The chief of defence staff and the deputy minister of national defence have warned the government that cuts to the Canadian Forces budget will affect readiness and capabilities across the military.
Gen. Tom Lawson and Deputy Minister Richard Fadden issued the stark warning to Defence Minister Rob Nicholson in a memo dated Nov. 20, 2013, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.
"Without at least maintaining current funding level, we will directly affect the readiness of key fleets of aircraft, ships and army vehicles. This in turn has an overall impact upon training and readiness," the memo states.
In 2012, the government announced a $2.1-billion cut to the military's $20-billion budget by 2015. That includes a budget freeze put in place in 2010.
Those reductions are beginning to be felt on the front lines.
In the memo, Lawson and Fadden write that the cuts can be managed for now, but will bite harder as time goes on — and any further reductions will have a more drastic impact.
"It is clear that the follow-on effect in future fiscal years will be more severe, as the effects of lack of spares [parts] and maintenance on army fleets of vehicle, ships and aircraft begin to be felt with greater acuity," it reads.
Cancelled exercises, reduced training
George Macdonald, a former vice-chief of defence staff, said the military cutbacks "have meant that some exercises have been cancelled, some training has been reduced, some spare procurement has been deferred. Perhaps to be replaced at a greater expense later on."
In a statement, a spokesperson for the defence minister's office said the government increased the defence budget by four per cent this year. But the majority of the increase is for large purchases such as new ships, planes and trucks and cannot be used for training or maintenance.
While the Conservative government boasts about its support of the military and says military spending is up 27 per cent since 2006, the Conference of Defence Associations Institute says the budget has actually shrunk since 2010 when inflation is taken into account, leaving the military with less buying power.
"The spending now on the military, when you adjust for inflation, is back before where it was in 2008. So it's at roughly 2007 levels," said David Perry, senior defence analyst with the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.
'Direct impact on operational readiness'
In December, CBC News reported that some brigades were facing up to a 61 per cent cut to their operation and maintenance budgets. That's the money used for critical training exercises, ammunition, gas, equipment maintenance and spare parts.
Unless given the go-ahead by government, the Forces cannot reduce the number of personnel, whose salaries account for a large portion of the military's budget. Big ticket purchases are also off limits, leaving maintenance and training budgets vulnerable.
The government has said that while defence budgets need to be reduced along with those of other departments, resources are not supposed to be taken from the front lines.
Back in 2012, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, "the Forces must be restructured to ensure administrative burdens are reduced and resources freed up for the front line. The Canada First Defence Strategy must continue to advance, and as I've said before, with the constant search for more teeth and less tail."
That doesn't seem to be happening.
Perry said operations and maintenance budgets have been reduced by about a fifth.
"It's had a pretty direct impact on operational readiness for the military," he said, warning that neglecting equipment maintenance may save money now, but could be costly in the future.
"It's like your car. You can delay getting new brakes, but at some point you're going to need an entire brake job," Perry said.
Macdonald said the impact on readiness and training can be significant even with relatively small reductions.
Air force, navy and army heads concerned
Briefing notes to Gen. Lawson from navy, army and air force commanders cover the same concerns.
The navy warns that significant cuts to its budget come as maintenance budgets are already stretched thin, with nine ships that need to be upgraded and two submarines under support contracts.
The army says it will have to reduce ammunition, its truck fleet and light-armoured vehicle fleet, among other things.
The air Force says its maintenance budget was cut by $99 million and warns any reduction will "impact forces engaged in operations." The briefing note goes further to say that in 2014-15, the air force is facing a $220-million cut.
It warns that any reduction in flying rates will have adverse effects on training and the ability to graduate new pilots.
Lawson's memo to Nicholson was included in a large package of documents on the decline of the army's truck fleet with vehicles reaching the end of their lives and replacements slow to arrive.
In this year's budget, the government slashed the $3.1 billion it had planned to spend on new military purchases, part of the government's attempt to balance the budget by next year, in time for the next election.
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