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While there's no new money for defence in the budget, there are other ways to measure military effectiveness

by Chris Kilford (feat. David Perry)

Ottawa Citizen
March 23, 2017

Now that the 2017 federal budget has been released, it’s clear the Canadian government has bravely determined not to heed Donald Trump’s call for NATO partners to spend more on defence. One can imagine that other NATO countries, facing similar financial challenges to Canada, are now waiting to see what reaction, if any, will be forthcoming from Washington.  

Of course, with the recent release of the NATO Secretary General’s 2016 Annual Report, it’s clear to see why the United States is fed up with most of its NATO allies, whom it accuses of spending far too little on defence. When NATO members re-pledged, at the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales in 2014, to reach a defence spending target of two-per-cent of GDP by 2024, very few took the pledge seriously.

Then again, as Craig Stone recently noted in a Canadian Global Affairs Institute report, “how much a nation spends on its armed forces as a percentage of GDP is not a good measure for determining actual military capability.” Some NATO countries, for example, spend huge amounts on salaries and pensions with little left over for arms, ammunition and training. That’s one reason NATO members also pledged in 2014 to spend a minimum of 20 per cent of their defence budgets acquiring major new equipment. 

According to NATO estimates, Canada spent about $20.6 billion on defence in 2016 with approximately 46 per cent going towards personnel costs, 18 per cent for equipment, five per cent for infrastructure upkeep and the rest on such items as operations, training and maintenance. Overall, it’s not a bad record although our defence spending has remained fixed at around one per cent of GDP for several years and, given the latest budget, that’s not about to change.

But other NATO countries have much to answer for when it comes to how their defence budgets are distributed. NATO estimates show that 77 per cent of Belgium’s defence budget went to personnel costs in 2016 and only 4.6 per cent for equipment. Portugal spent 78 per cent of its defence budget on personnel costs, Slovenia 76 per cent, Greece 70 per cent and Italy 69 per cent. The result is people in uniform but often with aging equipment, no money for training and the potential for a very leaky roof overhead.

Elsewhere, Turkey spent an estimated 1.69 per cent of its GDP on defence in 2016 and fielded an impressive 380,000 troops. But a good deal of that combat power was simply not available for NATO’s use because much of the army and air force remained focused on combatting the Kurdish PKK in Turkey’s southeast.

While the NATO defence spending debate will no doubt continue, at the same time the United States needs a gentle reminder that the alliance is not the one-way street the U.S. routinely makes it out to be. For example, in return for Washington’s defensive umbrella, many NATO allies have provided troops in support of American-led post-Cold War interventions in such places as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.  As a consequence, countries such as Germany, Greece, Italy and Turkey are now responsible for millions of refugees. Yet soon after assuming office, President Trump was quick to slash the number of refugees the United States will take in this year from a planned 110,000 to just 50,000.

The point is that burden-sharing among NATO members is more than just spending two per cent of GDP on defence.  Besides, as Stone importantly notes, “Canada’s military is far more capable than those of other nations that spend much more on defence as a percentage of GDP.” Of course, Canada should never rest on its military laurels; it would not be in our national interest to do so. But we, like many of our NATO allies, are simply not in a position to spend two per cent of GDP on defence for the foreseeable future, if ever.


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