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Liberals hike military spending to pay for more soldiers, fighters, warships

by Bruce Campion-Smith (feat. Dave Perry)

Toronto Star
June 7, 2017

OTTAWA—The Liberal government has unveiled a dramatic revamp of Canada’s military, promising new fighter jets and warships, drones for surveillance and airstrikes, new capabilities to conduct cyber warfare and more front line soldiers, all backed by big budget hikes that could push Ottawa’s books deeper into the red.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan took the wraps off the long-awaited defence policy review Wednesday and set out the Liberal government’s vision for the Canadian Armed Forces for the next 20 years.

Titled “Strong, Secure, Engaged,” the document details a strategy to invest in military personnel and equipment, backed by a big boost in spending.

It calls for a hike in annual defence funding from $18.9 billion now to $32.7 billion by 2026-27 — a boost of $6.6 billion over the next five years and $62.3 billion in additional funding over the next two decades.

But with the next federal election just over two years away, the question is whether future governments will feel obliged to act on this Liberal plan.

Sajjan had set the stage for the defence review with a warning that the army, air force and navy have all been underfunded.

With the release of the new defence strategy, Sajjan declared, “today, we set a new course.

“Much of this investment is long overdue. It is necessary to address current and looming gaps in existing capabilities,” he told a crowd of military personnel assembled at an Ottawa armoury for the announcement.

The government framed its defence plan as “ambitious, yet realistic.”

It reaffirms the traditional roles for the armed forces: defend the country and the continent and make “concrete contributions” on the world stage.

To do it, it sets out a strategy to refurbish existing capabilities — warships and fighter jets — but also promises big changes to deal with emerging threats. This includes creating a new trade in the armed forces — cyber operator — to attract “best and brightest” to the field of cyber warfare and a vow to conduct “active” operations against potential adversaries.

It calls for a bigger military, boosting the ranks of the regular force by 3,500 to 71,500, and the reserve force by 1,500 members to 30,000 members.

And it pledges to transform the makeup of the armed forces, enshrining the promise by Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of the defence staff, to have women make up 25 per cent of the armed forces by 2026.

The plan provides greater clarity — and price tags — for several problem-plagued purchases. The government says it will build 15 warships, replacing the existing frigates and retired destroyers at a cost of up to $60 billion, more than double the original budget of $26 billion.

The plan also reaffirms the navy’s intent to retain submarines, with a plan to refurbish the frequently troubled Victoria-class fleet of sub to keep them operating past 2040.

The air force will get 88 new fighters, up from the 65 the previous Conservative government had planned, at a projected cost of between $15 billion and $19 billion.

As well, the government will replace aging CP-140 Aurora surveillance aircraft and the CC-150 Polaris jets that serve as transports and refuellers.

The army gets updated vehicles, ground-based air defence and new capabilities to counter improvised explosives that proved so deadly in Afghanistan.

Defence analyst Dave Perry said he was “pleasantly surprised” with the announcement, saying it pumps a “lot of quite needed money” into the military.

“We’re talking major investments in a lot of critical areas,” said Perry, a senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

But he said the success of the strategy hinges on reforming the way government makes big-ticket military purchases. He warned that changes outlined in the plan to streamline procurement don’t go far enough.

“There’s going to need to be a paradigm shift in defence procurement to make this policy happen. What they’re proposing in terms of changes . . . is really just kind of fiddling,” he said.

In her Tuesday speech that highlighted Canada’s foreign policy principles, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland had previewed the prospect of more defence spending.

“To put it plainly: Canadian diplomacy and development sometimes require the backing of hard power,” Freeland said.

Sajjan picked up on that point Wednesday, declaring that the armed forces are an “indispensable instrument” of Canada’s foreign policy. “If we’re serious about our role in the world, we must be serious about funding our military,” he said.

Canada and other NATO nations have been under pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump to boost military spending to meet the commitment to spend two per cent of their GDP on defence.

Sajjan insisted Wednesday that Washington’s pressure was not a factor in the decision to hike spending. “This policy is for Canada. . . . This is about our responsibility to the world,” he said.

Canada currently spends about 1 per cent of its GDP on the military. But the review says Canada will be changing how it calculates defence spending to put its funding in a more favourable light. Even then, by 2026, Canada will be spending 1.4 per cent of GDP, still short of the NATO target.

Conservative defence critic James Bezan said substantial investments are needed today — “not in 20 years.

“Unfortunately, we learned that the majority of the funding announced today won’t be available until after the next election and the government won’t tell us where it is going to come from,” Bezan said.

Indeed, a question mark hangs over how that spending might impact Ottawa’s bottom line. Asked where the new funding will come from, Sajjan sidestepped that question Wednesday, saying only that the government was providing sustainable funding “because it’s what’s needed.”

Perry said the billions of dollars in new defence spending will delay Ottawa’s return to a balanced budget.

“I don’t think there’s any question about what it means to the bottom line. This pushes us quite some distance away from a balanced budget,” Perry said.

A finance department spokesperson said they have been working with the defence department on the new strategy and were aware of the “associated costs.

“While today’s announcement provides more details, it doesn’t materially change the Government’s fiscal outlook,” Jack Aubry said in an email.

The Liberal government rolled out its priorities for foreign policy and defence this week but its plans for a long-awaited peace support mission remain a mystery.

Indeed, the topic of peacekeeping got scant mention, either in Tuesday’s major foreign policy statement by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland or in the defence policy review.


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