OTTAWA — Rick Hillier says the Canadian military is “fragile” after years of budget cuts and delayed equipment purchases. And while he stopped short of saying the force is on the verge of another “decade of darkness,” he didn’t rule it out completely.
“If the funding doesn’t materialize, the Canadian Armed Forces are going to have very tough time,” the retired general said. “It’s going to be really challenging. So I won’t give a label to it yet. I’ll wait and see.”
Hillier, who famously coined the term to describe the years of deep cuts in military spending and personnel under the Chrétien Liberals, starting in the mid-1990s, recently spent an hour talking to the Ottawa Citizen about the state of the military and the Trudeau government’s new defence review.
Military officials, industry representatives and defence experts have largely welcomed the review, saying a medium- to long-term assessment of Canada’s defence requirements is overdue. But the Liberals also promised a “leaner, more agile” military, prompting fears of a stripped-down force.
Hillier, who is still widely respected in military circles for having led the Forces out of that decade of darkness as chief of defence staff in 2005-08, agrees a review is overdue and could help address some of the major issues that have plagued the Canadian Forces in recent years. But it could also make things worse.
“Every time we run operations now we’re strained and we’re stretched and we’re scraping from other places,” he said. “I use fragility in that way. The funding issue makes everything fragile. You can’t hire enough people, you can’t get the equipment.
“What comes out of the defence review will either increase that fragility or perhaps crack it, or else it can make the confidence grow much, much stronger.”
Hillier said he has a great deal of respect for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, a former lieutenant-colonel in the military reserves. But he was “disturbed” by the Liberal government’s decision last month to withhold nearly $4 billion that had been earmarked for new military equipment.
That measure was announced in the federal budget, and continued a trend started under the Conservatives.
“(The government) said it’ll come back later,” Hillier said. “I never believed that as chief of defence staff. If it’s not in the fiscal framework, it’s not there. So that’s a $4-billion cut that occurred. That came mostly out of the acquisition capital funding, where we desperately need to spend even more.”
Hillier was also extremely critical of Canada’s slide to the bottom-third of NATO allies in terms of defence spending. All NATO allies committed in 2014 to spend two per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defence, but Canada is spending less than one per cent.
Sajjan recently defended Canada’s record, noting it was contributing to many operations abroad. But Hillier, who would like to see the military grow to 75,000 men and women in uniform, said such operations will become harder to sustain as long as the government refuses to increase spending.
“Right now we’re trying to do too much with too few people,” he said. “Because of our unwillingness as a nation to fund the Canadian Armed Forces with more resources, we are asking the people in uniform to carry more than their fair share of the burden.”
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Hillier also noted that no one could have predicted in the 1990s Canada would be involved in a sustained war in Afghanistan. Building up the capacity for such missions takes years — and he believes the military will only be called upon to deal with more and more threats around the “very violent, aggressive” world in coming years.
While the government could decide to maintain current funding levels, Hillier said the result would be a much smaller Canadian military.
“So you can have a capable military that’s smaller, but you’re limited to one small mission somewhere and therefore the effect of this Group of Seven nation, which is a founding member of NATO and a founding member of the UN, is going to be marginalized,” he said.
“At some point in time, if you want to do what this nation wants to do, you’ve got to have more dollars and you’ve got to have more people.”