Cover Story

Bigger bucks bigger bangs

Roy MacGregor November 6 1978
Cover Story

Bigger bucks bigger bangs

Roy MacGregor November 6 1978

Bigger bucks bigger bangs

One lasting impression of the recent firepower exhibition at Petawawa is that, in 1978, it is no longer a case of “going out for the annual firing of the shell,” as

one major put it. When the two days of explosions died down, there was enough spent metal lying on the Petawawa plain to recycle into a corps of tanks. Three shells alone, from the new Tow anti-armor gun, added up to a $27,000 firecracker that calmed even the itchiest trigger fingers present.

The total cost of rebuilding the ragtag Canadian Armed Forces has been estimated at more than $4 billion, a figure which makes the 1971 white paper on defence seem nothing more than a practical joke. The defence minister at the time, Donald Macdonald, talked of letting Canada’s NATO commitments lapse to a low priority and even keeping the Centurion tank—long the symbol of our military antiquity-coughing for a few more treadless years.

In the seven years since, however, a half-nelson hold from the United States and a full hammerlock from the European Economic Community have pushed Canada into a spending spree intended to show the Warsaw Pact that we have more than hockey pucks to slap at them. On Nov. 27, 1975, Macdonald’s successor, James

Richardson, told the House of Commons that spending would begin immediately and build gradually to 1980, when capital expenditures would reach an impressive 20 per cent of the total defence budget. And estimating next year’s budget at $4.25 billion, that 20 per cent would seem to amount to a lengthy Christmas stocking.

To date, Canada is committed to buying 18 CP-140 Aurora long-range patrol aircraft for $1.1 billion; 128 German-made Leopard tanks for $187 million; up to 150 new jet fighters for $2.34 billion; 350 general-purpose armored vehicles for $171 million; six patrol frigates (cost uncertain); and new radar equipment, guns and assorted sundries which are part of a continuing update of basic equipment. As well, the forces were to increase by 4,700 to a predicted level of approximately 82,000.

Naturally, there were dissenters—some within cabinet—who believed the government’s $2.5-billion restraint program could have been handled in one fell swoop by simply forgetting about the new jet fighters. When the cuts were announced, however, it was specifically stated that the purchasing program would not be affected, and defence was let off fairly easily with a cut of $150 million. It is difficult to assess what

this will mean in the end—possibly little more.than such inconveniences as rougher toilet paper.

That is not to suggest there are no complaints. The navy—known as Maritime Command since the unification days of Paul Hellyer—is still unhappy with its shoreheavy sea-to-shore ratio. And some of the trumpeted purchases are already in trouble: the announcement of the jet-fighter contract, for example, won’t be made until spring, by which time inflation and the sorry state of the Canadian dollar will surely bring down a number of the planes before they even get tower clearance. The shipbuilding program is also rumored to be already behind schedule. And, despite what is actually being spent, the slowdowns and budget cuts have meant Canada will be unable to live up to its spring promise to NATO that we will show an annual real increase of three per cent in overall spending. Allan McKinnon, the Opposition defence critic, says the Liberals “make promises and then take full credit—as if they’ve already accomplished them.” McKinnon, of course, has promises of his own. If Joe Clark moves into power, the Conservatives might consider dismantling unification.

If that were to come about, morale would soar rather than merely rise, as it has been doing. Short-haired and unpopular in the late '60s, poor cousins in the early ’70s, the Canadian soldiers of today are close to receiving Kitchener socks and CARE packages from a fond populace. With the green uniform back in fashion, applicants are on the rise, though the wilting economy has much to do with that. As for recruitment in normally reluctant Quebec, an admirable bilingualism program has raised the attractiveness of life in the Armed Forces. As of October, a remarkable 51.9 per cent of Canadian officers were officially bilingual (32 per cent of the anglophones and 95 per cent of the francophones), a figure which is roughly four times the national average.

Also, whether or not the Canadian soldier is, as Defence Minister Barney Danson claims, “the best in the world,” he is at least one of the the best paid. A recruit needs neither height (five-feet two-inches will do) nor education (grade 8) to begin making $536 a month and having the privilege of buying beer for 40 cents a bottle during Happy Hour, 50 cents any other time. The best-paid privates make $995 a month, corporals can make up to $1,528 a month, captains up to $2,280 a month, colonels up to $3,058 and generals up to the sky and beyond. Of the $4-billion-plus defence budget, a chunky 60 per cent goes into personnel payments.

As for the other expenses—the tanks and jets and $9,000 shells for the Tow gun—it is difficult to say when or if they will settle down. The public mood is raggedly reflected in a poll Danson recently conducted in his own riding near Toronto. In this belt-tightening time of restraint, a mere 17 per cent thought too much was being spent. Spending was just at the right level, thought 34 per cent, and a surprising 38 per cent urged Danson to spend even more of their shrinking dollars.

These are indeed interesting times we live in. The federal government has decreed that Canada cannot afford to spend a planned $2.5 million on health and medical research, but Ottawa can, and will, spend millions keeping 3,500 crack troops in the best equipment with no other duty than to stand by in case they’re needed. The Special Service Force's commander, Brigadier-General Andrew Christie, clearly knows his audience when he says: “The Canadian taxpayer is getting a bargain.”

Roy MacGregor