Canada has never been a big spender on the military, outside of wartime. And that’s not likely to change on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cash-strapped watch.
In its first throne speech the Trudeau government promised to review the country’s defence capabilities and “invest in building a leaner, more agile, better-equipped military.” At the same time the government has signaled it intends to hold the line on defence spending.
That doesn’t suggest any major expansion is in order for the military’s current $19-billion budget, which includes $13.5 billion in operating costs plus $4 billion in capital spending to keep aging aircraft in the skies, warships at sea and tanks and fighting vehicles from rusting out.
And that may leave Canada at the rock bottom of the Group of Eight list of industrial countries, tied with Italy for last place, when it comes to military spending measured against the size of our economy. In the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, we’re tied with the Italians, Czechs, Slovaks and Slovenians. By NATO standards we should be spending twice what we do.
By way of comparison, Australia, with a smaller economy than ours, spends $30 billion on defence.
Apart from inheriting a threadbare budget, newly installed Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan must also cope with the Conservative government’s F-35 warplane bungle, an unsustainable warship replacement program and other pressing capital needs. There just isn’t enough money to buy every bright shiny weapon in the window.
However, it does suggest that Sajjan needs to make focus the priority, as he pulls together the “new defence strategy” that his ministerial mandate letter requires. Not to save money, but to put limited resources to best use. Funding must follow focus. That means facing up to hard choices.
Canadians expect the armed forces to be able to protect our sovereignty, share the burden of defending North America, support United Nations peace efforts and contribute to allied operations overseas.
But that gives the Liberals some scope for redefining the “level of ambition” they have for the military. The Trudeau government needs to be selective about the tasks we give the military, and the hardware we deploy. And it rightly recognizes that there is a crying need to pare back the bloated defence department bureaucracy, put personnel to better use and relentlessly squeeze waste. If an axe falls it should be on paper shufflers, not on frontline fighting forces, the people who keep their gear in shape and the scientists and engineers who give them a combat edge.
Given Canada’s responsibilities as a partner in the defence of North America, a NATO member and a strong UN supporter, Canada’s military should be a modest but genuinely robust fighting force, interoperable with our American and other allies, rather than a lightly armed constabulary geared chiefly to patrolling our skies and coasts.
That means we need a fleet of 65 Boeing F/A Super Hornets (or some other “more affordable” aircraft than the F-35), plus a new fleet of 15 or so warships, Arctic patrol vessels and supply ships, and more armour and service vehicles for the army. There’s just no way around it. Other, lesser priorities will have to wait.
As the Star has written before, Canadians learned from the wars in the Balkans, our long mission in Afghanistan, the air war over Libya and recently in Iraq and Syria that both peacekeeping and warfighting in the 21st century require highly expeditionary – that is, mobile – regular military and special forces, with advanced weaponry. They in turn need sustained support from military scientists, intelligence analysts and cyber and space assets. It’s a complex, costly, high-tech mix.
Sajjan’s challenge will be to develop a credible vision for Canada’s military role, to explain that vision to a public that tends to recoil from sticker shock, and to fight for the funding to implement it.