OTTAWA — A scathing auditor general's report Tuesday shows Canada's army reserve is in dire straits, with only a fraction of its troops properly trained, equipped and fit for international operations and domestic emergencies.
Michael Ferguson's latest audit conducted a detailed examination of the problems faced by the military's part-time branch and found that even though there are 21,000 positions on the books, only 13,944 reservists are considered active and ready for service.
The federal government's stated goal is to have a reserve force of 27,000.
The audit goes into detail about how National Defence has not only failed to recruit for the part-time force, but also how reservists are quitting at a rate faster than they can be replaced — and are doing so before they are fully trained.
"In late 2015, National Defence set a goal to increase the army reserve by 950 soldiers (five per cent) by 2019. In our opinion, this goal will be difficult to achieve given the present rate of attrition," said the audit.
The sweeping review also looked at training and found that many reservists don't receive certain basic weapons training, such as the use of a pistol or grenade launcher.
They have been woefully unprepared for some duties in combat zones, such as convoy escort and force protection, and ill-equipped for missions at home like responding to forest fires and floods.
When there is a domestic emergency, reserve units are expected to assemble trained units of up to 600 soldiers, but Ferguson's report noted that they were thrown into the field over the last few years — specifically in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba — without everything they needed, including essential items.
"When we reviewed these reports, we found many instances of key equipment lacking, such as reconnaissance vehicles, command posts, and communications equipment," the audit said.
"We found that the Canadian Army has not defined the list of equipment that all army reserve units should have for training their soldiers and teams for domestic missions. This means that army reserve units may have to rely on other Canadian Armed Forces units to provide this equipment, but we were told that it is often not available."
The former Harper government was keen on highlighting the participation of reservists, notably the Canadian Rangers, in annual Arctic exercises. In 2013, it staged a series of photo-ops with then-prime minister Stephen Harper shooting rifles and mingling with the troops, who are drawn from indigenous northern communities.
The audit says the army made a special effort to equip them, but even there Ferguson's report found support wanting.
"Following recent training exercises, these groups reported that they did not always have access to the equipment they needed to be self-sufficient, such as reliable communications and vehicles larger than light snowmobiles," said the report.
National Defence, in its response, agreed with the criticism and said it is working on the equipment issue.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the Liberals have already started investing in the reserves, but didn't explain how. He said he recognizes recruiting and retention as long-standing problems, and that the department is looking at ways to make training more engaging.
Lt.-Gen. Marquis Haines, the commander of the army, says they're putting in place measures to ensure that reservists are more prepared to deploy, both at home and abroad.
"Any gaps in training will be assessed and resolved before deployment and the completion of army reserve training objectives will be confirmed annually," he said in a statement.
Ferguson also tore a strip off the government over how it balances and pays for reservists, some of who are being called up to full-time duty. Under the law, a part-time soldier can be converted to full-time status for periods of between 180 days and three years.
But those jobs can be —and often are — renewed for longer periods of time. It was one of the criticisms in retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie's 2011 report, which was meant to overhaul administration at National Defence.
Ferguson's report goes a step further, showing that as many as 1,704 part-time soldiers are on full-time duty, but are financed out of the reserve budget.
"This means that the Canadian Army spent about 27 per cent of its overall army reserve pay and operating expenses on these full-time contracts, leaving less available for other army reserve activities," said the report.
Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press