Defence will never be party’s priority,
For the new Liberal government and despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, it appears that maintaining military hard power is, like … so yesterday.
Pity, then, the poor staff in National Defence Headquarters as they set about transforming our “multi-purpose, combat-capable” Canadian Armed Forces into something, well, less so.
With this latest federal budget, and with a larger than forecasted deficit, we now know the money for defence just isn’t there.
Instead, the capital spending needed to keep our existing military forces even barely afloat has been postponed until at least the next election in 2020.
Of course, the previous government also deferred big-ticket procurement spending. And to be fair, this government needs time to consider what our defence priorities will be and how best to meet them.
But then again, with deficit spending set for at least the next five years, it’s unlikely defence will ever be a spending priority.
Indeed, we appear to be re-visiting the past and heading back to a time very much like that in which then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau found himself almost 50 years ago. Shortly after the 1968 election, he launched a formal defence review, rejecting the military’s first draft “on the grounds that it amounted to nothing more than a reaffirmation of current policy” that was simply unaffordable but, more so, unnecessary.
What he wanted was “fresh thinking” but in truth his mind had already been made up. For him, defence spending was wasteful, especially when there were far more pressing domestic needs.
His real aim was to slash military expenditures as much as one could get away with, including withdrawal from NATO altogether. In the end, Canada’s NATO contribution was cut in half, important capabilities were shed and personnel numbers tumbled.
Pierre Trudeau was also very concerned that having Canadians train military forces in the developing world would lead to all sorts of foreign entanglements.
For example, the Canadian-trained and mentored Ghanaian military overthrew the government in 1966. So, in 1971, he put an end to foreign military training schemes.
Nor did he, unlike his son, think much of sending Canadian blue helmets overseas. Peacekeeping, according to his 1971 Defence White Paper, had “too often been frustrating and disillusioning.”
Presciently, the document noted that many conflicts “have their roots in subversion and insurgency, and therefore will not lend themselves easily to resolution through the use of internationally constituted peacekeeping bodies.” Not much has changed. Today’s peacekeeping missions, which more often involve UN troops in combat, continue to be thankless, miserable and never-ending.
What to do, then? Even when we do have an idea of what sort of military we need, finding the right balance between people, equipment, infrastructure and readiness is never easy. Military planners are also faced with numerous constraints.
Suggesting changes to the reserves or reducing the civilian workforce has always been a political hot potato, along with any talk of “divesting” bases.
Depriving Canadians of a chance to see the Snowbirds is also off the table, so no savings there. Nor can you opt for cheaper Chinese equipment.
Turkey tried that, and for some reason it just didn’t go over well in Washington.
Nevertheless, a government which appears to be in favour of a more robust and active foreign policy ought to be supported by a well-equipped, combat-capable armed forces. But this budget tells a different story. Canada is likely to end up with a much smaller, less responsive military than we have today, largely focused on the home front and the occasional, symbolic assignment abroad.
Major capabilities will wither or disappear. More importantly, so will our future policy options.
--Chris Kilford is a fellow at the Queen’s Centre for International and Defence Policy. He is also the former Canadian Defence Attaché to Turkey.