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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Harper says DND asked for equipment purchases to be pushed off into the future

OTTAWA - Defence officials call it the "options analysis" phase — and following the Harper government's postponement of $3.1 billion in military equipment spending, the bureaucratic buzz phrase is likely to become even more popular around National Defence in the coming years.

A series of purchases — some deemed "urgent" for almost decade — are stuck in that departmental, managerial, organizational and perhaps even decision-making limbo.

Whether it's perennial bureaucratic foot-dragging, or deficit-related, politically inspired gridlock is a question that seized the House of Commons on Wednesday, one day after Finance Minister Jim Flaherty delivered his latest economic blueprint.

Conservatives, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, ignored Opposition demands to outline precisely which defence capital programs are being deferred over the next three years.

Harper attempted to deflect the political heat by saying the military asked for the re-profiling because it's unable to spend the cash during that time period. He underscored that the money will be put back.

"At the request of National Defence, this government has adjusted the budget to ensure there will be money available when the department will needs it," the prime minister said. "There are no cuts."

That's only partly correct.

The army abandoned its long-sought close combat fighting vehicle last December at total savings to the federal treasury of $2.1 billion in both capital purchase and long-term support.

If you ask the air force about its plan to spend $1 billion on surveillance and combat drones, the answer — since 2011 — is that it's still in the "options analysis" phase. Officials add that documents are being prepared for the next stage of project approval process in a program that's been around since 2007.

"The Royal Canadian Air Force continues to refine its capability requirements," air force spokeswoman Capt. Holly-Anne Brown said in a recent email. "This includes the analysis of potential roles and options that could satisfy the requirements."

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information legislation suggest the program has been inexplicably gathering dust since many of the fine details and homework needed for approval, including cost numbers, were completed two years ago.

The usual glacial public works process of industry consultation — through a letter of interest — was also tidied up along ago.

The Harper government was warned in 2012 it needed to move quickly in order to ensure the $800 million set aside for the fairly straightforward purchase of 1,500 logistics trucks wasn't eroded.

"The potential impact of schedule delays ... is that for every year of delay, it is estimated that (censored) fewer vehicles can be procured," said a briefing dated Nov. 27, 2012.

Inexplicably, it will not face government approval until 2015 with the first delivery set for two years later, according internal federal documents.

The decade-long odyssey to replace the country's fixed-wing search and rescue planes, originally budgeted to be on the flight line by 2015, won't see federal funding until 2017, say documents from the program's project office.

Cash was supposed to be going out the door for CH-148 Cyclone helicopters. Navy supply ships were already supposed to be in the water, but won't be until 2018.

The public works secretariat is still analysing the options to replace the country's CF-18 fighter jets, more than a year after the Harper government pushed the reset button on the $9 billion capital investment.

According to the air force's original schedule, also obtained via access to information records, four F-35 stealth fighters were to be purchased in the coming budget year with an additional 14 the following in next year.

That investment is almost certainly part of the reshuffling of capital.

Opposition parties say the whole episode is drenched in deficit politics, accusing the Conservatives of having no appetite to spend any money before the next election, when they are expected to unveil a suite of enticements for voters.

"It's funny how this government boasts that it loves the Armed Forces and loves military equipment," said NDP MP Elaine Michaud.

The government's insistence that the money will be returned is tempered against the fact that it's drawn up a new defence strategy, one that has yet to be released.

The initial version of the Canada First Defence Strategy was deemed unaffordable, according to internal documents.

The country's top military commander, Gen. Tom Lawson, has hinted the new strategy could be more modest, something observers say would mean less capital investment.

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