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Auditor general urges military to clean up recruiting system

Michael Ferguson also says the military consistently underestimates repair costs, and signed bad maintenance and support contracts with outside companies.

The federal auditor general is urging the Canadian military to clean up its recruiting efforts.

The Canadian Press

The federal auditor general is urging the Canadian military to clean up its recruiting efforts.

OTTAWA — The Canadian military risks becoming hamstrung if it doesn't clean up its recruiting system and the way critical hardware such as planes, ships and armoured vehicles are supported, the federal auditor general warned Tuesday.

In his latest series of reports, Michael Ferguson painted a picture of a military recruiting system that is simultaneously struggling with red tape and deep spending cuts by the previous Conservative government.

The military is supposed to have 60,500 trained military personnel, but the audit said the actual number had fallen from 58,000 in 2011-12 to 56,300 last year — a shortfall of 4,200 members.

In real terms, that meant not having enough staff to fly or maintain the air force's Chinook transport helicopters or its Hercules transport planes.

Defence officials have also consistently underestimated the cost and staffing requirements when it comes to maintaining military equipment, the auditor general found, and signed bad maintenance and support contracts with outside companies.

One example was the department's estimate that it would cost $35 million to maintain each of the navy's four submarines, when the real cost has turned out to be nearly 10 times the amount, or $320 million.

The result, Ferguson concluded, is a troubling combination of wasted taxpayer dollars, heavier burdens on serving members, less equipment available for training and operations, and long-term damage to National Defence's financial situation — all of which threatens the military's ability to do its job.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said both the department and Liberal government were looking at ways to fix the recruitment system and improve equipment-support programs to ensure the military can "defend Canada and Canadians at home and abroad."

He blamed the problems on the previous Conservative government, which the auditor general's report noted had cut nearly a quarter of the military's recruiting staff and closed 13 out of 39 recruiting centres after 2008.

"I've always said having more teeth and less tail is important," he said, referring to the Tories' push for National Defence to cut administration and other back-end support.

"But if you cut too much of the tail, it impacts your ability to be effective as well."

Sajjan stopped short of committing more resources or laying out specific actions, saying only that the Liberal government's new defence policy, which is due in the spring, would touch on the two areas.

One of the themes Tuesday was Ferguson's frustration that many of the same concerns, including with recruiting and equipment maintenance and support, had been raised before, with only limited progress from the Defence Department.

He noted that it takes an average of 200 days to enroll a recruit — a problem previously identified in 2002 and 2006.

And he raised concerns that National Defence has not considered all of the costs associated with buying and operating a new piece of equipment — the same issue he raised in 2012 with the F-35 stealth fighter.

Such lack of planning has created a gap between the department's expected funding and how much it will need to maintain its hardware, he warned — a gap currently pegged at $1 billion over the next 10 years.

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