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Politics Canada’s new defence spending must come quickly, experts say

Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland delivers a speech in the House of Commons on Canada's Foreign Policy in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Sean Kilpatrick/the canadian press

Canada's military is set for a big budget boost, but experts say the real question is whether there will be a quick infusion of cash to offset years of neglect.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan will unveil a blueprint for the military's future on Wednesday, including a long-term budget, as part of a defence policy review.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland raised expectations for the announcement when she promised Tuesday that there would be a "substantial investment" in the Canadian Armed Forces. Shortly after, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government would increase spending on military equipment but also on the services offered to Canadian troops.

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Experts say the new investments will need to come into effect quickly in order to repair years of neglect.

"These long-term plans have the habit of having a lot of the money being back-end loaded," said David Perry, a senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. "The question will be how much money there is and how much of it will be above the existing budget projections."

Michael Byers, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, said the procurement system is in such disarray that the government will be hard-pressed to quickly beef up Canada's military capabilities.

"There could be significant increased spending promised in the defence policy review with no impact on the budgets of this, or even the next, government," said Prof. Byers, the Canada research chair in global politics and international law.

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According to NATO figures, Canada spent $20.6-billion on defence last year, or 1.02 per cent of gross domestic product. The United States spent 3.6 per cent of GDP on the military, or $664-billion (U.S.).

Canada is facing pressure from the United States to boost its defence spending, which Mr. Sajjan has acknowledged is a clear necessity.

"We are now in the troubling position where status quo spending on defence will not even maintain a status quo of capabilities," he said in April. "Current funding has us digging ourselves into a hole – a hole that gets deeper every year. As a percentage of GDP, we are spending less on defence today than we were in 2005."

The result of Canada's defence policy review will be closely watched in defence circles. Key questions will be whether the government will announce plans to purchase new submarines and how it will proceed with the acquisition of an interim fleet of Super Hornet fighter jets. That plan is currently stalled over a commercial dispute involving Boeing.

In addition, the government is expected to announce how many fighter jets it wants for the full fleet it plans to buy in the 2020s. The previous government said 65 would be enough, but Ottawa now says that number was insufficient to meet all of Canada's domestic and international obligations. The price tag for a bigger fleet is expected to be in the billions.

Prof. Byers said the Forces are currently in a state of "extreme crisis," with the Royal Canadian Navy running out of functioning ships and the Royal Canadian Air Force still years away from getting its new fleet of fighter jets. "The government has inherited a badly broken Canadian Forces and it clearly has a monumental task ahead that is only beginning," he said.

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The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that a large chunk of the new money will be used to refurbish existing equipment or pay for already planned acquisitions. Mr. Perry said Canada needs to spend about $2-billion a year simply to deal with "unfunded capital equipment projects."

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