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A CF-18 Hornet sits on the tarmac at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, in Trenton, Ont., on June 20, 2022.Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

They are on to us.

The only shocking thing about that bombshell Washington Post report, that Justin Trudeau privately told NATO officials Canada would “never” meet the NATO target for defence spending of 2 per cent of GDP, is how entirely unshocking it was – to anyone, least of all our NATO allies.

You’d think it would be. Canada, after all, is a founding member of NATO, and a signatory to the 2014 NATO summit communiqué pledging member states to “move towards” hitting the 2-per-cent target by 2024. With other NATO states showing renewed commitment to the target in what everyone agrees, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is an incalculably more dangerous world, a flat refusal on Canada’s part to do the same, ever, should at least have been mildly surprising.

But the world has grown all too familiar, not only with Canada’s record as an international freeloader, but with our habit of reneging on such commitments as we do make. Canadians may imagine we are only in bad odour because of our failure to meet some arbitrary NATO target, especially after Donald Trump made such a fuss about it. But it isn’t only our NATO commitments in which we are deficient, and it isn’t only the U.S. who are fed up with our chronic malingering. It’s everyone.

As the Post story, drawing on a leaked Pentagon document, notes, “Germany is concerned about whether the Canadian Armed Forces can continue to aid Ukraine while meeting its NATO pledges. Turkey is ‘disappointed’ by the Canadian military’s ‘refusal’ to support the transport of humanitarian aid after February’s deadly earthquake … Haiti is ‘frustrated’ by Ottawa’s reluctance to lead a multinational security mission to that crisis-racked nation.”

Moreover, “some NATO members are ‘concerned’ that Canada has not increased the number of personnel deployed to Latvia … despite a pledge last year to do so. NORAD finds that the Canadian Armed Forces lacks ‘significant Arctic capabilities, and modernization plans have not materialized despite multiple public statements.’”

Again, this is not news. Neither is it attributable only to the fecklessness of the current Prime Minister. The destruction of the Canadian military has been a bipartisan project, carried out over many years – and with the enthusiastic support of the Canadian people.

The signs have all been there, to anyone who bothered to look. We just didn’t care. We thought we didn’t need a military for our own defence, and we thought the rest of the world wouldn’t mind if we ducked out on our international responsibilities. We are about to find out otherwise.

Every week, it seems, brings some new reminder of the functional incapacity of the Canadian Armed Forces. Just now we are standing by, seemingly helpless, unable to rescue the hundreds of Canadian citizens stranded in Sudan. “Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Egypt, Jordan, Spain, the Netherlands and South Korea,” The Globe and Mail reports, have landed aircraft there. But not, at time of writing, Canada. Our nationals have had to depend on flights provided by Germany and the U.S.

The government likes to point to the Latvian mission as an example of our contribution to the collective defence. But it is as much a statement of our enfeeblement: we have committed a grand total of 700 troops there, and it has more or less exhausted our capacity. The Chief of the Defence Staff, Wayne Eyre, has said as much: Between that and our modest effort to supply Ukraine with weapons, he told an interviewer in November, Canada would be “hard pressed” to take on another, comparable engagement.

With a total of about 68,000 active personnel, the CAF is estimated to be short of even meeting its present commitments by about 10,000 troops – and shrinking, thanks to its inability to attract new recruits to replace those leaving. A series of sexual-misconduct scandals has doubtless contributed – the recruitment failure is particularly glaring among women – but so, surely, has been low pay, lack of direction and a conspicuous failure to properly equip our forces.

This, too, is common knowledge. Canadians might have been shocked, way back in 2002, by reports that our troops had been sent to Afghanistan with the wrong coloured camouflage – decked out in forest green, for a fight in the desert – or that they were forced to hitch rides with American helicopters to get around, not having any themselves.

But when, 20 years later, it is reported that nothing has changed in the interim – Canadian soldiers stationed in Poland training Ukrainian personnel have been told to pay for meals at local restaurants, no military cooks having been sent with them, and bill the military afterward – the response at home is mostly a yawn. Only our allies seem put out.

The Pentagon document is unsparing. As quoted in the Post, it says virtually all of Canada’s Leopard II tanks “require extensive maintenance and lack spare parts”; in one unit fewer than one in four were even partly operational. That incident in February, when U.S., rather than Canadian fighter jets shot down an unidentified aerial object over the Yukon? According to the document, it was because the Canadian jets were unavailable. Their response “was delayed by 1 hour, necessitating U.S. assistance.”

The document goes on to say, according to the Post, that procurement decisions are “politically motivated, constrained by limited staffing and not properly codified in budget items.”

Ah yes, procurement. The shortfall in military spending might not be felt so acutely if we were getting more out of each dollar spent – or something resembling what was budgeted. The long, sorry history of Canadian defence procurement speaks otherwise. “Not properly codified” doesn’t quite do it justice. From the EH-101 helicopter contract 30 years ago, to the F-35 contract this year, the procurement story is an unbroken string of delays, cost overruns and political interference.

And that’s without getting into the 2010 National Shipbuilding Strategy, surely the worst managed construction project since the pyramids. The “strategy” is divided into more than half a dozen subprojects, every last one of which is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Just the frigate program alone – an order for 15 warships to replace our current fleet – is now projected to cost more than three times its original estimate ($85-billion, versus $26-billion), before a single ship has even been built.

That’s the acquisition cost. The full life-cycle cost, including operations and maintenance, is now put at $306-billion over 30 years. According to former assistant deputy minister of defence Alan Williams, that’s more than the entire capital budget for the same period for all of the armed forces combined. Either we will have to spend tens of billions more on servicing the ships and other hardware in future years than is currently budgeted – maybe we will hit the 2-per-cent target after all – or we will have to purchase fewer of them.

This has been going on for decades, under both Conservative and Liberal governments. It never changes, because no one wants it to change – or at least, not enough people want it to change, nor do they want it to change enough, compared with the numbers of people, in politics, in the department, in the defence industries, in the regions where the ships get built (assuming they ever do), who want very passionately for everything to go on just exactly as it has before.

The combination – an unwillingness to allocate sufficient funds to defence overall, together with massive waste of the money we do spend – is responsible for the Canadian military we have today: a force that can make only the most modest contributions where called upon abroad, and that cannot even begin to defend our own vast territory.

(Suppose Russia or China were to decide one day to sail through our waters, or even to set up shop in our North, in pursuit of its mineral wealth – not an actual invasion, perhaps, but one of those little-green-men operations that defy easy classification. What would we do? Seriously: what would we do?)

Perhaps we imagined that our vaunted “soft power” – the force of our example, the throw weight of our lectures – would substitute for the hard power of a functioning military. In the world as it is, as opposed to the world as we imagine it, that was never likely. In the world that is emerging, post-Ukraine, we may find we have neither. Increasingly, our refusal to pay our way is leading to our being shunned in the councils of the world.

The 2021 trilateral U.S.-U.K.-Australia security pact, known as AUKUS, from which Canada was pointedly excluded, was an early warning sign. This summer’s NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, is likely to be a rough ride: as it is Canada’s spending on defence is fifth-lowest among the alliance’s members in proportion to GDP, at 1.29 per cent, but others among the laggards – Spain, Slovenia – have lately committed to reach 2 per cent.

That, says Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, should now be regarded, not as an aspirational goal, but as the bare minimum. Which is to say: NATO is not messing around. It is determined to renew itself as a serious military organization. Canada’s equally determined unseriousness risks leaving us isolated and alone.

And yet even that is unlikely to change our ways. When Mr. Trudeau said we would never meet the target, he was being uncharacteristically honest. To get our defence spending up to 2 per cent of GDP would require an increase of more than $21-billion a year. Even to spend that amount would be a challenge, in the short term – so atrophied has our military become that we lack the personnel even to get the money out the door.

But financing it would be something else again. That kind of large, permanent obligation can’t responsibly be added to the deficit. Rather, there would have to be either a) an offsetting increase in taxes, equivalent to another two points on the GST – not going to happen – or b) cuts in other spending, with more obvious beneficiaries: transfers to the provinces, subsidies to business, or the latest addition to the ever-expanding portfolio of federal social benefits. The Liberals aren’t going to do that. Neither are the Tories.

They won’t because we don’t want them to: because (we assume) we have no natural predators; because the Americans will always defend us; because Canada, uniquely, is entitled to insist that other countries remain our allies even as we refuse to be theirs. We are in for some sort of an awakening. Let us hope it is only rude.

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