OTTAWA LAUNCHES A REVIEW THAT COULD LEAD TO DEEPER DEFENCE CUTS
LUKE FISHER in OttawaJanuary171994
UNDER THE GUN
OTTAWA LAUNCHES A REVIEW THAT COULD LEAD TO DEEPER DEFENCE CUTS
Two years ago, as chief of staff of the United Nations Protection Force in the former Yugoslavia, Brig.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie accompanied European Community envoy Lord Carrington on a hazardous journey from Sarajevo airport to the nearby community of Lukavica. While the two men crouched in the back of a Canadian M-113 armored personnel carrier, MacKenzie said he felt most disturbed by an order he had just given to a sergeant riding with them. The problem, recalls the now-retired MacKenzie, was that “he was going to have to keep himself exposed from the waist up in order to return any fire.” The reason: the M-113, a tracked vehicle designed in the the 1950s, is lightly armored and carries only a .50-calibre machine-gun that can be fired—inaccurately, at that—only by a soldier whose head and torso are exposed to return fire.
Overworked, underarmed and outgunned in one of the most dangerous places in the world, those are the hazards facing 2,000 Canadian Armed Forces personnel serving with the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. Recent incidents in which Canadians have been fired at, taken prisoner and sometimes brutally harassed by rebel forces have starkly underlined the dangers they face on a daily basis. Still, it seems increasingly likely that Canada’s military will soon face the future with less resources, not more. Starting next month, the federal government will launch what defence analysts say will be the most far-reaching review of Canadian defence policy since the country’s entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. That process is widely expected to lead to further deep cuts in the defence department’s $11.5-billion defence budget, which includes the $1 billion that Canada spent last year on peacekeeping. Defence and military spending accounted for nine per cent of last year’s overall federal program expenditures of $120 billion—an amount many Liberals say the government can no longer afford. Partly because of that, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien is expected to tell other NATO leaders at a meeting in Brussels this week that Canada is rethinking its long-
term commitment to peacekeeping in Bosnia and elsewhere.
Chrétien is responding, in part, to anger at home over an incident last month in which 11 Canadian peacekeepers were captured and terrorized by drunken Serbian soldiers in Bosnia—an episode that critics say demonstrated the folly of UN efforts there. In a similar incident last week, four Canadian peacekeepers were detained and searched at gunpoint, but later released unharmed, by Croatian soldiers. Before leaving for Europe, Chrétien expressed exasperation at the dangers facing the Canadians. “Canadians like to
fight back,” he said. ‘They don’t like to be pushed around.” And in meetings with British Prime Minister John Major and French President François Mitterrand before the NATO summit, Chrétien alerted European leaders that Canada is increasingly concerned about the ill-defined nature of the UN mission in former Yugoslavia and the vulnerability of its troops there.
Canada’s future role in Bosnia is only one of the crucial decisions affecting the country’s military. Chrétien and the other NATO leaders will also discuss this week whether to let such former Warsaw Pact members as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into the organization—a move that Canada, along with the United States, regards as premature. At home, serious cuts to the defence budget could be felt right across the country. Military analysts agree that the best way to cut spending without further impairing the Canadian Forces’ efficiency would be to close anywhere from 10 to 18 of the country’s 40 military bases—many of which have been kept open only because of political pressure in their region. All that will take place under a new government, a new defence minister, David Collenette, and a reactivated chief of defence staff, Gen. John de Chastelain. De Chastelain’s reappointment in December to the position he held from 1989 to January, 1993, before going to Washington as Canada’s ambassador to the United States, broke precedent and startled almost everyone—including the military.
Not surprisingly, any effort to change— and reduce—the role and budget of the military is regarded with trepidation by those most likely to be affected. Reductions have been a fact of life within the department of national defence (DND) for years: since 1989, the defence budget has been cut by $1.24 billion, and military personnel have been reduced from about 82,000 to the current total of 75,000. Retired vice-admiral Chuck Thomas, who resigned as vice-chief of the defence staff in 1991 to protest funding policy under the former Conservative government, warns that once Canada’s Forces lose certain capabilities due to aging equipment not being replaced, the cost of reacquiring them during a future crisis would be astronomical. Says Thomas: “The problem is that the armed forces of tomorrow depend on the investment made today.”
For the moment, senior military officers refuse all public comment on the new government’s impending defence review, arguing that they do not yet know how it will be carried out. But leading critics of military policy contend that the $3.2 billion a year that the defence department now spends on operations and maintenance can be significantly lowered without reducing Canada’s military capabilities. Even the department’s staunchest defenders acknowledge that there is still fat to be trimmed—chiefly among the 34,000 civilians employed by the defence department. As well, Canada has far more officers than other comparable countries. In the United States, one of every six
military personnel is a commissioned officer: in Canada, the ratio is one to 4.3. But the most dramatic step—widespread base closures—would require the Chrétien government to win a series of political battles that previous governments were loath to undertake.
That is because dozens of communities across Canada rely on bases for their economic lifeblood, and would fiercely resist closing them. When the former Conservative government abruptly closed CFB Summerside in Prince Edward Island in 1989 with the loss of 1,300 jobs, for example, local people launched fierce protests. Many other communities that rely on bases have already formed lobby groups to fight possible closures.
One consolation for the government is that deep defence cuts would have significant support among opposition MPs. Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard and NDP Leader Audrey McLaughlin both favor sharp cutbacks. Major (left) and Chrétien: ill-defined missions And Reform party defence critic Jack Frazer, who served as a fighter pilot during his 36-year military career, says that past government policies of using the defence department as a tool of regional development were unfair to both taxpayers and the Canadian Forces. “It is about time we got honest about where the money is going,” says Frazer.
“People don’t appreciate that a lot of DND
money is going to help communities and is definitely not benefiting our military.”
But before key decisions are made on how much—or how little—Canada should spend on its military, Chrétiens government plans to debate an even more crucial question: how to deploy already limited defence resources at a time of extraordinary change in international
politics. Some former senior officers have already called for a review of Canadian foreign policy before any reevaluation of defence policy is carried out. The size and role of the Forces, they argue, should be decided only after Canadians debate the country’s priorities in the world. And some left-wing lobby groups propose far more radical surgery on the Forces than the Liberals are prepared to carry out. The Canadian Peace Alliance and Project Ploughshares have already held their own “citizens’ inquiry” into peace and security issues, and called for an immediate 50per-cent cut in defence spending, and withdrawal from NATO. Said Garry Kaye, a spokesman for Project Ploughshares: “Roughly half the defence budget relates to Cold War priorities. The entire range of alignments that Canada has entered into over the last 40 years should be open to question.”
A more conventional view is that Canada should tread carefully when reconsidering its defence arrangements. One compelling reason is that continued membership in organizations such as NATO gives the country international political influence that far outstrips its actual military strength. In a report released in midDecember in anticipation of the government’s defence review, the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, a nonprofit think-tank based in Toronto, scolded past governments for the “unstable spending environment” in which the military has had to function. But the institute also urged Ottawa to continue Canada’s pursuit of collective security through NATO and other similar organizations.
Even before that debate gets under way, the stakes for some Canadians are already high, and immediately felt. MacKenzie, drawing on his often-harrowing peacekeeping experience, says that any review should examine the distinctions between what he calls Canada’s “Stone Age” equipment and the vastly superior protection supplied to peacekeepers from other countries. One example he cites are the modern Warrior fighting vehicles used by British soldiers inBosnia, which contrast sharply with Canada’s outdated and vulnerable M-113 armored personnel carriers. Said MacKenzie: ‘When a Brit gets fired at, he looks through periscopes and fires back a very accurate weapons system without every having to expose himself from the waist up.” Thomas sums up his anger over underfunding this way: “Politicians who are not at risk make these decisions and then send kids to these ugly places. If one side or the other takes a dislike to them they are all in danger of getting killed.” In any debate about dollars and defence, one of the most urgent questions will be how long Canada’s peacekeepers must remain under-equipped, and, quite literally, under the gun.
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