Why Canada’s military risks returning to a decade of darkness

Evan Solomon on National Defence’s looming funding crisis


Who would have guessed that, at the time of his most critical decision, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan would be doing a military sample of the 1976 Genesis prog-rock song, Ripples?

“If we want to understand the ripples we are creating, we have to understand the environment we are creating them in,” Sajjan said last week. He was being asked—as he is on an almost daily basis—when he will reveal details about the long promised Liberal plan to pull out CF-18 jets from the mission in Iraq and Syria. Apparently this “ripple effect” theory is the “genesis” of the long delay. “We may not be able to control all the ripples that are out there, but we can control the ripples that we create,” Sajjan said, adding something or other about “negative ripples.”

As there is no formal military theory about “ripple effects,” it’s hard to tell exactly what the minister is talking about. But we get the gist: The decisions he makes now will have an impact on the future. The problem is, the future is already here. The Conservative mandate for the mission is up by the end of March. If the Liberals were not ready with an alternative plan—and clearly they weren’t—why didn’t they just say they would complete the original mandate and then end it? Pulling out now, after more than 100 days of post-election bombing, looks disorganized at best—at worst, it smacks of cheap politics.

Related: Why Trudeau’s crass stance on Syria is lose-lose

But as politically charged as the bombing mission is, it is really nothing compared to the deeper funding crisis facing the military. “There is simply not enough money to buy the military hardware that we need,” says Dave Perry, senior analyst at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Perry is to military procurement what Nate Silver is to polling, so when he crunches the numbers on the military budget you tend to listen. “There’s three times more demand for procurement dollars than there is budgeted fiscally, which means the Canada First Defence Strategy—the plan to maintain Canada’s military capabilities to protect our interests—is now, essentially dead.”

That’s a big problem. It would cost the government another $2 billion a year for 20 years, on top of what we’re already spending, just to maintain the Air Force, the Army, the Navy—and upgrade our technology for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (the NORAD commander comes to Canada later in February to demand those upgrades). Meanwhile, NATO is asking Canada to fulfill its commitment to contribute two per cent of our GDP to military spending. That would mean another $20 billion this year alone. Not happening, NATO. Because it’s 2016. And we’re still broke.

Fulfilling the military promises Trudeau made in the campaign looks equally unlikely. “The biggest one from the campaign in terms of the budget is the idea of savings tens of billions on the acquisition of new aircraft to devote to ships,” Perry says. “The $9-billion fighter budget was set when the Canadian dollar was worth 100 cents American—and now it’s 70 cents.” We’ve lost close to 30 per cent of our purchasing power. There’s no way to save on planes and still have a viable air force.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan speaks during a conference on foreign affairs in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan speaks during a conference on foreign affairs in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

The Navy’s needs are even greater. The government has budgeted $26.2 billion over the next 12 years or so to build 15 surface combat ships, destroyers and frigates. Any savings on jets—at best a few billion—won’t make a dent in this.

Related: The sinking of the Canadian Navy

The status quo alone is fatal. “We’re spending an inadequate share of the defence budget on capital equipment—between 10 to 12 per cent over the last three years,” Perry says. The bare minimum is supposed to be 20 per cent. “That’s the lowest share of the budget devoted to procuring new kit since 1977.”

That leaves Sajjan with three choices, Perry argues. “Invest the $2 billion a year, cut our military capabilities, or cut the size of the military.” That could mean giving up on a blue-water Navy or an expeditionary air force. And the chances of new money coming? “No government of any stripe has ever invested more in the military in a time of fiscal restraint,” Perry says. Given the other Santa Claus-like promises Trudeau has made on infrastructure and health care, more money to defence is about as likely as Stephen Harper asking women to wear a niqab. Cuts, cancellations or constriction.

This is not all the Liberals’ fault. Since 2007, the Conservatives lapsed over $10 billion in military spending. They turned military procurement into a game of freeze tag: whatever they touched stopped moving altogether—from military jets to joint support ships, maritime helicopters to the tactical armoured patrol vehicles. But if the Conservatives—and the Martin Liberals—didn’t spend, at least they did what NATO insiders call “swimming.” They took on tough missions in Afghanistan and Libya. That got Canada to the table, even with a light wallet. Trudeau says he’s out of that game, which is why Perry is not surprised Canada was not invited by our allies to the recent meeting on Syria and Iraq. If we don’t spend and we don’t swim, we get shut out.

Trudeau likes to say Canada is back, but unless he has a big budget surprise for the military, we may be back to the decade of darkness that once defined the military under Jean Chrétien. These aren’t ripples. These are full-size waves.


Why Canada’s military risks returning to a decade of darkness

  1. Yes the Grits gave us a ‘decade of darkness’ while they were in power before, but what we have seen from the conservative has been a ‘decade of dismantling’. Hopefully with an new experienced man at the wheel, new minister of defense Sajjin, streamlining the Military just might trim a bit of fat that has been needed to be done for years. Harper used the military as political prop and never thought twice before he sent our soldiers off to conflicts, never seeing the forest for the trees.

    • Dear Leader Chretien sent us off to war in A’stan – Harper got us out. I wish people like you would get their stories straight.

      As for the Def Min?

      He is well known in the military as a paper pushing, politically correct, “behind the wire” sitter – and certainly not the “bad ass” the media has made him out to be.

      In fact, not many of the people I know who actually served with him have much that is good to say about him.

      Carpet bomber – you have probably never served in the military or you would understand what it is like to be dropped in the desert and left there with malfunctioning weapons, improper equipment, uniforms that are falling apart within days of arriving and foot wear that crippled.

      If you did serve it was during the time when there was peace and the idiot term “peace keeper” was coined. We brought lots of them home in boxes because the idiots in power on both sides would not allow us to do our jobs.

      I spit on that term – and yes I was one – did four tours.

      The Libs did that to us. I saw a lot of people coming home in pieces from A’stan that were seriously wounded or killed that were not helped by Dear Leader Chretien – or the “creature” as we started to call him in the desert.

      Your hated “Cons” fixed that for us – and now you can call me names and dispute what I said – however all of the above is true.

      Oh – and do not bother with the racist words that usually spring from the lips of people like yourself.

      In this case the word is “realist”

      Now go away and write your mp – tell him/her this a z z wipe rag needs another couple million from the federal government. (Yeah it is subsidized as well)

      Have a nice day.

      • how would a chicken hawk like you know anyone who served with an actual war hero. harper cut and ran from Libya and Afghanistan, how did work out?

        • What??? “Harper cut and ran…” The Canadian public whom he represents wanted out. Elected officials do what the voters that got them there want or they lose their jobs. After all, that is what public service is about. Canada has always punched above its weight. We are a country with a small population in comparison to our neighbors to the south who invited Chretien into the Afghanistan war and he took up the challenge. The US has 10 times our population yet we were in one of the areas of the most serious combat. We did our job there and we had our loses despite our best efforts, many of them at rebuilding.

  2. There is a solution to this, and I don’t think it requires a whole lot of creativity or any particular level of intellegence. We can build our own. There are several countries out there foundering with their own fighter projects in desperate need of R&D assistance (Korea, Sweden, Japan). Partnering with one or more of those countries would give us a cost effective fighter that could be built in Canada for a lot less than any fighter available to us and actually recoup some costs if we can sell it overseas.

    • in the decade of darkness, they froze our wages for five years – one married with kids private was posted to toronto where everything was so expensive on a pte’s budget that he had to go to the food bank and deliver pizza’s after work

      the yanks have tons of used military equipment that can be had at cut rate prices – the UK just sold their post war equipment to a yet to be named african power

      instead of fighters we can contribute with hercules c-130s, to provide food medicine shelter – or the spector A-130 gunship that is basically a converted herc with detection and destruction equipment I would rather have that protecting my butt than any fast mover. the americans have fleets sitting on the tarmac in arizona

    • Canada designing its own jet fighter, even if partnered with other countries ‘floundering’ with their own projects will cost a lot more than buying a design that is already in pre-production, such as the F-35.

      Development costs are huge for state-of-the-art fighters, and take years upon years, especially for a 5th generation stealth fighter that won’t be blown out of the sky by our enemies. (Survivability in combat and hostile environments is essential.)

      This is why the F-35 was designed, for all NATO countries to use it so the higher volume of production would reduce the development cost each plane must bare for Lougheed to recover its full costs.

    • My question is why Bombardier who appears to getting a billion dollars from the feds can’t come up with fighter jet. We could save a lot of money building in Canada with the way the Canadian dollar is and we happen to have a aircraft company right in our country and guess what it owes us.

  3. the election is over solomon…the pro Zionist Cons lost, so get on with it….

  4. What a load of codswallop Evan. You expect every election utterance to be fulfilled in three months? Your use of the phrase “long promised Liberal plan to pull out CF-18 jets” is just click-bait. It’s not like the Minister of Defence is sitting around doing nothing. Did you ever stop to think he just wants to get it right?

  5. I realize this was an article about politics, but it is really challenging to blame the Canadian military mess on the government of the day. Without question, the DND is the most disorganized, disingenuous department with the Canadian bureaucracy. Moreover, (just as this article did) support for the DND is often entwined with support for the Canadian Armed Forces. Of course, the DND ultimately is the responsibility of the government but overhauling it is a decade long process with few political rewards. Until that time, it is a virtual guarantee that money put into the DND will 1) be poorly sent and 2) cause the government that provided funding political grief.

  6. There is (almost) universal agreement that DND has a funding problem given its obligations. The real harm the Harper government did was reducing the tax base so that DND (and many other government departments) are ham-strung. If we want to meet our military commitments to our allies we’re going to have to spend more. I suggest the government raise the GST back to 7% and commit to spending the additional funds on the military. The GST is a progressive tax; those who spend more pay more.

  7. The use of ‘military’ as a noun is American English, not Canadian English. ‘Military’ is an adjective, not a noun. In Canada, we use ‘armed forces’ as the noun.

    I know, you will argue that I am being picky, or take the view that ‘everyone knows what the writer means anyway,’ but our language is being diluted because of the influence of American culture. Most of us are willing to ‘wave the flag on Canada Day’ but we yield to cultural influence as it invades our consciousness.

    Professional writers, as columnists are rightly termed, should set a correct example. The article has other grammatical errors and sentence structure that needs to be improved; one place to begin is the use of Canadian English.

  8. For me it is about spending smarter. Byers has a 2014 paper that is surprisingly hawkish (for CCPA). He advocates rising military spending from $15B/yr to about $35B/yr, enough to bankrupt Canada without tax rises. Given 40% of corporate profit were from unsustainable oil, and 40% were from banks, I’m not big on the CPC tax cuts, but they are better than across the board military spending rises.
    Byers sweeps the made in Canada jobs under the rug. I’d guess somewhere between 10% and 25% a premium for jobs here is wise in manufacturing at home. I don’t think anyone will make diamond computers in the near term that lead to AI, but the closest actor now would be LM’s Skunk Works. We got a lucky bargain by not spending much from 1994 to last yr. Byers notes the problem of drones getting more powerful but does not advocating killing mission creep among our NATO allies nor airplane (or ground/sea) munitions that can kill many drones.
    I’ve been given a scenario: the NSA accidently hacks a (CDC Atlanta or Wpg Lab) researcher’s 2045 phone and hacks the database. Russia’s NSA has a mole who transfers this info right away to Moscow’s NSA HQ. China hacks them. China is the least skilled at keeping a secret and gets hacked by a middle east extremist. End of us all. Of course the NSA does prevent terrorist attacks and will prevent future attacks of this nature.
    The NSA should not be hacking about 100 infrastructures today, 1000 tomorrow, and a million in twenty years when synthetic biology blueprints, BAU, will be on lots of computers.
    I’m not a socialist like B.Sanders; I believe we need to be strong in attacking anarchy of all types while protecting quality-of-life. But part of the problem is within our own allies and Russia our frienemy. The USA’s annual iGEM science fair (mostly good vaccine R+D) is just as much a hazard to quality-of-life as is Al Qaeda. The UK had an MP in 2013 advocate for Synthetic Biology ignoring any risk analysis. They set a bad example by funding it about $30M/yr.
    Finance in the USA can do a lot of good by costing the insurance of cataclysmic future technology risks. These are the kind of risks that regress the finance industry a few centuries at best. We should prevent synthetic biology from happening. We should prepare to maintain civil order so researchers can try to make vaccines post Patient-Zero. The NRA can’t police its own mentally ill members. The CDC may fall. The CIA and NSA HQs aren’t set up to survive pandemics. Will the Virology Lab hold up? Here, it would be hard to deliver a classified biosensor missile into Asia without triggering a war, without diplomacy. It would be better if China and India and Russia set up a NORAD to fire such a missile (followed possibly by nuking one city). Our oil economy is weak in a pandemic. Even my AB refinery plan is weak in a pandemic according to Weisman’s book (if we disappear all nuclear and chemical plants blow up). Lithium power seems to be the key to social distancing. Intelligence Agencies should look at names and ID info when following people into sensitive areas to avoid causing WMDs from happening themselves. Our military needs to survive a pandemic and act to stop it from happening. We should be attacking chickens and building a battery economy. Iowa should be subsidizing a plant protein source. We should look to limit robot armies as well. In the USA in the 1970s, the CSC enabled State Officials to not be fire-able. At the highest levels of administration, gvmt should be merit-based. If someone is looking to cut corners like Maine did before Swine Flu, they should be removed from power. Pay them still, but sent them to school. I’m not a Socialist like B.Sanders because I want solutions to these threats regardless of whether everyday Joe gets a fair wage.
    For example, to enable wave power, and assist the CSA in getting astronauts and rovers to NEOs, I think we should build the best test Tank in the world. This might also help the Canadian Navy test out ship designs. It wouldn’t count as NATO funding….we should repurpose NATO to stop synthetic biology R+D, stop chicken coops (need a GMO-ed protein plant), stop AI research that isn’t necessary (diamond semiconductors especially), stop surveilling WMD infrastructures, and only then attack terrorism.

  9. We stand behind our leaders’ decision.

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