BUSINESS WATCH

The admiral’s call: close more bases

The department of national defence owns 4.7 million acres and equipment worth $10 billion. Most of those assets are useless.

Peter C. Newman May 13 1991
BUSINESS WATCH

The admiral’s call: close more bases

The department of national defence owns 4.7 million acres and equipment worth $10 billion. Most of those assets are useless.

Peter C. Newman May 13 1991

The admiral’s call: close more bases

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

The department of national defence owns 4.7 million acres and equipment worth $10 billion. Most of those assets are useless.

The dramatic resignation of Vice-Admiral Charles Thomas last week had as much to do with too many military bases as with not enough ships. The case he makes is clear and simple: National Defence is considering cutting personnel by up to 25 per cent over the next few years, to about 65,000 men and women. Yet there is no talk of cutting down the network of armed forces bases, which currently number 40. (The last major cuts that were supposed to close or trim 14 bases two years ago have yet to be put fully into effect.) Thomas believes that we should bring home the army’s NATO contingent (which eats up about 10 per cent of the department’s budget) and close all but 18 existing bases. Since it takes about 1,000 people just to run each installation, the admiral contends that most of Canada’s military budget is wasted on these useless—but politically popular—assets that provide local employment, instead of an effective fighting force.

National Defence is one of Canada’s largest organizations and biggest landlords. It owns 4.7 million acres of land; the replacement value of its nonmilitary equipment is well in excess of $10 billion. The military spends nearly $13 billion a year, more than $2 billion of it in Quebec. Claude Arpin of the Montreal Gazette recently estimated that if an independent Quebec were to send Canada’s armed forces packing, it would be the fiscal equivalent of losing Hydro Quebec, the province’s giant utility.

“We have too much infrastructure and too much overhead,” Thomas insists. “We have too many too-old bases, too much too-old equipment and too little modem equipment either in place or in production. Standing effectively naked in some foreign field with an old spear in your hand is not good enough.” Thomas didn’t specifically refer to the Gulf War, but he might have. Canada’s naval contribution stood up only because our three ships’ crews performed way above any sensible call to duty. The ships themselves, hulks held together by too many coats of paint, are a joke. The oldest

of them—the destroyer-escort Terra Nova— is 32 years old, and her Bofors anti-aircraft gun had to be retrieved from a naval museum. The accompanying Sea King helicopters are 27 years old and should be in a museum.

A $3-billion program to replace these ancient whirlybirds and a $450-million project to build a dozen coastal defence vessels are among the spending programs currently stalled inside Defence headquarters. Departmental budgets have been slashed by $3.25 billion in the past five years, and further cuts are pending. Though we are blessed—or cursed—with the world’s longest coastline, the navy has always been treated as a poor cousin. There has only been one chief of defence staff recruited from naval ranks (Admiral Robert Falls) since the Forces were unified in 1967, and even in such relatively insignificant matters as uniforms, the “Maritime Environment of the Canadian Forces,” as the once proud Royal Canadian Navy is now called, has been shortchanged. Only officers have white dress uniforms, so that for formal occasions, sailors have to wear their heavy blues even on the hottest summer days. Sailors’ badges still are based on army ranks, and admirals’ uniforms, according to R. L. Donaldson, the editor of Starshell, a quarterly naval newsletter,

resemble those of “stationmasters of the Bengal and Nagpur Railway.”

The most urgent need is to replace Canada’s three submarines, the eldest of which, Ojibwa, was built in 1962. “The imperative is having vessels capable of patrolling our waters without being seen,” says Vice-Admiral Bob George, Canada’s senior surviving naval officer. “We have a sense of urgency in terms of getting a policy to show our people.”

For his part, Thomas warns: “Some of the roles we do are going to have to be given up. You can’t do more, or even as much, with less money. I don’t believe the choices that have been made within the new fiscal framework are what the country needs. And I don’t believe that what has been chosen can be done with the money available. Therefore, the current policy paper is a fiction.” During the 37 years he spent inside the naval service, Thomas, 54, always was an oddity. He joined up at 18, trained as a marine engineer with the Royal Navy, but switched to the executive branch, where he eventually became commanding officer of the destroyer HMCS Fraser.

He has occupied virtually every important rank and posting the navy offers, but seldom fitted in with his peers, because instead of lounging in wardrooms and trading gossip, he regarded his job—and the navy—more as a mission than a calling. While he was the admiral in Halifax in the late 1980s, his main initiative was not seeking glory for himself or his service by launching grandiose designs, but cleaning up the enlisted married quarters, which were substandard and regularly invaded by rats. His departure was planned with typical military precision. He even dispatched advance copies of his resignation letter to admirals George and John Anderson, so they could decide how best to publicly distance themselves from him and carry on for the good of the service.

At the moment, National Defence is still operating according to the principles laid down in the 1970 white paper, not because those principles have anything to do with the contemporary world, but because that was the last time a government actually put a policy position into effect. (It’s difficult to imagine that plans formulated when Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon were in power would still be around, much less consulted.) More funds are essential, but imagination will be as important as cash in designing a new defence plan. Only two months ago, for example, the Swedes launched a 100-foot experimental ship called the Smyge. Similar in concept to the American stealth fighter planes, it features an angled exterior that’s almost undetectable by radar; the hull is made of composite plastic, insulated to eliminate heat emissions; the water-propulsion system is set on huge rubber pads to reduce engine noise.

Before we decide to spend more money, we must apply some innovative thinking to a budget that even in its reduced state eats up $12.8 billion a year. But as the military expert Ted Rushton recently advised: “A second-best army, navy or air force is like a second-best poker hand: it’s enough to keep you in the game until the final round—but you still lose.”