Defence procurement is the government promise that keeps on rebooting. At the moment, Canada is preparing to purchase 25 second-hand F-18 fighter jets from Australia — pending U.S. approval —as a stop-gap measure until it can replace its fleet with new jets. The earlier plan was to buy 18 used jets, making this the roughly zillionth update to Canada's defence procurement plan.
This de facto refusal to truly modernize our fighter jet fleet will make Canada look like the runt compared to our allies. And by "allies," I am referring mainly to nations beyond our increasingly rogue and unpredictable friend to the south; nations such as Australia, Denmark, Norway and the Czech Republic which, unlike Canada, are not allowing their government's fighter jet procurement plans to indefinitely sputter and stall.
In spite of promises made in the last budget, the Liberal government's modest defence procurement goals remain unfulfilled. In its 2017 spending roadmap, the Trudeau government promised $6.2 billion in capital spending in the first year. In actual fact, only $3.9 billion went to our emaciated forces.
The Harper government was actually not much better when it came to defence spending, despite its bellicose rhetoric in support of the military. On top of canceled programs and perennial delays, the Conservative government was also in the habit of making self-promoting announcements of new defence procurement initiatives, without actually earmarking the financing needed.
In fact, while in power, the Harper Conservatives allowed about $9.6 billion in military funding to lapse. Speaking to CBC in 2015, Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page noted that the government was not spending the defence dollars authorized by Parliament, suggesting that "National Defence is becoming a source of funds to reduce the deficit."
Relying on the U.S.
Could this perennial dithering be the result of institutional incompetence? Lack of political will? Or is it simply grounded in the assumption that the United States will always be willing to use its military, at no cost to us, to protect Canada for Canadians? My concern is that it's primarily the latter — a premise especially worrying under the current U.S. president, who has made it clear he cares little about the welfare of his allies.
In any case, it is telling that our commitment to defend our airspace, the second-largest in the world, will be a tiny fleet of second-hand fighters.
To reiterate: Canada is the anomaly among our allies. Regardless of their own political and economic challenges, smaller nations such as Australia, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands have ensured that their air forces have the modern aircraft needed to do the job. Success in modern warfare requires high tech, highly mobile delivery of lethal force on key enemy targets in both offensive and defensive operations, as well as over long distances and over very short periods of time. Fighter jets are a leading edge in the delivery of that capability. We need them.
Procurement among allies
Norway has purchased and is in the process of acquiring 52 F-35 jets, with several already becoming operational. Denmark is buying 27 of the same. Next door, non-aligned Sweden continues its tradition of defence self-reliance with a deal to acquire 60 of the latest JAS-39Gripen, with plans to lease 14 jets each to the Czech Republic and Hungary.
Australia, from which Canada is getting our second-hand F-18s, has already purchased and is taking on a fleet of 72 new F-35 Lightning — ironically, the same aircraft that we might finally decide we need.
We might think we don't need to match these efforts. We might well choose to hold on to the delusion that our "polite" reputation and proximity to the U.S war machine will keep us safe.
But how reliable will the United States be as a guarantor of our own defence when, under its current administration, it unapologetically shuns, slanders and shames traditional allies, all while seeming to embrace countries like North Korea and Russia?
And even if the willingness was there, the U.S military is beginning to question its own ability to sustain consistent military superiority beyond its borders. The U.S Department of Defence's own risk assessment titled "At Our Own Peril," published in 2017, states that the U.S military "no longer enjoys an unassailable position versus state competitors" and that it no longer can "automatically generate consistent and sustained local military superiority at range."
So maybe a well-equipped Canadian air force — and entire military, for that matter — is both a practical necessity, as well as a symbolic imperative. We must be ready to act, as well as be seen to be ready to act, along with our allies.
Perhaps we could afford to live with the delusion that the United States would always be ready to come to our aid in the past. Not anymore.
Robert Smol served over 20 years in the Canadian Armed Forces. He is currently a teacher and freelance writer in Toronto.