Skip to main content

Hundreds of people interested in defence, and therefore not representative of Canadians, gathered Thursday in Ottawa for the Conference of Defence Associations Institute's annual meeting.

Delegates (I am on the CDA board) might have asked two questions. First, the Canadian military is more popular than ever with the general public, but why doesn't that public want to spend more for defence? Second, why does the Harper government love the idea of the military, but not necessarily the military itself?

The gaps between public opinion and military needs, and between the government and the military, underscore many of the problems of national defence policy.

At the core of the problem is that the Canadian military wants – and the government wants – to be all things for all situations (minus nuclear weapons, of course) on a budget that does not allow for those ambitions.

It looked in the early years of Stephen Harper as if maybe this government would provide a substantial boost in defence spending to allow at least some of the "all things" military to happen. An early Canada First Defence policy promised tens of billions of dollars for new equipment. Faced with demands from the Afghanistan mission, the military got two airlift platforms, armoured patrol vehicles, tanks, trucks, helicopters and refitting of vehicles to make them more likely to survive attacks.

There were brave plans for a new fighter jet (the F-35), new transport equipment, new ships, refitted diesel submarines that could actually work, Arctic patrol ships and many other pieces of military kit.

A combination of factors eroded the early enthusiasm. The Afghan mission ended. The 2008-09 financial recession sent the federal budget spiralling into deficit. A series of defence procurement or refitting delays and cost overruns produced bad headlines that frustrated the Harper government.

David Perry, who writes intelligently on defence issues, has looked deeply into the issue of procurement gone awry, interviewed lots of people (off the record) and concluded that "at the political level, trust in the acquisition system has been significantly degraded as a result of multiple failed procurements and negative Auditor-General reports." He reports in a paper for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute that relations have been strained between the Department of National Defence and the Prime Minister's Office, between DND and other departments, and between industry and the bureaucracy.

Of all the PR disasters, none left more egg on the government's face than the F-35. Widely touted by Ottawa as an essential next-generation fighter, the project has been plagued (in the U.S.) with cost overruns and delays. These have spilled over into Canada, where during the last election Mr. Harper boasted about all the jobs from F-35 contracts. James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic last month a devastating article about many aspects of the U.S. military, the disconnect between it and the public, and especially about the military's lack of accountability. He holds up the F-35 as an example of lack of accountability, writing that the "all-in costs of this airplane are now estimated to be as much as $1.5-trillion, or a low-end estimate of the cost of the entire Iraq war." He adds "a plane designed to do many contradictory things … has unsurprisingly done none of them as well as promised." This is the aircraft to which the Harper government remains wedded, although the controversy suggests no more will be said about it until after the election.

The F-35 is supposed to replace CF-18s. Then there are the needs of a blue-water navy and eventually new submarines and ships to patrol the country's enormous coastline. And the Arctic with all its challenges. There are needs, as Afghanistan showed, for kit for the army and for special forces (as in Iraq now).

All these and other things will cost much more than the government or public opinion want to contribute in a country with one of the lowest budgets for defence in the Western world. The public, it would appear, ranks defence spending at or near the bottom of national priorities.

Canada wants apparently to be in war-fighting in Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq, in coastal patrolling and defence, in projecting naval power, in monitoring the Arctic and in aid to the civil power. The public and the government that is slashing the defence budget to balance the federal budget just don't want to pay.

Interact with The Globe