Thursday, March 28, 2019

Federal Budget turns a blind eye to Canada's military needs

By David Krayden, National Post 

Opinion: Were the Liberals ever serious about their big defence plan? They cut defence spending in 2018 and are ignoring it in 2019

Last week’s federal budget offered relatively modest spending with targeted funding after years of spending from a government that seemed to believe the deficit will solve itself. Unfortunately, the Canadian Armed Forces again escaped the finance minister’s gaze and for the second consecutive year, national defence is conspicuous by its absence from the budget.
A Canadian soldier provides security as medics assist German troops during a medical evacuation demonstration on the United Nations base in Gao, Mali, on Dec. 22, 2018.Adrian Wyld/CP
You might recall the fanfare when Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan released the Liberals’ defence policy review in 2017: “Strong, Secure, Engaged.” It was already more than six months overdue and there was a feeling among defence analysts and most journalists that the Liberals had to deliver a document that suggested serious resolve.
HMCS Windsor, one of Canada’s Victoria-class long range patrol submarines, returns to port in Halifax on June 20, 2018. Andrew Vaughan/CP
Sajjan promised a whopping 70-per-cent increase in defence spending, pledging to drive funding up to $32.7 billion from $18.9 billion. Naval ships, combat-support vehicles and 88 fighter jets would be replaced through “an open and transparent competition.”

But there was one large disclaimer. All of this would happen over the next decade, assuming the realities of 2017 would remain constant during that period. How well would any government have done predicting the military needs of 1942 based on the geopolitics of 1932?

In any case, we’ve yet to see any indication that the Liberals were serious about the plan. They cut defence spending in 2018 and have ignored it in 2019.
A Canadian soldier prepares to leave base in Gao, Mali, on Aug. 1, 2018, to take part in an operation as part of the United Nations mission in that country. AFP/Getty Images
Was there an alternative motive to the 2017 defence review? Canada was still in the midst of NAFTA negotiations with an American president who was increasingly critical of our defence contribution, especially as it pertained to NATO. Donald Trump had repeatedly cited Canada as one of the deadbeat members of NATO that refuses to fund its military at two per cent of its GDP — despite having promised to do so and notwithstanding that we have done so in the past. With Budget 2019, Canada is no closer to meeting that pledge, spending 1.23 per cent of its GDP on national defence.

A photograph taken out the window of a Canadian Forces CC-150 Polaris tanker shows a CF-18 Hornet fighter jet being refuelled in the air over Vancouver on Feb. 18, 2010. Master Corporal Andrew Collins, 14 Wing Imaging
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s desultory approach to defence capital acquisition may well be defined by the fighter jet fiasco that grows more bizarre with every twist and turn of the story. It was the Liberal government of Jean Chr├ętien that joined the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter development program. It was Stephen Harper’s Conservative government that dithered on procuring the aircraft. It is the current Trudeau government that decided to start the whole process again. In the meantime, the Liberals considered buying some interim Super Hornets from Boeing before ultimately deciding to pick up some used Australian F-18s — just as the Royal Australian Air Force took delivery of its first F-35s.A

Perhaps the best speech of this year’s just-concluded Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa was delivered by former chief of defence staff Gen. Rick Hillier. Hillier, whose career was defined by integrity and a politics-be-damned leadership style, told the conservative gathering that if Canada “buys a fighter aircraft that is anything but the F-35, we will have lost our minds.”

The last prime minister who consistently funded the Canadian military was Louis St-Laurent. All successive administrations — Liberal and Conservative — have to varying degrees played the shell game with defence spending. While lauding a capital acquisition project here, they will starve another project over there to pay for it. While promising consistent funding, they will squeeze the military at the first opportunity when a fiscal need emerges elsewhere.

They will squeeze the military at the first opportunity

With defence procurement being so hamstrung by petty politics and policy inertia, no amount of government funding can guarantee a combat-capable military if those dollars are not efficiently and effectively spent. As Hillier said, “Our acquisition process in Canada, in particular for the Department of National Defence, is abhorrent. It is pointless to give the Department of National Defence increased spending if you then tie them in a Gordian knot where they can’t actually spend the money.”

Sadly, that’s exactly what we’re doing.

David Krayden is a former Royal Canadian Air Force public affairs officer and legislative assistant on Parliament Hill. He has worked in print, radio and television journalism and is currently the Ottawa bureau chief for The Daily Caller, a Washington-based media outlet.

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