In The Media

Defence review coming today will detail military's role in Liberals' foreign policy vision

by Murray Brewster (feat Dave Perry)

CBC News
June 7, 2017

Almost 14 months in the making, the Liberal government is set to deliver what it claims will be a substantive defence policy that will guide the Canadian military for the next generation.

It comes on the heels of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's address to Parliament, which among other things laid out the case for a bigger defence budget.

She argued Tuesday that Canada can no longer rely solely on the United States to safeguard the nation's borders and interests and that the "principled use of force" must be an option for future federal governments in an increasingly uncertain world.

The nuts and bolts of how that vision will be accomplished — at least in the defence realm — will be laid out today.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and the chief of the defence staff will unveil the plan at 12:30 p.m. ET.

It has been over 22 years since the last Liberal white paper on defence.

And the last time Canadians saw something akin to a vision for the Armed Forces was in 2008 with the Conservative Canada First Defence Strategy.

"That was meant to be a 20-year document as well. And you saw how far that went," said Richard Cohen, a former senior military officer and adviser to ex-defence minister Peter MacKay.

Cohen helped write the Conservative plan, which promised a parade of new equipment.

Soon after it was delivered it proved to be unaffordable in the context of a global economic recession and the deficits clocked by the former prime minister Stephen Harper's government.

The Conservatives promised "stable and predictable funding" in the form of an annual increase in operational spending.

But those hikes were more than offset by deficit-fighting cuts and cancelled programs elsewhere at National Defence, which eventually added up to a $2.1 billion per year reduction in the department's allocation.

The Liberals have insisted the plan on Wednesday will be fully-costed and affordable into the future.

However, analyst Dave Perry, of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said that will depend on the appetite of future governments, regardless of whether they are Liberal, Conservative, or otherwise, to carry on with the spending plan.

"What's the likelihood it's going to come pass?" Perry asked.

He said one of the most important aspects the public should be watching for on Wednesday is not necessarily how much the Liberals intend to spend, but when.

"When equipment purchases and plans are pushed further into the future, it will give it a far lesser degree of certainty and credibility than something that starts to happen, say, this year," he said.

The Trump administration has been pushing allies, including Canada, to boost their defence spending to meeting the NATO benchmark of two per cent of a nation's gross domestic product.

That would require Canada to literally double its military allocation to just over $40 billion.

The Liberals, like the Conservatives before them, have argued it is not how much a nation spends but how often it shows up when the international community calls.

Regardless of the figure, Cohen said it will be interesting to see where the Liberals get the money for their increase.

During the Conservative years, National Defence was unable to spend more than $8.7 billion of its allocation from the federal treasury.

"How much will be new money and how much will be recycled is something to consider," said Cohen.

The Liberals have already laid down some markers on what to expect.

Sajjan, in a speech last month, noted there were major budget shortfalls in terms of necessary equipment programs that had no dollars attached to them.

Also, the prime minister has indicated that there has been an under-investment in troops and support services for them.

Late Friday, the government announced a long-awaited pay increase with retroactive provisions.

"The troops will be happy because they're getting more money," said Cohen. "Of course, the more money that goes into personnel, the less goes into real [operational] capability."

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