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The Liberal government’s defence policy update document, released Monday, confirms that Canada will remain NATO’s worst laggard, a national embarrassment.

The document, titled Our North, Strong and Free, calls for taking Canadian defence spending to 1.76 per cent of gross domestic product by 2029-30, well below the 2 per cent of GDP that all NATO countries, including Canada, have committed to. And that 1.76 figure is, to put it charitably, aspirational.

There are promises to “explore options” for acquiring new submarines. There is a promise, but little attached funding, to acquire a fleet of early warning aircraft.

There are promises of long-range missiles, sensor systems, tactical helicopters, increased production of artillery ammunition, enhanced cyber operations, northern operational support hubs and improved housing and child care for Forces personnel. But these promises are not backed with delivery dates and budget commitments. And the funding commitments that are included are often not to be spent for several years, which means they may not be spent at all.

Meanwhile, the threat of Russian aggression has prompted Denmark to accelerate its military buildup so that it will reach the 2-per-cent NATO target by next year. Spain plans to get there in five years. Sweden, NATO’s newest member, should reach 2 per cent by 2028. Finland, which joined last year, is already above 2 per cent. France and Germany say they will reach 2 per cent this year.

Overall, 18 of NATO’s 31 members will meet their 2-per-cent commitments this year, and others plan to reach the target within the foreseeable future. But Canada has no plans to do so in this decade, and maybe not in the next. We will be an outlier in defence spending among our allies, and can expect to be treated like one.

The defence policy update does get one big thing right. It focuses almost exclusively on the Arctic, which must be this country’s highest defence priority.

As the report points out, Russia is investing heavily in Arctic military infrastructure, and “is highly capable of projecting air, naval and missile forces both in and through the broader Arctic region.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau correctly observed at a Monday news conference held to unveil the new plan that “NATO’s northern and western flank is the Canadian Arctic.”

Russia is not our only potential adversary in the Arctic. China has declared its intention to become a “polar great power” by 2030. And global warming could make the Northwest Passage a regular shipping route between Europe and Asia.

Canada has already committed to spending more than $38-billion over 20 years in partnership with the United States to modernize North American Aerospace Defence Command defences. It makes perfect sense to make Arctic defence through NORAD modernization Canada’s highest defence priority, because that serves to strengthen NATO’s defences as well.

But Canada has committed little in the way of specific funding to that modernization. Spending promises without line-item commitments are virtually meaningless.

“Taken as a whole, the aspirations and the enumerations of capabilities of the document are all great,” said Michael Day, a senior fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. “But when you start to map it to money and time, it doesn’t make sense. It isn’t coherent.”

Even if Canada had a proven track record of procuring new equipment for the Forces quickly and efficiently, it would take years for the country to, say, identify what kind of new submarines it should acquire and how many are needed. As the policy update acknowledges, “defence procurement takes too long in Canada and needs to be faster and more effective.” Even if that process is reformed, it will be many years before the navy has its next generation of submarines, if it ever does.

There is a commitment in the policy update that we can predict with confidence will be realized. “Going forward, Canada will publish a National Security Strategy every four years.” Issuing reports is one promise the defence establishment is willing and able to keep.

If Canada is to retain any credibility with its allies, the government needs to get a move on. That means accelerating the procurement process for major new acquisitions. It means working with the United States to provide a timeline for modernizing NORAD’s defences, and then meeting the commitments of that timeline.

The update is out. Now it’s time to act.

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