Skip to main content

A poignant Remembrance Day passed yesterday with the rededication of the War Memorial in Ottawa and the painful, fresh memory of two soldiers slain on Canadian soil by lone-wolf killers.

The dedication ceremony, which Prime Minister Stephen Harper resolutely flew home from China for before taking off again for New Zealand, was beautifully planned and attended by more citizens than ever in recent years.

The military, a portion of which is now engaged in Iraq, has rarely been more popular in Canada since the Second World War. At professional hockey games, soldiers are introduced and the entire crowd rises and applauds. Poppy sales are way up.

The 100th anniversary of the First World War. The sense that Second World War veterans are dwindling in number. The sacrifices in Afghanistan. The unsettled nature of today's world. The participation in the war against the Islamic State. The deaths of Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent.

A decade or so ago, there was nothing like this affection for the military. Perhaps the affection has a deeper source, the deepening patriotism of Canadians that has grown from self-confidence and accomplishment.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government loves the military. Loving the actual practice of defence is another matter.

It is ironic that while the military's reputation has never been higher in contemporary Canada, veterans' associations are mad at the government over a range of issues. On the political defensive, the government has just appointed a new deputy minister of veterans' affairs, former military chief of staff Walter Natynczyk, to calm the troubled waters.

The defence budget is being cut and defence procurement remains deeply difficult. Perhaps the government's approach mirrors public opinion: keen on the military, not so keen on defence spending. Ask Canadians what they prefer to spend more on – defence won't be anywhere near the top of the list.

After rising in the early years of the Harper government, the defence budget fell victim to the government's determination to balance the budget in time for the next election and the tax cuts that are preceding it.

Everywhere in the National Defence Department, the scramble is on to pare back, a scramble that must intensify as the unexpected costs of going to war in Iraq take a bite out of the budget.

On the procurement side, several pieces of good news arrived in 2014, according to the now-yearly survey of procurement by Prof. Elinor Sloan of Carleton University. The last of the 15 Chinook helicopters was delivered. The Sapphire satellite at the core of the Canadian Space Surveillance System reached full operational capability last January.

Unfortunately, too many other projects have sputtered. Why? Former civil servants, military analysts and students of public administration all offer answers. Prof. Sloan highlights a contradiction at the heart of the government's approach: simultaneous desires to source equipment in Canada and to keep costs down.

Buying equipment "off the shelf" usually means purchasing something already produced and being used by allies. It means speedier delivery and considerable reliability, because the equipment has been tested elsewhere.

Purchasing this way diminishes Canadian "content" – that is, jobs, local technology and the chance of building up long-term capability in Canada. Not unlike previous governments, the Conservatives want the "made in Canada" approach, as has been recommended by two reports delivered to the government in recent years.

Going local usually leads to delays, partly because the military is designing and trying something new. Delays also happen because within a relatively small defence budget, the military tries to design equipment that can do many things on the same platform, adding to complications and costs.

Last year, as Prof. Sloan has noted, there was no design chosen for either the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ship or the Canadian Surface Combatant vessel. Nor was there a contract for fixed-wing search-and-rescue aircraft, nor any steel laid for the Joint Support Ship.

Maritime helicopters, once promised for 2008, might begin arriving in 2018. And, of course, the government has backed off any replacement of the aging CF-18s fighters (of the kind sent to Iraq).

The proposed replacement, the F-35 stealth jet, has thus far been too politically controversial and burdened with mounting costs. It's doubtful the government will touch this hot potato before the 2015 election. Ergo, more delays.

The record, therefore, is one of loving the military but loving defence somewhat less.