For more than a decade, both Conservative and Liberal governments have allowed this country’s military to degrade. Now, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has sent his armies into Ukraine. The Baltic states could be next, and they are part of NATO. Canada is committed to their defence. Except we are not able to properly defend either them or ourselves.
“Looking at the current state of our defence capabilities, I’d say that the story is mixed but overall not good,” said Charles Davies, a retired army colonel who is a research fellow at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, a think tank.
Bringing the armed forces up to where they need to be in this darkening world will cost a great deal and require political will. The question, as Russian troops besiege Ukrainian cities, is whether that will has finally arrived.
The federal government has dithered for far too many years over choosing a replacement for an ancient fleet of CF-18 fighter aircraft. A program to replace aged frigates and now-retired destroyers is so far behind schedule that the first ship is not scheduled to set sail for a decade, at least.
Plans to modernize North America’s antiquated NORAD defences are just that: plans. The Canadian Forces are 10,000 people below full strength.
In 2017, the Liberal government issued a highly praised defence review, called Strong, Secure, Engaged, which was intended to meet Canada’s defence needs for a generation.
But the government has failed to live up to its own commitments. Not only did the Liberals drag their feet on the fighter-jet and combat-vessel replacement programs, “they either handed back in, reprofiled, let lapse or otherwise did not spend $12-billion that was supposed to go to training, spare parts, or equipment acquisition,” said Andrew Leslie in an interview. Mr. Leslie served as commander of the army during the war in Afghanistan, and also served one term as a Liberal MP, before choosing not to run in the 2019 election.
“The situation right now is dire,” he maintained.
Both Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper and his Liberal predecessor, Paul Martin, acted decisively to provide Canadian troops with the equipment they needed to execute the mission in Afghanistan.
But as that mission wound down, Mr. Harper seemed to lose interest in the military, especially after coming under intense criticism from the Liberals over plans to acquire the Lockheed Martin F-35 to replace the already-obsolete F-18s.
When the Liberals came to power, child care, health care and infrastructure spending took priority. And then came the extraordinary financial burden of combatting the health and economic impacts of the pandemic.
Through all this, a defence-procurement process evolved that seemed perversely designed to avoid reaching decisions. Bureaucrats were told acquisitions must encourage regional economic development as well as meet defence needs.
Different government departments – National Defence, Public Services and Procurement, Industry, Finance, Treasury Board – have competing priorities. Duelling mandates ensure delays.
Each delay encourages planners to review and modernize any proposal, which only leads to more delays.
“The defence-procurement system that is in place right now is designed to constipate expenditures,” said former lieutenant-general Steve Bowes, who retired in 2020. “It looks like a game of Snakes and Ladders. It is purpose-built.”
In the meantime, “everything is 10 years older than it was 10 years ago,” observed Craig Stone, professor emeritus in defence studies at the Canadian Forces College.
That was the situation little more than a week ago, before Russia invaded Ukraine. Overnight, defence priorities in the West became the highest priority. Germany has long been a laggard in defence spending, just like Canada. But as Russian troops pushed toward Kyiv, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a €100-billion ($140-billion) increase in defence spending and pledged Germany would take its military budget above the target of 2 per cent of GDP agreed to by all NATO members.
Boosting Canada’s defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP would probably increase the current budget of $24-billion by about $9-billion. Where would the money go?
Most knowledgeable observers agree that the highest priority by far must be increasing Canada’s ability to defend its borders, especially in the Arctic.
That means, first and foremost, acquiring new fighter aircraft, a decision that is more than a decade overdue.
Second, it means accelerating plans to acquire new combat surface vessels to replace the retired destroyers and in-need-of-retiring frigates.
Third, it means investing heavily, along with the United States, in modernizing NORAD, through cutting-edge sensors, satellites and software.
“The goal is to have 360-degree knowledge of what’s going on,” said Andrea Charron, director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.
Addressing personnel shortages is another high priority. And sooner rather than later, Canada will need new submarines.
Above all, it means procuring new equipment and technologies when they are needed, not two or three decades later.
The war in Afghanistan encouraged a defence doctrine based on combating insurgencies. But the Russian threat is both very real and very old-fashioned.
“You need an army capable of fighting a conventional war,” said Justin Massie, who specializes in defence and foreign-policy issues at the University of Quebec at Montreal. “We don’t have the capacity our allies have for air defence, for anti-armour capacity. We’re sending less armour to Ukraine than the Dutch and the Belgians, countries that are much smaller than Canada.”
Would Canadians support substantially increased defence spending, even if it led to increased taxes? Jean-Christophe Boucher, who researches foreign and defence policy at the University of Calgary, is part of a team that has been studying voter attitudes to defence spending through regular surveys.
Support for defence spending “is like a thermostat,” he said. “The colder it gets, the more you turn the thermostat up.” And the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made things very cold indeed.
Ramping up defence procurement comes with a cost beyond dollars and cents. Canada may need to abandon efforts to create jobs at home, instead purchasing equipment from other countries off the shelf.
“You’re getting equipment you know is good,” Prof. Boucher points out. “They’re not only easier, they’re cheaper to work with.”
But Mr. Bowes maintains that Canadian industry could step up to meet accelerated timelines, if the will were there.
“If you provide the funds, things will move,” he predicted. “The programs are in place. Timelines can be accelerated.”
What matters is political will: clear direction from the centre of government that decision must replace indecision, co-operation must replace competition, and that when something is truly needed, money will be found.
The good news is that, on the urgent need to improve Canada’s defences, there could be something approaching all-party agreement in Ottawa. Conservatives and Liberals, the governing parties, have come together in the past when the national interest required it. The national interest requires it now.
In all likelihood, war is not near. Vladimir Putin will surely think twice before taking on NATO, especially if his forces sustain major losses in Ukraine.
But the world today is a more dangerous place than it was last week, and it was already pretty dangerous then. Whatever is coming, Canada must be ready.
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