By Richard Cohen, June 12, 2017
Strong, Secure and Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy, was released on June 7 by Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan. At 113 pages, it is certainly a hefty document, if only in size.
There are some encouraging features in the new policy; a promise to fund all 15 Navy frigates, to buy 88 new fighters and a fleet of maritime patrol aircraft for the Air Force, and upgraded equipment for the Army. The big question is how this government, or future governments, will pay for these high ticket items. The Minister claimed that the whole defence policy document is “carefully and fully costed.” That may be so, but just how the government plans to find the money to meet the carefully calculated costs is something Minister Sajjan and his colleague, the Finance Minister, have so far refused to answer.
What we do know is that the vast majority of this new spending will happen after the next general election, in 2019. This puts off two unattractive options; going even deeper into the red or cutting popular programs to help pay for defence.
Stripped of its long and sometimes repetitive sections on Canadian values, the virtues of diversity and gender equality, fighting climate change and peacekeeping, the new policy looks very much like an update of the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS). The Conservative government introduced the CFDS with a lot of fanfare but then failed to follow through with the political will and the promised funding.
The vast majority of this new spending will happen after the next general election, in 2019. This puts off two unattractive options; going even deeper into the red or cutting popular programs.
Canada, unlike most of our major allies, does not have a bi-partisan consensus on defence; instead defence has become a rather battered political football. So promises of manning and equipping the armed forces for 20 years into the future are at best wishful thinking. When questioned on this issue during the press conference by Murray Brewster of the CBC, Minister Sajjan assured him that “parliament would hold future governments to account.” Fat chance of that!
What was also not adequately explained in the document is why Canadians should be asked to spend billions of dollars to buy advanced warships, aircraft, missiles, and drones. The day before the Defence Policy announcement, Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland told Parliament that Russian “adventurism and expansionism” posed a clear threat to Canadians and to the Free World. Minister Sajjan’s policy paper seems to gloss over these dangers, perhaps in the name of not offending the Russians.
For instance, it uses confusingly delicate jargon to explain the need for the advanced weapon systems it proposes: “NATO Allies and other like-minded states have been re-examining how to deter a wide spectrum of challenges to the international order by maintaining advanced conventional military capabilities that could be used in the event of a conflict with a “near-peer.” Is this kind of language really enough to persuade Canadians of the need to open their wallets?
Aside from increased terrorist and cyber threats, Strong, Secure and Engaged seems to view the world as not much changed from 2008 when CFDS spoke about building Forces to face “longer term strategic threats.”
But in 2017, the world has become a much more dangerous place. Only our approach to defence doesn’t seem to have changed very much. At the end of the day, 450 Canadian troops and their assorted brothers-in-arms in Latvia are not going to deter Vladimir Putin’s newly equipped armoured divisions and missiles unless they’re backed up by substantial and immediately available combat forces. Canada’s ambition of “two sustained deployments of 500-1500 personnel” and “one time-limited deployment of 500-1500 personnel” will probably not impress Mr. Putin.
Canada’s new Defence Policy is based on the premise of “business as usual” into the foreseeable future and not on a serious and growing military threat on the doorstep of NATO.
An increase of 5,000 regular and reserve servicemen over 10 years, while certainly welcome, will not go very far toward helping to enhance our collective deterrent in Europe or in a variety of other places around the world where we could face large and well-armed enemy forces. In other words, Canada’s new Defence Policy is based on the premise of “business as usual” into the foreseeable future and not on a serious and growing military threat on the doorstep of NATO and perhaps in the skies and waters of our own Arctic.
Finally, a word about 2 percent. It’s become fashionable to disparage NATO’s defence spending goal of 2 percent of GDP as out-of-date and a poor measure of a nation’s contribution to the Alliance. The popular cry is that Canada has always stepped up when called upon and that numbers don’t really matter.
But readiness to contribute small forces, however well-trained and well-equipped, for limited and specific operations is no substitute for the kind of long term commitment represented by the 2 percent target. Under a variety of external pressures, mainly from south of the border, the Liberal government has now promised to increase defence spending by 70 percent over 10 years to start to fill out what Minister Sajjan called in a recent speech, our “hollow” armed forces.
This is a pretty significant increase and it’s certainly an important step in the right direction. But assuming no rude intrusion of higher fiscal priorities, Canada would only reach 1.4 percent of GDP in 2027 – and even then only by using the government’s new creative accounting measures, such as incorporating a variety of funding not under the purview of National Defence, and with no plans to go any higher.
Meeting the NATO target, by effectively more than doubling our current defence spending, would force this and future governments to make hard choices as to where Canada’s spending priorities lie.
This increase in itself will not be easy, given the government’s projected fiscal deficits stretching into the distant future. Meeting the NATO target, by effectively more than doubling our current defence spending, would force this and future governments to make hard choices as to where Canada’s spending priorities lie.
Canadians must be peruaded that our country’s peace and security depends on joining with like-minded nations to develop a strong and credible defence and deterrent capability. Other lower priority programs will have to be reduced or put on hold. The government of the day, ideally supported by the other major parties, must be prepared to lead a campaign to highlight the growing dangers and what we as a nation must do about them.
As it is, sloughing off a unanimously agreed major NATO goal can only encourage other member countries to follow. It will certainly irritate those Alliance nations who in good faith, and often at some considerable pain, have achieved, or are trying to achieve, the 2 percent target.
More importantly, if our decision to ignore this key NATO goal starts a general trend, it will only encourage the isolationist voices in the United States who are already at the centre of power to further back away from their commitment to the security of their allies.
If the US does indeed, in Chrystia Freeland’s words, shrug off its “mantle of global leadership,” it will leave us exposed to the whims of far less friendly powers…and we may have only ourselves to blame!
Richard Cohen is president of RSC Strategic Connections and served in the Canadian and British Armies. He was Professor of European Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies and from 2007-2011, Senior Defence Advisor to the Minister of National Defence.