Politics

Senior military officer blasts onerous oversight of National Defence, urges more political direction

One of Canada's top soldiers used his last speech in uniform Friday to rail against an excessive amount of oversight and outside interference in how the military manages its own affairs.

Lt.-Gen. Guy Thibault has served as the military's 2nd-highest ranking officer for the past 3 years

Lt.-Gen. Guy Thibault takes part in a service medal and bravery awards ceremony at Rideau Hall in this June 26, 2015 file photo. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

One of Canada's top soldiers used his last speech in uniform Friday to rail against an excessive amount of oversight and outside interference in how the military manages its own affairs.

Minutes before he stepped down as vice chief of defence staff, Lt.-Gen. Guy Thibault told his audience that if anything needs to improve, it's the direction coming from the military's political masters.

"If I were king for a day, rather than providing more oversight and controls over National Defence, I'd simply give us clear direction as to the outcomes we're looking for, with predictable and sustained funding, and then I'd get out of the way and watch," Thibault said.

"And you would be amazed."

Thibault's sharp tone, coming from a man who has served as the military's second-highest ranking officer for the past three years, was especially notable at a time when trust in National Defence has reached new lows in parts of Ottawa.

'More teeth and less tail'

Much of the damage was caused by the military's handling of the F-35 stealth fighter project, which became a political nightmare for the previous Conservative government and is threatening to do the same for the Liberals.

But there are other issues, such as concerns about the national shipbuilding program and former prime minister Stephen Harper's insistence while in office that the military find a way to have "more teeth and less tail."

Several independent panels, along with other third-party reviews such as those done by the parliamentary budget office, were established to double-check the military's work, particularly on budgetary issues and procurement.

Other departments have also taken a more active role in traditionally military files, most notably Public Services and Procurement Canada.

Members of the U.S. Air Force get a glimpse of the first F-35A Lightning II delivered to Luke Air Force Base in this 2014 file photo. Canada's F-35 program has proven a political nightmare for both the previous Conservative government and the current Liberal one. (Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)

But Thibault's comments spoke to past complaints from defence analysts and even some military officials about the lack of a defence strategy under the Conservatives.

The Tories produced what it called the Canada First Defence Strategy in 2008, but it was seen as a glorified shopping list with little actual vision.

When the Canada First Defence Strategy became unaffordable three years later, at the same time the Conservatives were slashing defence spending, it created a vacuum in terms of government expectations for the military that some blame for the current procurement problems.

The Liberals are currently conducting a defence policy review, which they have said will produce the first comprehensive Canadian defence policy in 20 years. The new policy is due in the spring.

Tightening the budgetary belt

Shortly after Thibault's remarks, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman — his successor in the role of vice chief of defence staff — delivered a clear warning of his own: he plans to run an especially tight ship.

Three years ago, National Defence launched an effort to find about $1.2 billion in waste that could be redirected back into the military. Progress has been slow, however, which likely contributed to the previous Conservative government's frustrations.

Norman made it clear Friday he plans to press on with it, full speed ahead.

"I give you fair warning: You will receive no quarter with me," he said. "I intend to root out unnecessary and non-value added bureaucracy and process inside our own lines here at National Defence."

The department and military could be more effective and efficient in some ways, Thibault acknowledged.

"But I completely reject the notion that we in the defence team are not and have not been good stewards of the resources we were allocated to accomplish the tasks given to us by the government."

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