Ex-top army commander sounds the alarm on defence spending

A retired top army commander who penned a controversial report on transforming the military is breaking his silence 18 months after retiring from the ranks, in an interview airing on CBC Radio's The House.

$475M rise in administrative spending despite 22% army budget cut, says retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie

Lt.-Gen. (Ret'd) Andrew Leslie speaks to CBC Radio's The House in his first in-depth interview since retiring from the ranks in Aug. 2011. (Bill Graveland/The Canadian Press)

A retired top army commander who penned a controversial report on transforming the military is breaking his silence 18 months after retiring from the ranks.

In an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie said he's been drawn out from the sidelines after seeing a $475-million increase in spending by the Department of National Defence (DND) for professional services, including consultants and contractors, coupled with a 22 per cent cut in the army's budget.

The Public Accounts show that spending for Professional and Special Services at National Defence went from $2.7 billion in 2009-2010 to $3.2 billion in 2011-2012.

"This has a direct impact on our troops. It's going to result in lower levels of readiness, it's going to mean our troops are not as well trained … It's going to have an impact on part-time reserves, the lifeblood of the army. So I can't watch from the sidelines," Leslie told host Evan Solomon in his first in-depth interview since retiring in Aug. 2011.

Rise comes despite 22% army budget cut

According to Leslie, the vast majority of those professional services include consultants and contractors which he calls "overhead." And this, said the general who oversaw the Canadian army until 2010, runs contrary to the advice he gave DND in his Transformation Report commissioned by the military.

"The strongest recommendation we had was that the corporate services number should be reduced by 10 per cent per year [over three years]. And it's going exactly in the wrong way."

In addition to this increase in spending, Leslie noticed that his successor, Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin, testified before the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence in early December that his budget had been cut by 22 per cent.

"As you would expect, that has had an effect on people, infrastructure and training," said Devlin, the Commander of the Canadian Army.

"Training has a direct impact on operational capability, a direct impact on the part-time army who are the reserves, and a direct impact on training in Canada. All to the negative," said Leslie.

A 'disconnect'

The prime minister told Defence Minister Peter MacKay, in a letter dated June 15, 2012 and obtained by The Canadian Press, that his proposed budget did not cut deep enough into the administrative side of National Defence.

According to Leslie, "there's an obvious disconnect between what's actually being said in terms of guidance and direction to DND and what's actually happening."

In a separate interview on The House, the vice chief of the defence staff, Vice-Admiral Bruce Donaldson, defended DND's spending on professional and special services.

Donaldson told Solomon that consulting includes a "very broad range of activity" including "medical and mental health services," even "maintenance and repairs."

"A lot of it relates to supporting the men and women in uniform," Donaldson said, adding that in many ways "it's much more economical" to turn certain contracts over to the private sector.

Preparing 'for what's next'

With respect to the army's 22 per cent budget cut, Donaldson said Devlin's testimony before the Senate committee may have been misunderstood.

"Devlin was actually saying that he's been successful in preparing the army for what's next. He's reoriented training in the army to make sure they are operationally ready for the next deployed mission," said Donaldson.

The vice chief of the defence staff said the cuts in the army's budget reflect "the ramp down" from Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan.

The federal government is said to have identified $530-million in cuts over the next three years to "contracting and in-service support of defence material," according to a written statement by Jay Paxton, a spokesperson for the minister of defence.

In the 2011 Report on Transformation, Leslie identified ways DND could save $1 billion annually and called for "dramatic changes" so the military could meet its future obligations.

Leslie was said to be on a short-list of contenders to replace outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk but the federal government appointed Lt.-Gen. Tom Lawson, a former fighter pilot and air force veteran, to the top job.

Asked if he thought his controversial report had anything to do with the fact that he didn't get the job, Leslie said it's "water under the bridge."