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jeffrey simpson

Canada's Conservative government loves the idea of the military; it just doesn't always like the military.

The idea of the military conforms to the Conservatives' sense of the country and its history – "true north, strong and free" – and the idea of the military fits the party's political agenda. So we have monuments to the War of 1812, a National Day of Honour to recognize the Afghan mission, military ceremonies at home and abroad and, most recently, the announcement that $83-million will be spent over the remainder of the decade to commemorate military history and veterans.

Meanwhile, while all this is being done for public consumption, the defence budget – which is, after all, what reflects any government's real policies – is now smaller after accounting for inflation than in 2007, not long after the government was elected with a pledge to boost military spending.

Capital spending on military equipment has declined four years in a row and remains on a downward trend. As a share of the defence budget, capital spending has dropped to the lowest level since 1977-78.

These arresting facts, and others, were recently unveiled in a paper by David Perry, senior security and defence analyst for the Ottawa-based Conference of Defence Associations Institute. He notes that the defence budget became the sitting duck for the government's deficit-reduction strategy. Defence cuts accounted for a quarter of the overall drop in government spending in the 2014 budget.

Inside government, far from the headlines, the Department of National Defence has experienced problems getting Treasury Board approval for its investment plans. As a result, fiscal years pass without the department having the necessary approval to spend. For four straight years, about a quarter of the department's budget for capital purchases has gone unspent, according to Mr. Perry's study.

The military, as opposed to the idea of the military, keeps creating political problems for the government. Repeatedly, stories have appeared that put the military – as in, the government – in a poor light. The aborted F-35 fighter-jet purchase, a decision about which has apparently been delayed again, is only the most obvious.

Even when the news can be spun positively, the real news is bad. The government recently signed a deal with Sikorsky for new maritime helicopters to replace its Sea Kings, acquired in the 1960s. Delivery of these 28 new Sikorsky birds, at a cost of $5.7-billion, will end a saga that began in 2004, when Ottawa signed a contract for the delivery of one aircraft a month beginning in 2008.

So it is with many defence procurements: They get announced, with the government's spin machine in high gear. Then, for a variety of reasons, projects get delayed, run over budget or don't get built at all. At each stage, the government looks bad.

Fixed-wing search-and-rescue planes, multimission patrol aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, joint support ships, Arctic offshore patrol ships, destroyers, fighter jets – all these projects have experienced problems that have led to damaging headlines. They made the government look bad and these headlines got the government very annoyed at the military, as opposed to the idea of the military.

This government sometimes talks tough in foreign policy, as with Ukraine and Libya, but lacks the modern military capability to back up its tough talk.

In the not-too-distant future, it could be that the government decides to join the U.S. anti-ballistic missile system, as was recommended recently by a Senate committee with a Conservative majority. That would come with price tag, but where would the money come from?

Part of the problem still haunting the Conservatives is that they fell in love with the idea of the military while in opposition without knowing much about it. As a result, the party made a series of foolish promises – the most evident of which was to build and station three armed heavy naval icebreakers in the Arctic. There were other unrealistic and not properly considered promises that caught the government in the snare of its own rhetoric.

A lot of time was wasted disentangling the government from its illusions. It is still easier politically, and less costly financially, to be in love with illusions about the military and its past glories than with the hard realities of today's military and its requirements.

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