By Michael Nickerson
It’s finally here! The new Canadian defence policy paper has arrived. Huzzah! Sure it’s six months late, but oh my, what a document: 113 pages of vision, inspiration, and no end of sidebars, tables, and appendices to wow the reader into a state of optimistic bliss. It’s got a catchy title too: Strong, Secure, Engaged. And hey, it also has a great photo of a military family with their dog, and who doesn’t like dogs?
As a body of rhetoric goes, it is quite impressive, touching on all the right talking points, from supporting military personnel and their families, and investing in capability and capacity, to “Fixing Defence Funding” as the third chapter is titled. The first two at the very least indicate that Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and the rest of Team Justin™ have indeed been listening to Canadians, be it through consultation, focus groups, or a daily summary of press clippings. And it’s fairly safe to say that, after many years, the Canadian public wants us to look after our troops and families better, and knows that our military is in need of a serious financial infusion.
And so, should one view Strong, Secure, Engaged as a contractual agreement, then the military community has a lot to be happy about. Aside from expanding regular force and reserve numbers by 3,500 and 1,500 respectively, those personnel will receive more money for family support resource centres ($145-million), and more for health and wellness, both physical and mental ($200-million). Twenty-eight initiatives in all that should have military members thinking that, yes, they really like us.
Similarly, should you be part of the Royal Canadian Air Force or Navy, looking to join the Special Operation Forces, or are just a tech geek who likes to play cyber spy, then put those shades on because the future is going to be blazingly bright. We’ve been promised 88 jet fighters, 15 “Surface Combatant ships” (and to quote Sajjan: “Fifteen. Not ‘up to’ 15 and not 12. And definitely not six”), two supply ships, 605 Special Operation Force members and the requisite capital support, along with drones, radar, equipment upgrades across the board, and cyber warfare tech to boot.
Unfortunately given all its inspirational eloquence, Strong, Secure, Engaged is not a contractual agreement but is at best a promissory note backed by a history of broken promises and misleading numbers. Of course, the broken promises need no introduction, with a succession of governments having promised one thing and done effectively the opposite for decades. And it should come as no surprise that the spending promises in Strong, Secure, Engaged are heavily back-loaded to well after the next election. Vote Team Justin™ and get your money! Sound familiar?
Which brings us to the numbers, and to paraphrase the old saying, they aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. To quote the great document itself, the government promises (assuming they’re re-elected at least twice) to increase annual defence spending “from $18.9 billion in 2016-17 to $32.7 billion in 2026-27, an increase of over 70 percent.” Seventy per cent! Wow!! Who could quibble with that?
Well, what if I told you that the government, to great fanfare, has come forward and promised to spend the equivalent of no more annually in ten years than it does now? See, there’s this little thing called inflation and, unfortunately, when it comes to equipping and maintaining a modern, cutting-edge military force worthy of working with our current high-tech allies, the expected inflation rate runs a little higher than the annual increase in the price of kumquats at the local grocer. Put simply, using the government’s numbers, their promise amounts to an annual increase of 5.65 per cent (compounded annually, which is charitable), and while the inflation of defence costs can be quite variable, dependent on tech levels and operational status amongst other things, 5.65 per cent yearly in cost inflation is well within the accepted norms for modern militaries.
In short, Strong, Secure, Engaged isn’t even worth the paper it’s printed on. A work of fiction, smoke and mirrors … choose whatever analogy, but the result is the same, and so is Canadian military spending for many years to come.