By James G. Scott
Critics of U.S. President Donald Trump offer several examples of rash demands issuing from his mouth (or Twitter account), but perhaps none cause more discomfort in Europe and Canada than the suggestion NATO countries adhere to their “two per cent of GDP” military spending guideline.
Since 2008, most countries have struggled with attempts at austerity budgets; or simply loaded on more debt, and military budgets are prime targets in peacetime. The defence community lacks an identifiable ‘consumer’ base and its issues rise and fall in the public consciousness as events appear and disappear from headlines. Typically, Canadians feel great pride (or unease) as the Canadian Armed Forces participate in foreign battles, maritime interdictions, international exercises or humanitarian missions, but spare little thought for the logistics tail of equipping and supplying our personnel on a daily basis. Few taxpayers are aware we spend nearly $20-billion on defence and fewer still would be aware of the details.
Occasionally, debates surrounding structure, procurement and strategic requirements come to civilian attention. The unification battles of the late 1960s, the nuclear submarine debate of the 1980s, helicopter procurement, F-35 purchase, etc., offered great heat but no light. Competing interests within the military community drive the narrative while the “ploughshares” crowd vie with political opponents to provide more obscurity than observation. Absent a clear military objective, peaceable Canada can apparently afford to spend years arguing over trucks, tanks, supply ships and “fifth generation” fighter aircraft, but it makes it damn hard to make sensible decisions lasting more than a few months.
In the past decade the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) managed to break the Liberal stranglehold on power long enough to push through a few military procurement issues. With thousands of troops rotating through war-torn Afghanistan, the acquisition of Leopard C-2 main battle tanks and Chinook heavy-lift helicopters seemed a tactical necessity and only the churlish complained publicly. For a brief, shining moment (after winning a coveted majority), it even seemed the Conservatives had laid solid ground for fleet renewal including combat, Coast Guard and supply ships that would spread thousands of jobs across Canada and give the Royal Canadian Navy new life.
Alas, expanded budgets and tactical procurements would not survive the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The defence budget, supposedly ravaged by inflation, settled back to “one per cent of GDP” territory while procurement slipped into political mayhem, and spending initiatives — booked but unspent — fell victim to finance department knives. The F-35 fighter jet remains, like its radar cross-section, a shimmering, slippery non-commitment for a future administration.
Canada is not unique in wasting billions of dollars and unnecessary years buying (or, ultimately, not buying) equipment that some other country is already flying, sailing or driving. We are not unique in having a top-heavy military loaded down with bureaucracy and politically sensitive contracts and infrastructure. For a country of our population and economy, we may lead in some of these categories but it is not unknown for politics and special interests to make their unwelcome mark on military plans.
In democracies, civilian oversight is a desired feature. However, like our endless, useless and obscurantist pipeline debates, there comes a time for political backbone. Decide on a direction and let the pros get on with it. Set a budget and a timeline and fire the first person who fails. That the Conservatives recently, and the Liberals before them, could not display this level of fortitude gives little hope anything will change in the future. Yet, as President Trump has proved, things can change in unexpected ways.
In May of this year the CPC will choose only its second national leader. The field is crowded with 14 candidates of which only a few can be considered serious. Amongst them is a television personality and a dozen with political experience up to and including Cabinet minister. Two gentlemen have served in the CAF. For reasons of self-preservation, candidate policy platforms are even more platitudinous and vacuous than election platforms so speculating as to whether any of them would offer a better defence programme than present is a fool’s game. Coupled with the fact that a wily band of Liberals is determined to re-elect the current PM makes it even more moot. Yet, political landscapes have proved shifty in recent years.
As we await the most recent defence policy review some may hold out hope that the way forward will be more efficient and productive. Given that the process will include “gender impact analysis” and set-asides for aboriginal business, and that the review panel includes the usual Liberal suspects, change doesn’t appear to be on the menu.
Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan has hinted that “investments” will follow the review’s release, but will that include a submarine fleet? Expansion of the militia? Supply ships? As we have for the last several decades, Canadian taxpayers will read an article or two, then lapse back into indifference … until the next billion-dollar boondoggle.