The commander of the Canadian Army told a Senate committee Monday there is no administrative fat to cut in his branch and that budget restraint is forcing him to train soldiers to a lower standard than during the Afghan war.
Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin testified at a Senate committee that 22 per cent of his force's baseline budget has been slashed, and when combined with the loss of a stipend for the Kandahar mission, the cumulative fiscal hit is even bigger.
"As you would expect that has an effect on people, infrastructure and training," he told senators.
Devlin underscored that 74 per cent of the army is the field force, and only four per cent take up a headquarters or administrative role among the 25,500 regular members, 16,000 reservists, and 5,000 rangers.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made it clear he believed the National Defence Department could cut more deeply on the administration side as he laid out his thoughts in a letter to Defence Minister Peter MacKay.
"It is important that we reduce the current overhead in regular force military and civilian personnel, and in those activities that do not directly contribute to operational readiness," Harper wrote on June 15, 2012. A copy of his letter was obtained last month by The Canadian Press.
Yet Devlin's testimony Monday provided a stark contrast to Harper's assertions, with the general stating that the army has already "streamlined army command and control, reducing the size of national and regional headquarters, and restructured our approach to support."
But it was on training, the bedrock of army readiness, that Devlin received many questions.
"We are training to a lower level than we trained, when we were training for combat operations," he said.
Infrastructure spending held back
According to figures released earlier this year, at the height of the Afghan war in 2009-10, the army spent $123 million on training, including a special $79 million cash injection specifically for Afghanistan.
That figure fell to $57 million last year and is down to an estimated $46 million this year.
Devlin says he's focused his dollars on what's known as Level 5 training, which is live fire exercises meant to keep soldiers sharp for combat, but even still the army would require 60 days notice to deploy on another overseas mission.
He says he's even held back on a portion of his infrastructure budget in order to preserve training.
Conservative Senator Don Plett seemed skeptical with some of what he heard on Monday, suggesting that with the war in south Asia all-but-over for Canada, there were savings to be had.
"As we're moving out of Afghanistan, it only seems logical to me, sir, that we would be scaling back on some of this training," he said. "If you're saying it takes 60 days for you to get up to a certain level that should the need arise, I would think this government or any other government would step up to the plate and give you the resources that you need."
His comments were reinforced by a spokesman for MacKay late Monday.
"The Canadian Armed Forces are no longer in a combat mission in Afghanistan, they are no longer securing the skies over Libya, they no longer have 2,000 members in Haiti," said Jay Paxton in an email.
"For these reasons training is necessarily slowed to a more normal tempo so as to ensure the best use of taxpayer money, but Canada still has the best trained and most respected military personnel in the world. They stand ready to respond whenever Canadians need them."
Devlin noted that during the Kandahar mission, up to 3,000 soldiers, aircrew and staff officers would be trained per overseas rotation. That figure has now dropped to about 300.
The overall defence budget is expected to shrink by as much as $2.5 billion by 2014, according to independent research. As late as the end of October, when the new chief of defence staff was installed, the prime minister insisted that most of the cuts could be made in administration.