Liberals ‘absolutely’ behind military: Sajjan
by Lee Berthiaume (feat. David Perry)
April 7, 2016
OTTAWA — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says the Liberal government is “absolutely” committed to the Canadian Armed Forces, but that need — not want — will decide the size of the military and what kind of equipment it fields.
Sajjan made the remarks in an interview Thursday, as the government conducts Canada’s first comprehensive defence review in a generation. The Liberals promised the review during the election campaign, and a new defence policy is expected in early 2017.
Military officials as well as industry representatives and defence experts have largely welcomed the review, saying a medium- to long-term assessment of Canada’s military requirements was long overdue. But the Liberals also promised a “leaner, more agile” military, prompting fears of a stripped-down force.
Sajjan insisted the Liberal government is looking to strengthen the Armed Forces, not weaken it.
“I think what many Canadians are asking for is: Is this government committed to the military?” he said. “And the answer is absolutely yes.”
But Sajjan also left the door open to cancelling some planned defence purchases, saying the guiding principle will be whether the armed forces actually needs certain equipment or capabilities.
“I want to make sure if we’re going to be looking at purchasing certain things, that we are actually going to need it,” he said.
Earlier this week, Sajjan launched public consultations as part of the defence review. Among the questions being asked are whether the military needs to continue search-and-rescue operations and disaster-relief missions abroad, or if other organizations are better placed to do so.
The Canadian military has in the past tried to do everything, Sajjan said. He would like instead to maintain “a complete, sound foundation of our combat capability,” while focusing on some niche areas where Canada can specialize.
“So it’s not ‘do everything’,” he said. “It’s core foundation, with a few niches, but flexible enough within enough time to be able to switch.”
While some may interpret that as indicative of plans to slash the military, Sajjan defended the government’s record. He noted that last month’s budget included $200 million to fix up military bases and maintained small annual increases to the department’s operating budget.
He also took credit for the controversial decision to delay $3.7 billion in planned equipment purchases over the next few years, saying it ensures the money will be available when needed. Some experts and critics have panned the so-called re-profiling as a budget cut.
At the same time, Sajjan said plans to buy new fighter aircraft and warships will proceed independently of the defence review. He said the review won’t change those two procurement projects, the largest in Canadian history, because they address some of the military’s “staple” needs.
“We know we need to replace our frigates,” he said. “Our supply ships, we don’t even have any right now. So if anybody right now says ‘Hold off on building your supply ships,’ well, if we want a navy, we need supply ships.”
Defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute has estimated a $60-billion gap between current funding for new military equipment, and what the military is planning to purchase over the next 20 years.
But Perry said many of those things are essential for the military to operate, including trucks, communications gear and radar for defending North American airspace. “A big chunk of those unfunded priorities are systems that you’re going to need, no matter what your defence policy is,” Perry said.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan said every government faces the challenge of separating what the military wants from what it needs. But he worried the Liberals had already determined they wanted a smaller force, “and I hope (the review) isn’t the catalyst to put us into another era of darkness for our troops.”