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Harper unveils broad outline of defence strategy; critics pounce on lack of detail

HALIFAX - Prime Minister Stephen Harper unveiled his government's plan to spend $30 billion on the military, in a long-term vision statement that was swiftly criticized Monday for being behind schedule and scant on detail.


HALIFAX - Prime Minister Stephen Harper unveiled his government's plan to spend $30 billion on the military, in a long-term vision statement that was swiftly criticized Monday for being behind schedule and scant on detail.

Harper confirmed there was little new in the announcement, delivered to about 100 military personnel at a drill hall inside the Halifax Armoury. But he insisted that the 20-year plan heralded a new way of doing things for the Armed Forces.

"The newest thing about this announcement is that it is a long-term plan," Harper said, suggesting that previous planning for the military suffered form a last-minute, piecemeal approach.

"We are establishing a 20-year plan with an escalating budget framework."

The plan calls for boosting the number of regular and reserve troops and moving ahead with replacement of the military's fighter jets, surface combat ships, maritime patrol vessels, transport helicopters, armoured vehicles, helicopters and fixed-wing search-and-rescue aircraft - among other things.

One of the reservists recruited to listen to Harper's speech said she believes the prime minister's promises, but wishes the new equipment would come more quickly.

Sgt. Joanne Henneberry noted that a nearby truck used to transport troops was over two decades old.

"It doesn't change anything. Twenty years? Who's to say if I'll be around in 10 years from now," she said.

"We're hearing about aircraft and ships. What about the equipment we use when we do our training?"

Most of the plans have been announced before and there were few new details offered Monday on the timing or costs. There was also no mention that some of the replacement equipment has already been delayed.

The replacement of the Buffalo fixed-wing search-and-rescue aircraft, for example, has already been put off until 2014 - at the earliest. The 40-year-old planes were supposed to be replaced five years ago.

Meanwhile, the lack of detail in the Canada First plan generated skepticism among critics who claimed the Tories have been scaling back commitments they made during the most recent election campaign.

In 2006, the Conservatives called for expanding the Canadian Forces by adding 70,000 regular members and 30,000 reservists over a five-year period.

Harper repeated the pledge Monday - but he did not mention a deadline.

A Defence Department performance report, released last November, concluded the government had not allotted enough money to meet the target set in 2006.

Given the commitments being made in Afghanistan and the rapid attrition rate in the military, the expansion was "re-profiled" to 68,000 regulars and 26,000 reservists by 2011-2012, the report said.

Senator Colin Kenny, Liberal chairman of the Senate's defence committee, said it remains unclear whether the Tories can meet their recruitment goals.

"What's confusing or disheartening about it is these guys seem to be shooting all over the place," said Kenny.

"There's three sets of numbers the government has gone through in a two-year period of time and this is for a strategy that was promised to us two years ago."

The Conservatives have said they are the party that rebuilt Canada's defences, but the Opposition Liberals argue the Tories must spend a lot more than $30 billion over 20 years to get the military back in shape.

The Senate defence committee, for example, has said the country's annual defence budget should be increased to $35 billion from about $18 billion by 2011-2012.

During Monday's news conference, Harper said his government has committed annual spending to $30 billion by 2028.

"What I don't see anywhere in this announcement is the government making a commitment to invest real money," Kenny said in an interview.

Bryon Wilfert, the Liberal party's defence critic, said he suspects Harper's announcements are an attempt to deflect attacks in the House of Commons over several scandals, including Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier's relationship with Montrealer Julie Couillard.

Couillard has never been convicted of any offence, but the minister's ex-girlfriend has been linked romantically over a decade ago with a former member of the Hells Angels.

After a "bad week" in parliament, the Tories like to trot out military announcements, argued Wilfert.

"They always like to play two cards: the military card and the law-and-order card to deflect away from the reality they face."

However, the prime minister said the Canada First strategy is aimed at ensuring the Canadian Forces have the people, equipment and support needed to defend the country and ensure security around the globe.

"If a country wants to be taken seriously in the world, it must have the capacity to act - it's just that simple," he said, a massive Canadian flag hanging behind him.

"Otherwise you forfeit your right to be a player. You're the one chattering on the sidelines, that everybody smiles at but nobody listens to."

Flanked by members of the Princess Louise Fusiliers, a reserve infantry regiment, Harper said the strategy will provide a boost for the economy, creating jobs for thousands of Canadians through a long-term procurement strategy.

The new equipment and personnel will improve surveillance of Canada's borders, provide more support to civilian authorities during natural disasters and help provide security to major international events, such as the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, he said.

The prime minister was also scheduled to attend Monday's hockey game in Halifax between Canada and Finland at the world hockey championship.

 
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