Saturday, April 15, 2006

Harper's tame audience: The Canadian Forces

Stephen Harper's appearance in front of an armed forces audience twice in as many months is somewhat illuminating. That isn't to say it's good. In fact, it shows a real desire on Harper's part to emulate his chicken-hawk hero in Washington. His speech and words are mere copies of the jingoistic rhetoric for which George W. Bush has become well-known.

Harper's appearance in front of the troops is understandable. It's a guaranteed friendly audience - for now.

It would be safe to say that the average young serving member of the regular Canadian Armed Forces probably voted for the CPC candidate in their riding. With little experience on which to assess the historical treatment of the armed forces, anyone whose period of service occurred only during the Chretien years would understandably dislike the prospect of a similar Liberal government.

Those with longer service would see things differently. Once Paul Martin took over as Prime Minister, things changed for the armed forces. That included a commitment for more money, better equipment and an increase in numbers. Long service members would remember that, despite the neglect and abuse suffered at the hands of Chretien, on major issues Conservative governments have a far worse track record in dealing with the CF.

Harper's popularity with the junior members of the armed forces will soon come to an end. Harper is a politician and no matter what it is he is now attempting to garner, the men and women of the services will very quickly come to view him as they view all other politicians: lying, opportunistic, scum.

Harper chooses his words poorly when speaking to Canadian troops. His speech writers, with a poor grasp on things military, tend towards a form which is not suited for troops who are well-educated, well-informed and enter the service for reasons completely different than the rank and file of their US counterparts. And if there is one thing which will eventually come back to haunt Harper, it is this line:

I believe that military service is the highest calling of citizenship.
Does he now? Interesting statement coming from an individual who hasn't ever served in the military. Hell, he wasn't even in a cadet corps. In the messdeck slang of the Canadian Forces, Harper is a "pencil-neck".

Senior members of the CAF remember well the way they were treated by previous Conservative governments.

The navy was forced, by a Conservative defence minister who was completely out of touch with the realities of the day, to pursue a nuclear submarine procurement program only to have it withdrawn after thousands of manhours and millions of dollars had been spent. The result was that the navy was left with three aging Oberon class subs and no replacement in sight.

Still with the navy, it was the Conservatives who insisted on the EH-101 Petrel as the replacement for the Sea King. This was despite the fact that the new ships from which it would operate would have required expensive modifications to accept an aircraft which was too big for the hangar of a Halifax class frigate.

It was a Conservative government which, in an unbelievably short-sighted move, cancelled the Avro Arrow fighter/interceptor. In return for this act, the same government invited the United States to position Bomarc missiles at Canadian launch sites under US command. In 1961 the RCAF was forced to buy F-101 interceptors to fill the role which would have fallen to the Arrow.

By the end of the Conservative rule of the Diefenbaker government, the armed forces were demoralized, under-paid and having difficulty recruiting sufficient numbers to maintain strength.

Not surprisingly, the Mulroney Conservatives managed to repeat that performance. Towards the final years of their government run they imposed a debilitating pay freeze on the armed forces at a time when most members, particularly junior ones, could not afford it. They left government with an armed forces that was demoralized, under-paid and hemorrhaging personnel at a rate faster than they could be replaced. And despite what some may believe, all major equipment acquisitions that occurred during the Mulroney years were a result of deliveries on contracts finalized under the Trudeau Liberals. In fact, the frigate project was cut back from 18 ships to 12 under the Conservatives.

Harper's Conservatives are repeating the same theme as their predecessors. They talk big but fail to deliver. Harper's defence plan is pure fantasy. While he makes a lot of noise about supporting the troops, his ideas for equipment acquisitions are under-funded before they even start and the timetable for Arctic sovereignty has already run afoul of that pesky thing called "reality".

Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor's bombastic statement that three armed naval ice-breakers, plus a deepwater port could be built for $2 billion is patently ridiculous. That he believes the first ship would be in service within 5 years would be laughable if it wasn't such a pathetic demonstration of incompetence. Clearly, O'Connor has no idea as to warship design and construction. Add to that fact he is now running afoul of the admirals who disagree completely with O'Connor's suggestions.

O'Connor, of course, is running afoul of several people. The brigadier-general turned military industry lobbyist turned defence minister has big plans for big equipment, (something that has his former employers rubbing their hands). The problem is that the CAF is aiming in a different direction and adapting to deal with asymmetrical warfare. The army is going "light"; the navy is looking to force mobility and littoral warfare; and, the air force is pursuing force movement and air defence. O'Connor has run into stern opposition of his plans to build a "heavy" force.

Harper's efforts to ape George Bush will ultimately fail. Each and every conservative government since Diefenbaker has shafted the troops. It's only a matter of time before Harper's impossible promises start to bite him on the ass.

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