J.L. Granatstein is a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.
A few years ago I wrote that no government since that of Louis St. Laurent in the 1950s had done more to improve the defence of Canada than Stephen Harper's Conservatives. The St. Laurent Liberals built up the armed forces to deal with the war in Korea and with the defence of North America and western Europe in the face of Soviet expansionism. At its peak, the defence budget took more than 7 per cent of Canada's Gross Domestic Product, and the army, navy, and air force had as many as 120,000 men and women in the regular forces.
No one could expect any government in this century to spend on that scale, but the Conservative government did treat defence well in its first years in power. The commitment to the Afghan War, never very popular, was handled capably, and the troops received everything they needed – helicopters, new artillery, upgraded armoured personnel carriers, and tanks, not to mention new transport aircraft. The number of regulars rose slowly and slightly toward 65,000, and the government presented a schematic Canada First Defence Policy in 2008 that listed a range of objectives and equipment acquisitions. The budget projections were colossal, almost $500-billion to be spent over the next 20 years.
But somewhere along the way, the Harper government lost its sense of purpose on defence. We don't know precisely what happened, but it seems likely that the Prime Minister realized that the war in Afghanistan – and the regular convoys of hearses from the air base at Trenton to the coroner's office in Toronto – was increasingly unpopular and unsettling to Canadians. The soldiers had the public's admiration and support, but the war did not. Similarly, he must have come to the conclusion that Canadians did not much like defence spending when their health care or child care or tax cuts were more important to them. Better to let the United States carry the load abroad and in the defence of North America. This might have been a foolish attitude on the part of the people, but Mr. Harper is very good at reading opinion polls and focus groups.
The result was that the defence budget was cut, in substantial part because deficit reduction and a budget surplus were more important than "toys for the boys." From a peak of $21-billion in 2009-10, the defence budget in this fiscal year is $18.2-billion, about a 13 per cent reduction in dollars made worse by inflation. The percentage of GDP spent on defence is now hovering at 1 per cent, the lowest since the 1930s. In 2009, it was 1.3 per cent. Making matters even worse, the Department of National Defence somehow cannot spend all the money it gets, returning almost $10-billion to the Treasury since 2006.
There are still plans for equipment purchases – some day. Procurements grind forward at a glacial pace: new ships for the Royal Canadian Navy are in process but are unlikely to be afloat for a decade or more, and the costs, because everything has to be constructed in shipyards that had to be created anew, are going to be stratospheric; an expensive new fighter-bomber for the Royal Canadian Air Force is under study and up for consideration (and has been for years), but the F-35 is/is not the right fit, depending on which bureaucrat or general or minister or Opposition expert is talking on what day of the week; instead, the government may try to keep the aging fleet of CF18's flying until 2025; and the Army, licking its wounds from Afghanistan, still has to get by without good trucks because, incredibly, no contract has yet been let to purchase them in this nation of automobile factories. Even if the Army had its trucks, the costs of operating and maintaining them and its helicopters and tanks is too high for real training under the present straitened circumstances.
Notwithstanding the funding-induced paralysis in the military, the Harper government talks tough. We are the best friends of Israel and Ukraine, and we will slap sanctions on the Russians and send a handful of soldiers on training exercises to Poland, a few fighter jets to Romania or the Baltic states, and a frigate to the Black Sea to show our teeth. Canadian rhetoric can match anyone's, even as our equipment is slipping rapidly into obsolescence.
I voted for the Conservatives in the last two elections because I believed their promises to improve the nation's military. I have been utterly disappointed, and I will not vote for them in 2015. My difficulty on election day, of course, will be that the NDP and Liberals will likely be even worse in their treatment of the Canadian Forces.