OTTAWA – When Gen. Tom Lawson was sworn in as the country’s top military commander, he was explicitly told the Harper government did not want to see the Canadian Forces reduced in size or capability in the name of saving money.
Fast forward a year, however, and the uncomfortable notion of cutting the ranks of uniform members is something the Harper government could well be grappling with next month as it reviews an updated defence strategy.
“It is always an option, but the direction has not been given to us yet,” Lawson said Tuesday following a speech to the Canadian Club in Ottawa.
“You have to provide all kinds of optionality to the government when affordability is an issue.”
Faced with an appropriations budget that could shrink by up to $2.5 billion by 2014, Lawson has been engaged in a tightrope act of finding the savings demanded by a deficit-minded government while still preserving the military’s ability to respond to unforeseen crisis.
He was directed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to focus his cuts on overhead and a headquarters administration described as bloated in a benchmark 2011 report.
But defence experts, as well as one of Lawson’s predecessors, have been unanimous in their assessment that the fiscal targets laid out by the Conservatives cannot be met without reducing some of the 68,000 full-time and 27,000 part-time members of military — or giving up some ships, planes or tanks.
Harper’s original instructions could be re-examined as it looks at an updated version of the Canada First Defence Strategy, a refreshed policy that lays out expectations for the military and what equipment it needs to do the job.
Lawson said everything he has done with his staff has been built around keeping the force at its current size.
“Certainly the government has not indicated a desire to cut numbers. We will see in this review if that is one of the things they un-pin,” he said.
“Everything I will be doing with the leadership team will be looking to find these efficiencies; to ensure that we are affordable, and if we cut personnel, really to do it minimally.”
But retired general Rick Hillier, a former chief of defence staff, said last month that the budget targets set out by the government could not be reached without reducing numbers in the military.
“If we do this right, we can still have an agile force, we can still have a superbly trained force and we can still have a force capable in this era of threats,” Hillier told CTV in an interview.
“But it’s going to be smaller, you just can’t get around it.”
Without reducing the size of the Forces, Hillier said the cuts will come to training and operations budgets. He estimated that a full-time force of about 50,000 could be the end result.
Cutting the number of uniformed members could be political poison for the Conservatives, who rode to election victory in 2006 promising to increase the full-time strength to 75,000 members and 35,000 reserves, figures they have never come close to during their time in office.
Retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, whose report on transformation two years ago laid out a blueprint for cuts at National Defence, said the uniformed ranks can be reduced, but those cuts need to be made selectively among the rear echelon.
“If you are talking numbers that relate to operational capability — young men and women who go to sea, who fly, who support the aircraft and the army — those shouldn’t be lumped (in),” Leslie said.
“I think the government direction to the Armed Forces has been clear… To quote the prime minister, ‘Don’t cut teeth, cut tail.'”
Leslie is now planning to run for the federal Liberals in the next election.
Early last month, the Harper government rolled out a signature initiative called defence renewal, the aim of which was to save the department $1.2 billion through a combination of reorganizations and belt-tightening — money that would be reinvested within the institution.
During the briefing senior defence acknowledged that some civilian defence employees could lose their jobs, but said it would be irresponsible to speculate on numbers.