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Christie Blatchford: Reserve budgets slashed by almost 25 per cent despite Harper's order to avoid front-line reductions
Reserve budgets slashed despite Harper's order
Canada’s army reserve units are facing deep budget cuts that appear to fly in the face of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s explicit direction to stay away from front-line reductions.
Across the country, despite public assurances to the contrary from military leaders, reserve budgets have been slashed between about 16 to almost 25 per cent from last year.
Worse, it appears that most of the $330-million supposedly destined for 19,000 part-time reserve soldiers is in fact still going to reservists working full-time on what are called Class B contracts in various headquarters in such places as Ottawa, Kingston and Edmonton.
True reservists are part-time soldiers and, with units located in more than 100 towns and cities from coast to coast, they remain the military’s most visceral and enduring connection to civilian Canada.
Canada’s reservists bore an enormous share of the war in Afghanistan, where they filled out regular army units, did exactly the same jobs as their regular-force mates and paid the same price in casualties and injuries.
The Prime Minister’s unusually detailed instructions to Defence Minister Peter MacKay were revealed in a June 15, 2012 letter that was leaked to The Canadian Press, whose reporter, Murray Brewster, reported the story last October.
In the letter, described as unusual because of the extent to which Mr. Harper detailed the sorts of cuts he wanted to see, the PM warned Mr. MacKay that his initial budget proposals were too light on the administrative side of the Department of National Defence.
He reminded Mr. MacKay that “avoiding budgetary reductions that impact on operational capabilities, the part-time reserves, training within Canada…” was key.
Yet it is precisely those areas that are disproportionately hit in the new fiscal year, which kicks in April 1.
And it is the bloated administrative side — the various headquarters that appeared to be Mr. Harper’s target — which remains sacred.
In the reserves, the budget covers mostly soldiers’ pay — for training, usually one or two nights a week and weekends “on the armoury floor” as it’s called.
That means that any funding cut automatically impacts on the reserves’ front line in a way that simply doesn’t happen in the regular or full-time army, where soldiers are paid regardless of whether they are training or not.
On paper, the “funding model” for the army in recent years has called for reserve units to be funded for 45.5 days of training per part-time soldier per annum.
In practice, though, the units have rarely received more than an average of 35 days.
They’re starting to screw with the establishments, to gradually choke the units
But in the coming year, Postmedia sources say, units on the West Coast will be funded only to the tune of about 27 days, while in central Canada — Ontario and Quebec — regiments will receive about 30 days a year.
The only additional funds reserve units receive, and it is a much smaller piece of the $330-million total, is for “operations and maintenance,” money that is used to pay for such things as meals and travel (usually bus rentals and the like) for longer, out-of-town exercises.
But at the same time, regiments also have been told that they won’t be able to replace all those soldiers who leave as part of normal attrition or move on to the full-time army: With fewer soldiers and smaller units, the budget inevitably will shrink in successive years.
As one senior officer put it, “They’re starting to screw with the establishments, to gradually choke the units.”
While reserve leaders took comfort in the federal government’s March budget, which referred to maintaining the size of the reserves, “monitoring reserve strength is not something DND does well,” as Steve Letwin told Mr. Harper in a letter last fall.
Mr. Letwin, who like the reserve soldiers he champions has a full-time job and thus a foot in both military and civilian worlds, is the new chair of Reserves 2000, a lobby group formed in 1994 to fend off massive cuts to the militia.
He is also the president and CEO of IAMGOLD, a Toronto-based gold producer.
As a former honorary colonel for a Calgary reserve regiment, Mr. Letwin has been firing off letters for months now, as reserve leaders’ suspicions hardened as they received the actual numbers.
“What is absolutely critical is training,” Mr. Letwin told Postmedia in a recent phone interview.
He said it’s inevitable that reservists will be sent into danger, and “the biggest concern I have is that we will be under-trained and we will be putting people at risk. We’ve seen that in the past, when we didn’t have the right equipment.”
He said that while he believes “the Prime Minister has a really good sense of the value of the militia,” he is disturbed that the message doesn’t seem to have reached defence planners.
It’s a shell game. The poor reservist on the floor is getting screwed
As one source told Postmedia, “It’s a shell game. The poor reservist on the floor is getting screwed.”
Indeed, just last month, a retired top commander whose report on transforming the army called for the front-line forces to be “insulated” from possible cuts, told the CBC the same thing.
“There’s an obvious disconnect between what’s actually being said in terms of guidance and direction to DND and what’s actually happening,” Lieutenant-General (Retired) Andy Leslie told Evan Solomon, host of CBC Radio’s The House.
Lt.-Gen. Leslie told Mr. Solomon he was drawn out from “the sidelines” of retirement by news that DND’s budget for professional services, which includes consultants and contractors, is up by $475-million while the army’s budget over all has been slashed by 22%.
“This has a direct impact on our troops,” he said in that interview. “It’s going to have an impact on part-time reserves, the lifeblood of the army.”
As Mr. Letwin told Mr. Harper’s principal secretary, Ray Novak, in a furious Dec. 12 letter last year, “Many of our supporters see the evidence of preparation to reduce militia funding next year as direct defiance of the will of the government by defence officials.”
Mr. Letwin said that Reserves 2000 “has no quarrel” with reducing the overall reserves budget, because in recent years it included the salaries of reservists who volunteered for temporary full-time deployment in Afghanistan.
“Our concern,” he said, “is for the part-time reservist the Prime Minister so correctly identified in his letter to the Minister.”
Part of the problem is that the Byzantine army pay system — it isn’t even centralized — makes budgets hard to track.
As well, Mr. Letwin told Postmedia, because the reserves don’t have their own separate budget — their slice of the pie comes from the overall army budget, it’s “difficult to tell” exactly what and how much planners are cutting.
“It won’t be for six months from now,” he said, “that we realize, ‘Gee, Mr. Harper made the request’ ” but it was impossible to know it was being thwarted.
“If you can’t measure it,” Mr. Letwin snapped, “You can’t manage it. Maybe we do need to get an audit” of DND spending. “It’s that important to us.”
As another reserve officer who served in Kandahar told Postmedia, “With financial mismanagement, bloated headquarters and the F-35s [scandal], the higher command is pissing away the goodwill with the Canadian public earned with blood, sweat and tears on the battlefield.”
I had to laugh at the pictures used, how long ago was EX Raging Wolf?