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Royal Canadian Navy warship HMCS Protecteur sits in port at CFB Esquimalt on Sept. 1, 2013, after sustaining damage in a collision with HMCS Algonquin.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

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The two damaged warships that limped into Esquimalt, B.C. on the weekend offered a painful reminder of the fragility of the Canadian Forces at home and abroad.

The Conservative government has committed to a slow, steady modernization of equipment over the course of the next 30 years. But the emphasis is on slow, and on any given day, any given mishap can expose the inherent weakness of Canada's military.

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"If everything goes smoothly, we're okay," said Anthony Seaboyer, a political scientist at Queen's University who specializes in national security issues. "But if things like this happen, we're less and less able to react to them than we were in the past."

A recent wave of defence budget cuts – expected to reach $2.5-billion by 2015 – is one reason for the decreasing ability to react, as the Harper government struggles both to retain a functioning military and to balance the budget before the next election.

The destroyer HMCS Algonquin and refuelling vessel HMCS Protecteur collided during a training exercise in the Pacific Ocean on Friday, damaging both ships.

A press spokesman for the Pacific fleet on Monday said both vessels had returned to port and were being examined. A fuller update is expected later this week, but the Algonguin, which received the brunt of the damage, is likely to be laid up for a while.

And until the damage to the Protecteur's bow is repaired, the Pacific fleet will have no refuelling capability.

That operational gap highlights the price the navy is paying as Ottawa drags its heels on the promised renewal of the fleet. The National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy – which commits $33-billion over 30 years to replace and upgrade core naval assets – remains, for the most part, all paper, no keels.

The navy is not alone. The army is at risk of losing the intelligence and combat skills it acquired in Afghanistan through lack of training. And the fate of the F-35 fighter jet, intended to replace the aging CF-18s, remains uncertain.

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The problem is threefold. The first is the government's commitment to balance the budget in 2015, which has led to spending cuts across all departments, including National Defence.

The second is the time lag between a commitment to replace something as large as a plane or a ship, and actually replacing it. Plans to replace the Protecteur, for example, were announced as far back as 2004, but a new vessel won't be ready until 2018, at the earliest, and the armed forces has never seen a procurement deadline it couldn't miss.

Third, there is the constant examination and re-examination of priorities. The Canadian Forces has a mandate to protect the national borders while also being ready at any time to deploy overseas on either a short-term or extended mission, in concert with allied forces.

But what is the right mix? How much should go to training special forces, providing air support for ground troops, and protecting the coasts? How important is it to defend the Arctic versus being able to assist NATO allies when the need arises? What is the nature of the terrorist threat and how can the military identify and respond to it?

What is the best ratio between purchasing, training and hiring? And why are there so many people at headquarters?

Among the democracies, governments everywhere struggle with these questions, while also balancing the needs of their militaries with domestic priorities.

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Though critics abound, Prof. Seaboyer said he believes the Canadian government, overall, is taking the right approach. "The balance that has been struck … makes sense in terms of future needs that may arise," he explained. "The problem is, who can see into the future?"

Billions of dollars of acquisitions could prove useless in conflicts that no one predicted. It's another reason why it makes sense to go slow on procurement – except, that is, until a ship turns to starboard when it should have turned to port, and suddenly there's a big hole in the Pacific fleet.

John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in the Ottawa bureau.

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