Tension is growing between Canada's top generals and the government over how to carry out deep cuts to the military.

CBC News has learned that those cuts are coming for the operations and maintenance budget, which includes training.

Sources have told CBC News the government's plan for the future of the Canadian Forces, known as the Canada First Defence Strategy, was debated at a federal cabinet meeting Tuesday in Ottawa.

The government does not want to reduce the number of soldiers from current levels of 68,000, nor does it want to cut the budget for high-profile equipment such as planes and ships.

But the military says that leaves only training and maintenance, and that doesn't sit well with some military experts.

Retired general Rick Hillier, the former chief of defence staff, came out blasting the Canada First strategy on Wednesday.

"You're going to devastate the capability of the Canadian Forces" if the military's choice of cuts goes ahead, Hillier told CBC News.

"If all the other things are untouched because you don't want to reduce the number of people, because you're committed to equipment, then you're going to savage the operations and training piece of it, which means that soldiers won't train, sailors won't sail and men and women won't be in their aircraft very much."

Cuts create need for overhaul

Hillier is calling for an overhaul of the entire military strategy — starting with a reduction of the number of soldiers.

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Retired general Rick Hillier says the Canada First Defence Strategy needs a rethink to accommodate the military's changing budget. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"The defence strategy is no longer affordable. You need to re-set. You need to reshape it and you need in fact to come out with a new Canada First Defence Strategy."

The government last year announced total cuts of $2.1 billion to the military's $20-billion budget by 2015. 

Those cuts are already being felt.

Sources inside the military tell CBC News that brigades across the military sent out emails informing their units of cuts of up to 61 per cent to operations and maintenance budgets.

Those cuts mean there will be less money for  food, fuel and ammunition for training exercises.

"Fewer training dollars, and less maintenance money means there's fewer platforms for people to go on an exercise with, and then at a certain point down the road, there's going to be fewer aircraft and fewer ships for the Canadian Forces to actually deploy with," said  Dave Perry, a senior defence analyst with the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.

Perry pointed to a recent announcement by the navy that it can't maintain the number of coastal defence vessels at sea it had previously.

'Fiscal mismanagement'

Generals are not allowed to talk about the cuts openly, because it is a politically sensitive issue that goes to the Conservatives' base of support, but one senior member of the military told CBC News the government is cutting the defence budget while "pretending they are not."

Another former top soldier now working as a policy adviser to the Liberals said he can't understand why the Canadian Forces are short of money when the Department of Defence underspent its budget by $1.3 billion in April.

Retired Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie

Retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie wrote a 'transformation' report on the military that attacked the amount of money spent on consultants, before leaving the forces in 2011. He now advises federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. (Murray Brewster/Canadian Press)

"This is fiscal mismanagement on a vast scale," said retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, who authored a controversial "transformation" report on the future of the military before he left in 2011.

"Our transformation team, over two years ago, recommended they cut consultants and contractors, which in 2010 was at $2.77 billion per year.

"Since then DND increased spending on consultants and contractors to $3 billion a year," he told CBC News Wednesday. "This is irresponsible."

A Conservative MP was not made available to discuss the issue on CBC News Network's Power & Politics Wednesday.

But Defence Minister Rob Nicholson's office released a statement in response to CBC News's request for comment.

"Our government has made unprecedented investments in the Canadian Armed Forces. In fact, since 2006 we have boosted defence budgets by 27 per cent, roughly $5 billion in annual funding," the statement quoted Nicholson as saying.

"The government will continue to place priority emphasis on meeting operational requirements, training within Canada, supporting the part-time reserves, undertaking national sovereignty missions and caring for ill and injured soldiers."