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September 14, 2020 | Local, Aerospace, Naval, Land, C4ISR, Security

Analysis: New defence chief's main job could be to preside over budget cuts

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David Pugliese, Ottawa Citizen, Postmedia News (

Published: Sep 11 at 7 a.m.

Updated: Sep 11 at 2:01 p.m.

Candidates have been interviewed for the country's top military position but whoever is selected will likely have the tough job of presiding over significant cuts to the Canadian Forces as the federal government tries to get its fiscal house in order.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced July 23 that Gen. Jonathan Vance would leave the position as chief of the defence staff, the job he has held since July 2015. Trudeau said he expected a new CDS to be named in the coming months.

Defence and government sources say interviews for the position were held this week with a number of candidates.

Lt.-Gen. Christine Whitecross, who is heading into retirement, is considered the front-runner for the job if she wants it. Whitecross still has an office at defence headquarters at Carling Avenue and there is an interest in the Liberal government to have a woman in the job of defence chief for the first time.

The view that Whitecross has strong support within the Liberal government was further solidified when Trudeau took the unusual step on July 18 of singling out the lieutenant general on Twitter. He thanked the officer for her three decades of service in the Canadian Forces and for “being a strong voice for gender equality in the military.”

Among the other individuals considered to be candidates for the chief of defence staff job are Lt.-Gen. Mike Rouleau, who recently took over as second-in-command of the Canadian Forces, navy commander Vice Adm. Art McDonald, air force commander Lt.-Gen. Al Meinzinger and army commander Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre. Vice-Admiral Darren Hawco's name has also been mentioned. At least eight individuals were to be interviewed, according to various government sources.

But the new CDS is expected to face the challenge of dealing with significant budget cuts because of the financial strain on federal coffers created by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Spending on various emergency relief programs has resulted in Canada's deficit increasing to $343 billion this year, according to the federal government's economic snapshot released in early July.

Trudeau has acknowledged that the full economic impact of the pandemic is unknown. A second COVID-19 wave could further worsen the economic situation.

Department of National Defence deputy minister Jody Thomas said in a June 5 interview with The Canadian Press that she hasn't seen any indication defence spending, and the government's defence policy called Strong, Secure, Engaged, or SSE, will even be affected at all by COVID-19. There have been no slowdowns and the DND and Canadian Forces has been aggressively pushing forward on implementing SSE, according to Thomas.

Behind the scenes, however, there is significant concern within some quarters in the military about the cuts expected in the coming years. Some organizations within National Defence headquarters have already told staff to prepare for a rocky road in the future.

The Canadian Armed Forces and Department of National Defence, with the largest source of discretionary funds in the federal government, is a ripe target for cost-cutting. DND's current budget is listed as $21.9 billion.

SSE has been billed by the Liberal government and its supporters as “a historical investment in Canada's military” since it promises $497 billion for the Canadian Armed Forces over 20 years. But the policy was always built on shaky foundations, as was the previous Canada First Defence Strategy brought in by the Conservative government and largely undercut by funding reductions at that time.

Despite defence analysts' cheerleading on both policies, the fact is that such strategies only promise future spending. There is no guarantee and plans can be jettisoned as fiscal circumstances change.

In 1994 the Liberal government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien embarked on significant cost-cutting measures throughout the federal government as it struggled to deal with the deficit. The Canadian Forces and the DND were a prime target during that period. Equipment was mothballed. Military and civilian staff were cut.

The coming years could see a replay of similar cost-reduction measures.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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