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It was 720 days ago that Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland stood in the House of Commons to intone about the threat posed by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, warning that the first land war in Europe in eight decades showed why “the defence of hard power” mattered.

That was the reason, Ms. Freeland said in her 2022 budget speech, that the Liberal government proposed “a swift defence policy review to equip Canada for a world that has become more dangerous.”

How quick is swift? Even allowing for the difference between the studied pace of government operations and that of the wider world, 720 days seem to look less like swift and more like paralysis brought on by a government caught between the desire to do not very much and the knowledge it cannot say so out loud.

However long swift takes, it apparently takes longer than “soon,” which is how Defence Minister Bill Blair described the timing of the defence policy update in a speech earlier this month to the Conference of Defence Associations Institute conference. Mr. Blair, at least, seemed somewhat apologetic: “None of you want to hear me say soon. And I don’t want to tell you soon.”

A Globe and Mail story this week shed light on what might be behind the nearly two-year delay of the, er, swift review: the government isn’t hearing what it wants to hear. The Liberals are experiencing sticker shock over the cost of new submarines, tanks and drones, according to a senior official.

The reality is that merely replacing aging ships, planes, tanks and other equipment will be enormously costly; defence analyst David Perry estimates there are currently $100-billion of unfunded capital asset replacement projects.

Add to that the cost of basic munitions such as artillery shells, and much-needed new equipment such as modern anti-aircraft defences for the Canadian Army.

The Liberals are dropping hints that they may unveil the defence policy update around the time of the 75th anniversary of the founding of NATO, in July. Doing so would require a sharp reversal of current policy, or breathtaking chutzpah.

Two weeks ago, NATO published its official estimates of each member’s military spending for 2023. The upshot: Canada is the worst ally in the alliance. Each NATO member has committed to meeting two goals. First, to spend at least 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defence and second, at least 20 per cent of defence expenditures are made on major new equipment, and related R&D.

The first goal is a measure of resources devoted to the military; the second is a gauge of how much spending is focused on the pointy end of the stick. Canada is the only NATO member that is projected to fall short on both measures.

Adding to that concern is the trend evident in the NATO data of Canada failing to spend even the inadequate amounts it has promised. Last year’s NATO numbers said Canada’s military spending would tally $35.5-billion in 2022. In this year’s update, that total declined to $33.7-billion.

Early in their tenure, the Liberals made use of NATO’s accounting rules to boost Canada’s defence spending, wrapping in expenditures on such things as military pensions. Those changes were and are allowed, but they did nothing to enhance Canada’s military capacity.

A repeat effort would be unwise. Canada’s allies aren’t looking for clever accounting to close this country’s defence gap. Real money, and a real plan, is needed. Roughly speaking, Canada would need to add $20-billion to current spending to hit the GDP goal. That magnitude of increase would involve squeezing the rest of the federal budget (starting with the bloated federal civil services), and at the very least devoting new revenues to the Department of Defence. At the same time, the government needs to build up its procurement capacity, and eliminate roadblocks to recruitment.

None of this will be achieved quickly. Years of neglect cannot be overcome overnight. But the defence policy update needs to lay out a clear and credible path to Canada meeting its obligations to NATO (not to mention, to the members of the armed forces).

A failure to do so will relegate Canada to the periphery of NATO discussions, as well as making it clear to the United States that it needs to assume responsibility for the defence of the Arctic. So, what will the Trudeau Liberals pick: a hard road to rebuilding relevance, or continued decline?

The moment of decision is approaching – swiftly.

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