BY: Matthew Fisher, The National Post
Well, it may be one day if some grand spending promises outlined in the Trudeau government’s defence policy review — which would increase defence spending by a whopping 70 per cent — are kept. But the timeline announced by the government Wednesday to get there runs to 2026 and beyond.
“Canada’s Defence Policy” is like other papers published since the end of the Second World War outlining military policy for the next 20 years. It is long on spending promises — $62 billion of them. But most of the money is heavily back-loaded. It will be subject to the budgetary constraints and whims of the winners of the next few federal elections and will not be of much help to Canada or NATO in the near future.
The document — announced to great fanfare before a Greek chorus of several hundred soldiers in Ottawa’s Cartier Square Drill Hall — was as interesting for what it didn’t say as for what it did say.
There was scant mention of peacekeeping, although this was supposed to have been Justin Trudeau’s signature military policy and the best way — or so he and his aides once thought — for Canada to secure a two-year appointment as a member of the United Nations Security Council.
Other than stating for the umpteenth time that at some point Canadian blue helmets will embark for Africa to honour a campaign promise that Trudeau made nearly two years ago, there was barely a whiff in the 112-page document or numerous side papers about where those peacekeepers might end up, in what configuration and to what end. The best its authors could muster was some vague talk about collaborating with the UN, which has made a hash of peacekeeping lately, and, even more dangerously, establishing closers ties with the African Union, whose record on peacekeeping has been a disgrace.
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Replying to questions from journalists, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan hid, as the government has for months, behind the excuse that peacekeeping was dangerous. So there must be “no snap decisions” made about where to commit troops, the minister said.
What Sajjan did not say was that there had been a snap decision on peacekeeping and it was made by Trudeau in the 2015 election because his advisers thought there were votes in such a humanitarian gambit. But clearly neither the prime minister nor those around him had the slightest understanding at the time about how peacekeeping has changed radically since Canadians last did it in large numbers 20 years ago.
The military and the diplomatic corps have been bringing the cabinet up to speed about this ever since. What they have heard has clearly spooked them to the point where they do not have a clue how to honour this promise.
As tricky as peacekeeping has become, the army and the air force have been ready for nearly a year with personnel and assets to fulfill a wide range of mission requirements. Troops were identified and training space was set aside, but the government continues to dither, leaving in limbo the brigade that is always on call for such operations.
There are other significant gaps in what the government claims is a landmark document. Perhaps the biggest one is that there is nothing about whether Canada will finally join the U.S. program for North American ballistic missile defence, which has been a top NORAD priority for some time because of the lethal long-range capabilities that North Korea, Russia and China have been acquiring.
After consulting for months with all kinds of Canadians, all that the paper has to say about BMD is that Canada is committed to modernizing its overall contribution to NORAD.
There is also no clarity on the jet fighter procurement muddle. The paper announced that Canada now needs 88 new fighter jets, rather than 65, as the Tories had it. If this is the number of new jets that the RCAF actually gets, it will be good for Canada, NORAD and NATO. But there is no explanation about what represents a multibillion-dollar shift in policy or about when those new aircraft might actually join the fleet.
There is also nothing about how these new jets will fit in with the Liberals’ ill-considered plan to spend as much as $7 billion on an interim purchase of 18 Boeing Super Hornet jets that almost nobody in the military community in Canada or elsewhere understands the justification for.
What may be happening in slow motion is that the government is laying the groundwork to bail out of the sole-source Super Hornet interim buy in favour of a competition for a much larger number of aircraft. Almost all of Canada’s allies inside and outside NATO have decided on the much newer Lockheed Martin F-35. Germany and Poland are the latest countries to seriously consider buying the F-35, leaving Canada in awkward isolation with a short-term plan to buy the much older, less capable Super Hornet.
Other than the smart, multi-coloured brochure announcing the new policy, the most impressive thing about Wednesday’s announcement was that the numbers being thrown around were bigger than anyone expected. Special Forces is a prime example. This secretive lethal part of the military is to get an additional 605 badly needed troops for critical missions. And there is a guarantee of sorts that Canada will build 15 surface warships, after speculation that the number was going to shrink to as low as six because of ballooning costs.
If history is any guide, a lot of the promises made in the Defence Policy Review will never be kept
There is also an acceptance of the realities of modern warfare with talk of more resources for drones, cyber warfare and intelligence, as well as predictable words about the need for greater diversity and gender equality.
The Defence Policy Review was not written only for Canadians, of course. It is designed to answer serious questions that Washington and NATO have about Ottawa’s commitment to collective security.
In this regard there is some fancy — some might say fanciful — bookkeeping so that it can be claimed that Canada will eventually spend 1.4 per cent of GDP on defence, though this is still far short of the pledge that it and every NATO country has made to spend two per cent of GDP on defence. Part of the way the government plans to reach 1.4 per cent is to throw into the calculation some of the money that is spent on the Coast Guard, the RCMP and pensions for soldiers and, if it was understood correctly, for DND civilians.
How much of this new arithmetic will be accepted by NATO, the U.S. and other allies is anyone’s guess. Still, the feel-good factor was high Wednesday. If history is any guide, a lot of the promises made in the Defence Policy Review will never be kept. Canadians should have the answer to that in about 2026.