The blunt exchange between Canada’s top military leaders was evidence of deepening troubles in the country’s defence establishment. Citing a plan to restructure the military that he termed “simply not good enough” in a bitter four-page letter sent to his superior on April 24, Vice-Chief of Defence Staff Vice-Admiral Charles Thomas submitted his resignation as the nation’s second most powerful military officer. The next day, in a stiffly worded reply, Chief of Staff Gen. John de Chastelain accepted Thomas’s resignation. Although de Chastelain told Thomas that he would “miss your counsel, your leadership and the friendship we have had over the years,” he added that “I find it particularly unfortunate that you should choose this moment ... to make this unhappy gesture.”
Thomas’s main concern was what he charged were plans to further reduce the capacity of a once-proud Canadian navy by scrapping its three submarines and replacing destroyers with smaller coastal vessels. But he also cited larger questions, stating that there needs to be a public debate about “the kind of defence force this country will need.” The department of national defence has been battered by a succession of federal budgets that will cut billions from defence spending. Early in April, senior DND staff responded to those cuts with a plan for changes that, military sources say, would diminish armed forces personnel by one-fifth and further reduce the number of
military bases at home—and possibly abroad as well. But there was also frank astonishment among senior staff last week at the April 21 appointment to the defence ministry of former minister of culture Marcel Masse, a man some critics called eminently unsuited to the assignment. Reflecting on the appointment, retired vice-admiral Daniel Mainguy, a former vice-chief of defence staff, observed: “I don’t like the way things are heading at all.”
The resignation of Thomas,
54, a native of Kelowna, B.C., was a rare event in Canadian military affairs. No senior staff officer had resigned to protest government policy since the unification of the Forces in 1967. Indeed, the resignation came as a surprise even to Thomas’s friends. But Thomas wrote that the threats to the military merited such a gesture. Declared Thomas: “I will not support proposals that will lead our people into harm’s way without the tools to do the job.”
In fact, there is no firm evidence that Canadian service personnel have been imperilled for lack of resources. Still, the armed forces clearly face radical surgery. A 1987 white paper that set out the country’s security needs in rigidly Cold War terms was shelved after the
1988 federal election. Then, the 1989 federal budget prescribed a $2.7-billion cut in defence spending—currently about $12.8 billion a year—over a five-year period. And on April 9, the federal cabinet considered—and sent back for further study—the DND staff proposal that Thomas cited. That plan would meet the government’s spending target by slashing the country’s military.
Sources in the defence community say that the proposals would reduce uniformed personnel to 70,000 from the current 87,000. Several military bases would also close, and there has been speculation that three of 12 frigates ordered for the navy may not be built.
For his part, Masse confirmed on Friday that the government is considering military cuts, but refused to discuss the proposals in detail. Said Masse: “It’s difficult to talk about figures because the decision has not been made and the analysis is still under way.” Masse himself was the object of criticism during the week from observers who said that he lacked any military experience—or apparent interest. Still, Thomas told friends that his resignation was unconnected with Masse’s appointment, and even complimented the minister’s grasp of his new dossier.
But Masse’s statement only rekindled speculation that, in addition to cuts in domestic defence, the Tories may also be preparing for the eventual closure of Canadian Forces bases in Germany. Declared Alex Morrison, executive director of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies in Toronto: “If you are looking at cuts of any real severity to the military, that would almost certainly mean bringing nearly everyone home from Germany.”
Other experts said that a sweeping reform of the Canadian military is unavoidable—and perhaps desirable. Toronto military consultant Brian MacDonald, for one, says that Canada has almost three times the proportion of senior officers to other military ranks as do such nations as Germany and the United States. “If this were private industry,” said MacDonald, “there would be a bloody axe swinging through their personnel side.”
Ironically, the controversy over the future of the armed forces comes at a time when their reputation stands at its highest point in decades, following disciplined performances in the Gulf War and last summer’s Mohawk Indian crisis. Indeed, in welcoming troops home from the Gulf, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney hailed their “professionalism and heroism in keeping with the best traditions of the Canadian Forces.” But with draconian cost-cutting measures ahead and dissension apparent in the high command, those traditions may now be at risk.
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