Will Trudeau fill all Canada's defence capability gaps?

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OP-ED

by David Perry

The Hill Times
December 7, 2016

The Trudeau government’s announcement of its way forward on fighter jets can be taken as a positive indication of its attitude toward the military in general. Unhappy with former prime minister Stephen Harper’s ‘risk-management’ of Canada’s fighter commitments, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ministers are looking to buy an interim fleet of jets immediately, and are launching a competition to acquire a larger than previously planned fleet of fighters once the defence policy review is finished.

The Liberal message on fighters is clear: the Royal Canadian Air Force did not have enough jets to live up to Canada’s alliance commitments so the government has acted swiftly to provide it new resources immediately.

This is a positive indication of the government’s thinking as cabinet is briefed to make a decision on the Department of National Defence’s policy review. The message from DND will be clear: without an injection of tens of billions of dollars in new funding, there will be a long list of defence commitments that Canada won’t be able to meet.

While the prime minister has declared that “Canada is back” internationally, fiscally, the Department of National Defence is back in the red. It needs another $20- to $50-billion to translate previous policy direction into the capital equipment needed to execute it. In addition, like the rest of the country, National Defence faces a massive, multi-billion-dollar infrastructure deficit by virtue of its vast and antiquated real estate holdings. Finally, it is short by several thousand positions. 

If it doesn’t get another few billion dollars more for its budget each year (over time), National Defence can’t afford to maintain the status quo, let alone support a “Canada is Back” foreign policy.

The need for more money isn’t a function of how much more Canada would need to spend on defence to meet its commitment to NATO of spending two per cent of gross domestic product on the military. Neither is it some self-interested bureaucratic desire to expand the budget. It’s a question of whether Canada wants a military that can keep doing the same types of things that it has over the last few decades, or whether the Trudeau government is willing to accept one that does less.

How did this situation come to pass?

Successive governments, both Conservative and Liberal, have progressively asked much of our armed forces but given them less than required to deliver on it. At the same time, the ability to understand fully the impact of budget choices historically was much weaker than it is today. 

Successive governments added additional demands without removing old ones, in a defence environment where costs escalate at a rate significantly higher than they do in the general economy. Consequently, when this government assumed office more than a year ago, it inherited a defence deficit not of its own making.

To be clear, the situation to date is not the result of Prime Minister Trudeau cutting the defence budget, because he directed his minister of defence to “maintain current National Defence spending levels, including current planned increases.” They’ve stuck to that plan so far, but as they’ve now learned, that plan won’t cut it. Without an injection of funding, the Canadian military will atrophy, reducing our ability to provide for our own defence or further our interests in the world.

This government has shown with its fighter decision that it would surely find that situation unpalatable. If its strong desire for Canada to live up to its defence commitments in the fighter domain applies to the rest of the military, then DND is about to receive a major budget increase.

David Perry is a senior analyst and fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Image: DND/ Cpl. Mark Schombs

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