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Friday, October 13, 2006

Canada armed forces "on life support": top soldier

Canada's overstretched armed forces "are still very much on life support systems" despite recent budget increases, the country's top soldier said on Thursday.

General Rick Hillier's remarks were clearly aimed at former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who was cool to the military and presided over sharp cuts in spending during his time in power from 1993 to 2003.

Canada currently has 2,300 troops in Afghanistan and Hillier said they need more armored vehicles immediately.

Chretien was replaced by fellow Liberal Paul Martin, who upped military spending. Canada's new Conservative government, which won power in January in part on a promise to boost the armed forces, says it will spend C$17 billion ($15 billion) on new helicopters, planes, ships and trucks.

Although Hillier is known for being outspoken, his remarks to the Canadian Association of Defense and Security Industries on Thursday were noticeably blunt.

"We are just starting to emerge from a decade of darkness in the Canadian forces, where everything that we did, every day's activity, all of our focus intellectually and physically (was) designed to constrain, reduce, close, get rid of, stop doing or minimize," Hillier said.

The cuts in both funding and personnel were "incredibly demoralizing" and came at the same time as the remaining troops were being asked to work harder.

"The combination was a body blow that we in uniform now are just beginning to realize how severe it was (sic). The body blow of all those things, a confluence of the perfect storm, has left us in a fragile set of circumstances, still very much on life support systems across the Canadian forces," Hillier said.

"But we're headed back in a way that all of us are proud to be a part of ... We've got investment coming in and we've actually started down the road to do a whole bunch of things that we've been waiting for decades to get at."

Canada has a total of 84,000 full-time and reserve soldiers. Last year the Liberals vowed expand the regular armed forces by 5,000 soldiers to 67,000 over five years. The Conservatives plan to increase that total to 75,000.

"Right now in recruiting centers across our country ... we're seeing twice as many applicants show up as we did this time last year," Hillier said.

($1=$1.13 Canadian)

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