first introduced in 2008."

Later on Friday, Mr. MacKay's office added that it could take time after the 2013 federal budget, expected in late March, before an updated Canada First Defence Strategy is ready to release. They said more planning and meetings will be required first.

Critics have said the Harper government's defence purchase plans are unsustainable and need to be trimmed to fit Canada's fiscal realities.

The government's military equipment purchasing plans were laid out in the spring of 2008 when Canada was still deeply committed to the war in southern Afghanistan. Canada has since ended the combat mission.

Liberal defence critic John McKay said a revising of the Canada First Defence Strategy is long overdue because it "was unrealistic to start with." The $490-billion plan "is way past any assessment of our fiscal capacity," Mr. McKay said.

The Defence Minister pointed out the Harper government has already made good on some of the military rebuilding strategy it laid out nearly five years ago.

"We have delivered on a good number of those commitments that were set out in the document, including growing the size of the regular reserve force, major investments in capital projects and equipment of ships and planes and tanks and trucks," Mr. MacKay said.

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