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Budget slashing at DND brings military back to 2007 spending levels: analyst

OTTAWA - Years of budget-cutting at National Defence has removed as much as $30 billion from the Harper government's original defence strategy, smudging much of the spit and polish on its claims of investing in the military, a defence economist says.

The cumulative impact of the government's strategic review, deficit reduction plan and postponement of capital purchases means the department is actually going backwards in terms of spending, said Dave Perry, a senior analyst at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.

"As a result, adjusting for inflation, the Department of National Defence will spend less money this year than it did in 2007," Perry, who has conducted an exhaustive analysis of the numbers, told his organization's annual forum on Friday.

"This means that the defence budget is now lower than it was before the Canada First Defence Strategy was launched."

Perry compared the figures with the numbers laid out in the government's watershed 2008 strategy.

What's more, operating budget freezes — imposed four years ago and renewed in Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's latest fiscal plan — are "siphoning off an additional $9 billion in operations and maintenance funds to cover rising personnel costs," Perry said.

It's a startling assessment, one that contrasts sharply with the upbeat view Defence Minister Rob Nicholson presented to same conference earlier in the day when he trumpeted the government's investments and declared it had built a first-class, modern military.

Public Works Minister Diane Finley echoed that theme when it was her turn to speak about the newly released plan to improve the speed and accountability of big-ticket defence purchases.

The often-hyped Canada First Defence Strategy, launched in 2008, was meant to provide "stable and predictable funding" to a military the Conservatives said had been starved for cash under the Liberals.

It promised a two per cent annual increase in funding after 2011, but the economic crisis got in the way. And while defence still gets a cost escalator in its budget, the increase is more than offset by cuts elsewhere, Perry said.

Nicholson promised a rewritten version of the defence strategy would be released this year, but he wouldn't say when.

The country's top military commander, meanwhile, was mum Friday on what the details of the update might look like. Last November, Gen. Tom Lawson suggested that cuts to the size of the regular force, now numbering 68,000, might be part of the discussion.

Lawson wouldn't say whether that discussion was still in play. He was also circumspect about whether the military would keep all of its current capability — or be forced to give up something.

"The goal that we will seek is to maintain the majority, if not all of our capabilities," he said.

While NATO is in the throes of discussions about how to share things like drones, cargo aircraft and transport ships, Lawson said Canada's geographic isolation from Europe argues for ensuring the country's military remain as independent as possible.

Sharing resources and capabilities in a time of prolonged budget austerity was a theme pushed during the conference Thursday by Britain's defence chief, Gen. Sir Nick Houghton.

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