Globe and Mail Editorial
On Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland delivered a speech to the House of Commons that promised, in response to the Presidency of Donald Trump, a less United States-centric Canadian foreign policy, including making "necessary investments in our military" because, as Ms. Freeland put it, "to rely solely on the U.S. security umbrella would make us a client state."
Twenty-four hours later, the audience having been teed up, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan unveiled his long-awaited review of defence policy. The spin around it is finely spun, but beneath, the Liberal government's new military clothing is exceedingly modest.
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How modest? The plan calls for the number of sailors, soldiers and air force personnel to increase by five per cent – over 10 years. Canada's defence spending, among the lowest in NATO, will gradually increase from 1.2 per cent of GDP to 1.4 per cent, according to the government, or from one per cent to 1.2 per cent, as measured by many international observers.
Either way, even if the Trudeau government wins a second majority government mandate, and then a third, Canada will still be nowhere close to meeting the NATO defence spending target of two per cent of GDP.
The big money in the plan is devoted to new equipment, replacing some very old kit. The Royal Canadian Air Force will get its much-delayed new fighter jets, eventually; timeline, cost and supplier to be determined. This announcement is a recommitment to a long-planned and long-troubled purchase – though the Liberals say they will buy 88 aircraft, nearly a third more than the 65 jets the previous Conservative government proposed.
The Royal Canadian Navy will get 15 new "Canadian Surface Combatant" ships, replacing the existing fleet of 12 frigates and four recently-retired destroyers. This, too, is not a new program: It was announced in 2008. The first ship won't be delivered until the late 2020s, at the earliest. The program's expected costs have also ballooned, from $26-billion to as much as $60-billion.
The goal of all of this is to allow the Canadian Forces of the future to simultaneously undertake "two deployments of 500 to 1,500 personnel," plus one short, six-to-nine month "limited-time deployment of 500 to 1,500 personnel," plus three small deployments of 100 to 500 personnel.
That sounds like a lot, and the truth is that Canada, in terms of willingness to undertake missions and send soldiers into harm's way, punches far above its modest budget weight within NATO.
But compare the government's long-term plans to what the Canadian Forces have recently done. Consider that in Afghanistan, Canada had as many as 3,000 troops in Kandahar province, in combat, for five years, while also taking part in smaller missions around the world.
In other words, the aim of the defence plan laid out on Wednesday is to allow the Canadian Forces, a decade from now, to be able to do roughly what the Canadian Forces were doing, a decade ago.
Canada is currently capable of playing a small but valuable supporting role in a major military engagement, and a big role in a minor military mission. Soon, we will be capable of playing a small but valuable supporting role in a major military engagement, and a big role in a minor military mission.
Wednesday's defence plan does not involve Canada replacing the U.S., not even one little bit; Ms. Freeland on Tuesday correctly described America as the pre-Trump era's "indispensable nation." The new defence plan merely allows Canada to stay in the game, as one of NATO's middle powers.
And yet, for all of those caveats, the Trudeau government nevertheless is promising to spend more on defence – not less. It is promising to reverse the decline in the Canadian Forces, not accelerate it. And it's promising to greenlight the two biggest tickets items, fighter jets and combat ships, despite huge price tags and massive cost escalation. This is not nothing.
Nobody can blame the Liberals for failing to meet the NATO commitment to spending two per cent of GDP on defence. Achieving that tomorrow would mean shelling out an extra $20-billion a year.
The Liberals don't have the political support, or the budgetary room, to go that far. But they're still increasing defence spending, modestly but substantially, in peacetime. And that kind of headline – Cash-Strapped Trudeau Liberals Somehow Find New Billions For Military – is not likely to score well with a voting base of middle-class middle-agers and activist youth.
Perhaps that's why Ms. Freeland was tasked with giving this particular speech right before Mr. Sajjan's big announcement. Yes, the Liberals are raising military spending – exactly as Mr. Trump demanded! But by way of explanation, they offered a vague, anti-Trump story. In 2017, that's always a winning pitch.