Straight Talk
PETER WORTHINGTON - PM correct for announcing military cuts, need for 'more teeth, less tail'

Credits: ANDRE FORGET/QMI AGENCY

PETER WORTHINGTON | QMI AGENCY

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was gutsy and correct when he announced at the change-of-command ceremonies in Ottawa that the DND budget will be reduced and that the military needs “more teeth and less tail.”

In other words, military administrative costs are too high compared to operational costs -- especially now that Afghanistan is (or soon will be) history.

To some, given that the defence budget of over $22 billion is to be cut, it’s odd that the general (Andrew Leslie) who investigated and recommended cuts in the budget and more efficiency in the military, wasn’t appointed chief of defence staff.

Gen. Walter Natynczyk is retiring after four years as Canada’s top soldier.

Instead, RCAF Lt.-Gen. Tom Lawson got the top job -- provoking some to believe (fear?) that he was appointed to ensure that the Lougheed Martin F-35 is chosen as Canada’s strike fighter of the future.

As a pilot, he’d know better than most about the aircraft’s capabilities and his support might dull criticisms about the rising costs of the F-35.

On the other hand, if $15 billion ($25 billion according to the auditor-general) for the aircraft is deemed too rich for our blood, then a respected air force pilot as chief of defence is the one to back off the purchase, rather than a soldier. That, at least, is the thinking of some, and it makes sense.

Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, now a lawyer with his own firm and a law professor at the University of Ottawa, speculates that a person whose career has been largely outside the DND bureaucracy, such as Lawson, may be ideal for coming into the top job without baggage and a mandate to make changes and necessary cuts.

This makes sense -- maybe too much sense for what often happens in the military. Certainly Leslie’s budgetary recommendations prickled some of his colleagues, who fight like cats to preserve what they already have.

Leslie, now retired, noted that half of DND’s $22 billion budget went to civilian and administrative jobs, rather than to maintaining the operational role. He recommended cutting a third of the $2.7 billion spent on consultants and contractors. DND has as many civilians of senior rank, as it has generals.

Drapeau, Canada’s leading expert on military law, has also noted with some unease that “an army of retired officers” is being hired as consultants.

More distressing for the military -- and the country -- is that 98,866 individuals left the armed forces between 2006 and 2011. That’s a horrendous number for a military comprised of 60,000 -- indicating an attrition rate of about 25% per year.

How come?

Drapeau is concerned, and notes that for every member who leaves the forces, two have to be recruited and trained to ensure the level remains relatively constant.

Why the turn-over is so great is a bit of a mystery.

“Are the right people being recruited for the military?” he asks. “Are conditions of service a problem? Are better civilian jobs the attraction? Who knows?”

He adds: “What is known, is that we are constantly losing the base, and there seems no end: 16,000 a year have to be actively recruited to replace those who leave.”

Also a concern is that 8,026 members of the forces were released for medical reasons in the 2006-11 time frame. That’s a hell of a lot of discharges when one considers everyone who is accepted in the military is cleared for health reasons.

These statistics come from DND, and are not estimates.

DND and the Forces say: “Other forces members who were released for other than medical reasons may subsequently develop physical and mental health problems associated with their military service.”
That seems a warning that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) lies unnoticed and unattended in many who quit the military, only to emerge later. Warning? It sounds rather like an invitation to the affliction, real or imagined.

PTSD is already a serious concern for veterans affairs. And hard to diagnose.

Certainly it’s an ailment of fashion as well as a genuine affliction. Does a distinction matter? Canadian soldiers have even been reported coming down with PTSD after watching graphic training films.

Arguably, Afghanistan was more prone to cause stress-disorder than conventional war, because every time a soldier left the compound there was risk of explosive devices and mines. Some suffered PTSD without every being shot at or encountering the enemy.

Of 3,000 Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan at any one time during the mission there, most were support troops who stayed “inside the wire.” Combat infantry and armour  -- maybe 800 of them -- mostly served “outside the wire.” Yet all were legitimately vulnerable to PTSD.

These and more, are issues for the incoming defence chief.

He’s largely unknown to both the public and the army, but he’s a new broom, and DND can always do with a clean sweep.

At ceremonies marking the retirement of one chief of defence and the inauguration of another, it was announced that Judge Advocate General (JAG) Blaise Cathcart was to be promoted to major-general.
This seems a curious message when the armed forces are being downsized and positions eliminated, budgets reduced. The promotion seems both unnecessary and provocative: The JAG will do the same job, with the same staff, from the same office, with the same bosses. So why is he being promoted in a time of austerity?

As a major-general, the JAG will still have 150 lawyers at his beck and call, and will outrank a brigade commander who is responsible for up to 5,000 soldiers.

The JAG’s department is one of the few growth industries in the military (along with Public Affairs), and one wonders how this sits with Lawson, now that he’s Canada’s top military person.

Lawson’s remark that “we will continue to take our lead on the F-35 from the government” is not encouraging sign for those who hope the new defence chief will be an independent thinker, as Gen. Rick Hillier was when he had the job.

Maybe that’s the last thing the PM wanted this time around.

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