Tories redraw defence spending plans

The Harper government is redrafting its extensive, multi-billion shopping list of equipment for the Canadian military in an exercise many observers believe will set more sober expectations in a time of austerity.

OTTAWA — The Harper government is redrafting its extensive, multi-billion shopping list of equipment for the Canadian military in an exercise many observers believe will set more sober expectations in a time of austerity.

The revision to the Canada First Defence Strategy is slated to be complete and ready for public consumption by fall, multiple sources have told The Canadian Press.

Although Defence Minister Peter MacKay describes the hallmark plan as a “living document,” the reset comes at a time when the government has been hammered politically over the F-35 stealth fighter, an issue that tarnished the fiscally responsible image that the Conservatives try to project.

Defence sources say there is a baseline expectation that the promises made in the original 2008 document will be mostly kept, but whether the government will be buying in the quantities outlined at the height of the Afghan war when the federal treasury was flush, is another matter.

“We have to do this reset and it would have happened regardless of the recession, regardless of the fiscal realities,” MacKay insisted during an interview with The Canadian Press.

But the political thinking, according to some defence insiders, is that a redrafted wish list will take some of the bite out of opposition attacks and restore public confidence rattled by the F-35.

When it was announced with much fanfare, the $490 billion, 20-year defence policy was hailed as the prescription for a Canadian military which the Conservatives say was starved for cash.

But delivering on that long laundry list of ships, tanks and planes has turned into an excruciating experience, which found a voice last week in Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose’s declaration that she was “tired of being told why something can t be done.

But defence experts, such Phillipe Lagasse at the University of Ottawa, who studies procurement, said he hopes the procedural frustration and the storm over the F-35 doesn’t lend itself to some quick, politically palatable decisions.

“They weren’t able to achieve everything they hoped they could achieve under Canada First, (and) it didn’t happen as smoothly as they hoped,” said Lagasse, who noted the procurement system wasn’t structured to deal with such an ambitious list.

Aside from the politically-charged stealth fighter program, which has been harshly criticized by the auditor general, there are a host of planes and ships that have yet to leave the drawing board, including fixed-wing search aircraft and navy supply tankers.

Sources said the various drafts circulating around National Defence acknowledge that there is some equipment that must “be replaced right away,” but there are other more complicated issues, such as the F-35 and the glitch-plagued Victoria Class submarines.

The navy is currently studying whether the four British-built boats can have their life extended until 2029, but it’s clear that thought is already being given to replacing them.

Sources said the next generation of submarines has already been the subject of high-level briefings within the military and it is expected the redrawn strategy will highlight such a plan.

Lagasse said the challenge for the government will be to temper the military’s expectations.

Already signs are emerging that Conservatives are looking for long-term economical defence solutions, while those in uniform tend to believe the budget restraint is just temporary.

“Unfortunately, until they’re honest with each other, and I hope that is what this document will do, we’ll be engaged in a dialogue of the deaf,” said Lagasse.

The mistake the Conservatives made with the first version of their strategy was to raise expectations by being very specific about what they were going to buy, he added.

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