Published Monday, September 23, 2013 7:03PM EDT
The Canadian Forces "just can't get around" the need to reduce the number of full-time soldiers in order to maintain a well-trained, capable army while meeting the demand for a slimmed-down budget, retired general Rick Hillier says.
Newly appointed Defence Minister Rob Nicholson is facing the task of slashing hundreds of millions of dollars in military spending as set out in last spring's federal budget. The pending cuts have some experts predicting another "decade of darkness," the term Hillier himself coined in reference to the budget cutbacks of the 1990s under then-prime minister Jean Chretien.
In a wide-ranging interview with CTV's Power Play Monday, Hillier said he doesn't believe the army is headed for another such decade, despite the pressure on Nicholson to find big savings in the budget.
But he said that cutting personnel is, in his view, the only way to reduce defence spending while maintaining a strong, stable force.
"If we do this right, we can still have an agile force, we can still have a superbly trained force and we can still have a force capable in this era of threats," Hillier told host Don Martin.
"But it's going to be smaller, you just can't get around it."
The number of full-time members of the Canadian Forces sits at roughly 65,000, a figure Hillier said should be reduced to about 50,000. He said cuts to personnel make the most sense because payroll accounts for 60 per cent of the defence budget.
Contractual obligations for new planes, vehicles and other material make it difficult to cut the equipment budget, which he pegged at 15 to 17 per cent. Cutting from the remaining sector of the budget, training and operations, would have a devastating impact on the force, he said.
"That means soldiers will sit in garrison and ships will remain tied up at the dock and airplanes won't fly," Hillier said. "And I think you have to balance that."
Hillier said his old "decade of darkness" comment reflected his concern about asking soldiers to do the same job, but with less.
"It's a massive, massive challenge, and the cuts are enormous," Hillier said. "And I've always believed that any government elected by the people of Canada have the sovereign business to decide how much they're going to spend on their armed forces."
In his interview, Hillier said that as the federal government demands cuts to defence spending, it should also do more to support veterans who have come forward to say they have been unable to secure benefits to which they are entitled.
"If I were the prime minister… I would use that throne speech to make a special comment about our veterans to say we are going to turn a page," Hillier said of the Oct. 16 speech that will open the new session of Parliament.
He urged Prime Minister Stephen Harper to specifically pledge to scrap a provision in soldiers' benefits that claws back money they earn at outside jobs when they are receiving disability payments for suffering wounds in action.
Hillier was quick to note that despite his advocacy, he will not be following the lead of fellow former soldiers who have entered politics, including retired lieutenant generals Andrew Leslie and Romeo Dallaire.
"I'm not going to, but others can," he said.
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