Comparing Defence Legacies: Trudeau vs Harper

LCol Paul W. Fredenburg, CD, MA

Canadian Forces College

October 2014


            Defence spending is a contentious issue for any Canadian government. It is the largest discretionary expenditure in the Federal Budget and must compete with very large demands for social programs and transfer payments to the provinces. No matter what government is in power, there will be those who will demand more be spent on defence, regardless of the larger political picture. Conversely there will be those who demand that defence spending be cut and the funds redirected to other programs regardless of the international situation.

            Robert Smol’s recent article “Who supported the Canadian Armed Forces more: Pierre Trudeau or Stephen Harper?” suggest that it was Pierre Trudeau’s record that comes out ahead. Smol takes snapshots in time to look at Gross Domestic Product (GDP), defence Spending, military size, overseas deployments, casualty rate and nuclear defence to make his comparison.[1] However, his analysis is very shallow and fails to take into consideration the changing world situation, the entire defence procurement program, as well as the actual trends in spending. Furthermore, he glosses over the changes in defence policy that were brought in under Trudeau and their impact on capabilities and our influence in the world. Finally, he fails to mention the impact of the Mulroney Conservative and the Chretien Martin Liberal Governments and leaves the impression that Harper oversaw huge cuts to the military, which is patently false.

            This paper will compare the situation in the Canadian Armed Forces when Pierre Trudeau became Prime Minister with the situation when Stephen Harper came to power. It will review Robert Smol’s claims point by point and offer a more comprehensive analysis. This analysis will show that Trudeau oversaw a period of net decline in the capabilities of the Canadian Armed Forces, while Stephen Harper oversaw a period of net growth. In conducting such a comparison, it is also important to consider the impact of the periods during which Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien and Paul Martin were in power.[2]

            Pierre Trudeau became the Prime Minister of Canada on April 20, 1968, when the Canadian Armed Forces were in the midst of a process of change, brought about by Paul Hellyer’s plan to create a unified force. In 1964, the defence budget was $1.525B and the total Regular Force strength was 120,000. Through Unification, Hellyer believed he could save money through personnel reductions and redirect the savings to equipment procurement. The budget was frozen at $1.5B for five years, with a total of $1.5B intended for new equipment. By 1968 the Regular Force strength had dropped to 101,200, but new equipment had been delivered or was on the way.[3] The budget had increased to $1.8B and a second phase of new equipment procurement was to have started in 1968.

            Trudeau inherited a force that included a Navy with an aircraft carrier, 24 destroyer escorts, 4 submarines and 31 other ships; an air force with 200 combat aircraft and an army with 41,000 regulars with four brigades.[4] Canada’s contribution to NATO at that time consisted of about 10,000 personnel including 4 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group with 6600 troops, Centurion tanks and Honest John Surface to Surface Missiles armed with tactical nuclear warheads. The Air Force in NATO was also armed with nuclear warheads to be delivered by CF104 Starfighters. These aircraft were in fact low-level tactical nuclear bombers and operated without guns.[5]

            Trudeau immediately imposed a cut of 6,000 personnel on the Canadian Forces over and above those undertaken by Hellyer. He also imposed another budget freeze, which when inflation was taken into consideration, cut the capital budget even lower. This freeze was a harbinger of things to come and was also done without consideration of the volatility of the international situation. Most notably at this time, the Prague Spring democratic reforms in Czechoslovakia were brutally crushed by the forces of the Soviet Union, indicating that the Cold War could turn hot at any time. Regardless, Trudeau pushed on with his plans. Trudeau had wanted to withdraw completely from NATO but was convinced by his Cabinet that would be a mistake. Nevertheless and without consultation with Canada’s NATO allies, the Canadian presence in NATO was cut in half and stripped of its nuclear capability. It should be noted here that although NATO desired to reduce its reliance on tactical nuclear weapons, it hoped to do so by increasing its conventional forces. Trudeau not only removed Canada’s tactical nuclear weapons but reduced its conventional forces, which left a gaping hole in the defence of north-west Europe. This action by Trudeau had an immediate negative effect upon our relationship with our NATO partners. [6]

Personnel Strength

            The cuts of 1968 and 1970 were the beginnings of the “occasional cuts” as described by Smol.[7] Indeed, Trudeau’s real desire was to reduce the overall strength to 50,000 Regulars, but he was again convinced by his cabinet to move more slowly.[8] The combined Regular Force strength declined from 103,000 in 1968 to a low point of 77,000 in 1976. The strength went back up to about 83,000 in 1984. This represents an overall personnel reduction of about twenty percent. The Reserves fared much worse. The Militia strength dropped during the same period from 27,000 to 16,000 a forty percent cut.[9] Smol’s description of the wholesale personnel reductions by Trudeau as the occasional cut is being incredibly generous.

            The Mulroney Conservatives for their part increased the Regular Force strength from 83,000 to a high of 90,000 in 1991 or just over eight percent. The Militia strength increased to 22,000 or thirty-seven percent.[10] With the end of the Cold War and the public demands for a ‘Peace Dividend’, the bases in Europe were closed and units and formations were disbanded leading to a drop in strength by 1993 to 84,000.[11] The Chretien Liberals then began a steady deliberate process of reductions in defence spending and strength. By 2005, the effective Regular Force strength had dropped to 52,300.[12] It is important to remember that the cuts under the Chretien Government occurred during a period with the highest operational tempo since the Korean War. It also occurred during a period when the government was working to balance its budget. In addition to personnel cuts, pay and benefits were frozen and several bases were closed. This left the armed forces in a state of low morale and coupled with a risk averse approach in the Government during the 1990s gave Canada and its Armed Forces a reputation as an unreliable ally in the international community.[13] Finally, the Chretien Government committed the Forces to operations in Afghanistan when the Army in particular was asking for an operational pause.[14]

 Harper inherited a military at the lowest strength since just after the Korean War. Paul Martin, Chretien’s successor, had committed to move the Canadian Contingent in Afghanistan from the relative calm of Kabul to the significantly more dangerous Kandahar Province. While Martin had indicated a plan to rebuild and re-equip the military, it came at a time when it obvious his government was at risk of falling. Given the track record of previous Liberal governments in this respect, it would be generous to assume his government would live up to these promises. Since it came to power, the Harper Conservatives government has steadily increased the strength of the Regular Force to 66,000[15]over eight years, an increase of 27%. Furthermore, after the withdrawal of combat forces in Afghanistan, the government has also reduced defence spending in order to balance the budget, but they have not frozen wages or cut personnel as Chretien and Martin did. Indeed the bulk of the reductions are linked to the cessation of combat operations and the pullout from Afghanistan


Perhaps the most visible impact of the cuts to defence under Trudeau was the scrapping of HMCS Bonaventure. This vessel was Canada’s last capital ship and had only been in service for thirteen years. As part of Hellyer’s new defence policy it had recently undergone a refit to convert it from a fixed wing carrier to an anti-submarine helicopter carrier at a cost of $18M.[16] Four new ships were under construction at this time, namely the Iroquois Class. These ships were announced by the Pearson Liberals and were commissioned in 1972. However, they did not increase the fleet size for long. In 1974 one St Laurent class and three Restigouche class ships were decommissioned as a result of budget cuts. The youngest of these ships was only fifteen years old.[17]

The fleet would sail on for another ten years with no contracts for new ships until 1983. A Request for Proposals (RFP) in 1977 called for a fleet of 24 ships, a one for one replacement of the St-Laurent, Restigouche, Mackenzie and Annapolis Class ships. However, when the contract was awarded in 1983 it called for only six ships.[18] The first one would not be delivered until 1991; nineteen years after the delivery of the last Iroquois Class, and twenty-three years after Trudeau came to power. Smol’s assertion that the “entire blue water fleet of 12 frigates and three destroyers were either launched while Trudeau was in power or had their budget and building program approved by Trudeau”, is pure fiction. Indeed the second batch of Halifax Class ships was approved by Brian Mulroney’s government in 1987.[19] Mulroney’s government also funded an upgrade for the Iroquois Class to give them more modern weapon systems and a more capable command and control system, amongst other things.[20] It is important to note is that by 1983 the oldest ship in the Navy was twenty-seven years old and by the time of the delivery of the first new ship, the average age was well in excess of thirty-years old. Furthermore, a lot of money was spent on the older ships to keep them sailing, money that could have been spent on new ships earlier.[21] Nevertheless, in twenty-three years, Trudeau’s true naval legacy was a reduction of the fleet from twenty-nine surface combatants to ten.

The Naval Reserve had been virtually ignored by the Trudeau Government. The only dedicated ships were five Porte Class gate vessels built in the early 1950’s. In 1992 the Mulroney Conservative Government ordered twelve new Kingston Class ships to replace the Porte Class, which were delivered between 1996 and 1999.[22]

The last of the Halifax Class ships were delivered in 1996. Nine of these ships were built by Saint John Drydock and three were built by MIL-Davie. No new large vessels were planned by the government during the Jean Chretien Liberal Government even though the Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment (AOR) ships were due for replacement. Furthermore, there were no plans to replace the Iroquois Class noting that the average time between ordering a new ship and delivery is almost ten years. With no contracts on the horizon, Canada’s naval shipbuilding capacity virtually disappeared. MIL Davie had gone bankrupt with the property changing hands several times. Saint John Drydock was closed in 2003 when Irving Shipbuilding announced that it had signed an agreement with the federal government for $55 million in economic readjustment funding provided that Saint John Shipbuilding is closed permanently.[23] This was the most modern shipyard in Canada at the time and had the Chretien Government had any foresight at all, could have been used to build the new ships needed only a few years later. Indeed in any other country a modern shipyard capable of building warships would be seen as a strategic resource. However, the Chretien government agreed to shut it down so that a non-strategic wallboard factory could be built on the site.

The only ships that the Chretien Government agreed to purchase were four second hand diesel-electric submarines from the Royal Navy to replace the navy’s 35 year-old Oberon Class submarines. These vessels had been retired by the Royal Navy in 1994 having only been completed in 1990 to 1993. Chretien was not really supportive of the purchase and his own Foreign Affairs Minister called them un-Canadian. Nevertheless the Navy was able to offer to retire one of its three AORs early and to use funds allocated for a proposed refit of its old submarines. The government agreed but there would be no additional money made available to the Navy. They were procured in 1998, but because of the funding shortfalls, the purchase did not include any spares or any supplier relationships. This program has been plagued with problems that have taken years to resolve, but these problems have more to do with the procurement process than with the ships themselves.[24]

When Stephen Harper became Prime Minister, the Navy consisted of two forty year-old AORs, four thirty year-old destroyers, twelve fifteen year-old frigates, twelve patrol vessels and four submarines. Only six of these ships were Trudeau’s legacy. Unlike Trudeau, Harper did not have a predecessor with new warship plans in the works. Furthermore, the shipbuilding industry in Canada had been decimated due to a lack of work. Thus, Harper’s government was faced not only with the task of rebuilding the Navy but also the shipbuilding industry itself. No matter how big the budget or how much you need them, you cannot build ships without the shipyards to do so. This issue is completely lost on Smol as it is on many other journalists.

Since the Second World War, Canadian Governments have chosen to build ships for the Navy in Canada wherever possible. In most cases it is indeed cheaper to buy ships offshore than to build them here, particularly when the shipbuilding industry has declined. Nevertheless, the Harper Government has chosen to build new ships in Canada in order to generate jobs in Canada. After a false start on the Joint Support Ship (JSS) that was to have replaced the AORs, the government decided to develop the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS). The NSPS was developed with the input of multiple government departments without political interference and with an independent monitor. As part of this Strategy a tendering process was carried out in order to select two shipyards, one of which would build combat vessels and the other support vessels for both the RCN and Canadian Coast Guard. These contracts were awarded in 2011 to Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax for combat Vessels and Seaspan Marine in Vancouver to build the non-combat vessels. When announced the plans were widely praised and the NSPS was seen as a model for future defence procurement.[25] Furthermore, it would provide consistent long-term funding for ship construction without the boom-bust cycle of previous years. Since that time, both shipyards have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in new infrastructure in order to build the required ships.[26] Large construction projects also take years to complete, another point completely lost on Smol and many other journalists. This work must be completed before physical work on any ships can commence. By way of comparison, work on HMCS Halifax commenced ten years after the RFP was submitted. Work is scheduled to begin on the first new AOR in late 2016 six years after the commencement of the NSPS.

Also lost on Smol and others is the Halifax Class Modernization Project, a $4.2B project that will upgrade and modernize the Halifax class ships to allow them to operate until they are replaced by the new surface combatant fleet. This project was awarded after a competitive bid and is currently underway.[27] By comparison to Trudeau’s true naval legacy, the Harper Government has taken steps to maintain Canada’s naval capabilities and to set conditions for the Royal Canadian Navy, Canadian industry and workers to benefit from a long-term national shipbuilding program.


            Smol suggests that Trudeau’s track record is much better than Harper’s with regards to aircraft procurement. When Trudeau came to power the Air Force had about 300 combat aircraft of various types. In the fighter role these consisted of the CF-101 Voodoo, CF-104 Starfighter, and CF-116 Freedom Fighter. The CF-101 was used for air defence in North America and along with the Bomarc Missiles was armed with nuclear warheads. As mentioned earlier the CF-104 was employed as a low-level nuclear bomber. However, when its nuclear role was removed, this aircraft was re-rolled to serve in support of ground troops, a role for which it was singularly unsuitable. With the reduction in overall numbers, 34 CF-104s were sold to Norway and Denmark.[28]

Smol correctly suggests that the Liberals were also responsible for the procurement of the CF-116 (also referred to as the CF-5) Freedom Fighter. This project was indeed begun by the Liberals, but under Lester B. Pearson. His government placed an order with Canadair for 115 aircraft, 26 of which were two-seat versions. The first aircraft was delivered in February of 1968, two months before Trudeau became Prime Minister.[29]

            The procurement of the CF-5 was nothing to celebrate. Its requirement was borne out of Paul Hellyer’s White Paper in 1964 that created Mobile Command             and a need for a balanced force to meet both peacekeeping and peace restoration duties. The choice of the RCAF was the F-105 Thunderchief, which had already proven itself in combat.[30] However, the F-105 was chosen instead and was to be built by Canadair at a cost that was thirty percent higher than if they had just bought them directly from Northrop in the United States.[31]

The intent was to create three operational squadrons and a training squadron using these aircraft. However, the Trudeau Government reduced the number of operational squadrons to two, which required only 41 aircraft. Nevertheless, the government proceeded to build the remaining aircraft even though there was no requirement for them at a cost of $138M during the period when defence spending was frozen. This money came out of Mobile Commands budget for new equipment and prevented other more useful items to be procured.[32] All of these additional aircraft were immediately put into storage and sixteen were subsequently sold to Venezuela. Many never flew again and when the fleet was eventually withdrawn from service by the Chretien Liberals, another sixteen were sold to Botswana, but some were scrapped without ever flying.

The New Fighter Aircraft program that began in 1977 was indeed a positive move by Trudeau. However, this program was a direct result of NATO criticism of Canada and its unwillingness to meet its military commitments, which in turn was having a negative effect on trade talks with Europe.[33] It was begun nine years after Trudeau came to power, with a contract in place three years later and first delivery two years later, replacing the CF-101 and CF-104 aircraft. A total of 138 aircraft were procured with the last one being delivered in 1988. Nevertheless this was a reduction in the amount of available aircraft from 162. Similarly, the replacement of the Argus maritime patrol Aircraft was indeed conducted under the Trudeau Government which resulted in a reduction in the number of airframes from 24 to 18 beginning in 1981.

Harper’s government, on the other hand, was much faster off the mark in aircraft than Trudeau’s. Smol glosses over the delivery of the four C-17 Globemasters for which a contract was signed only eighteen months after the 2006 election.[34] A contract for 17 C-130J aircraft was signed in 2008.[35] Furthermore, a contract for fifteen CH-47s was signed in 2009.[36] It should also be noted that six used CH-47’s were bought from the US as an interim measure in 2008 for immediate use in Afghanistan. There has been much criticism of these contracts due to their sole-source nature. However, in the case of the C17 and C130J the only potential competitor is the Airbus A400M which to this date is still not in large production and is well over budget. Had we opted for this aircraft, we would still be waiting. With regards to the CH-47, there is no comparable competitor.

Some pundits will argue that the entire Strategic Airlift and tactical helicopter program should be credited to the Martin Government. This is quite a stretch and is due to the fact that the project offices were opened at that time. It is more likely that a competitive bid process under Martin would have dragged for years and could have led to a contract for the A400M. However, the contract negotiation and award occurred under the Harper government as did the aircraft delivery. Thus, the credit for these programs clearly falls to the Harper Government.

Again, unlike Trudeau, Harper had no major aircraft contracts in place by his predecessor. That is, of course, with one exception. The Maritime Helicopter Program which resulted in a contract for 28 CH-148 Cyclones in 2004 by the Chretien Liberals. This was eleven years after Jean Chretien cancelled a project with Westland Agusta for 42 EH-101s. This initial $4.2B contract was awarded by the Mulroney Conservatives and was to complete the system based on the Halifax Class frigates. It also included Search and Rescue helicopters. Chretien argued that the project was unaffordable at a time of fiscal restraint. He did subsequently find money for new Challenger business jets, when other higher priority requirements went unfunded.[37]

A subsequent project for new Search and Rescue helicopters was awarded by the Liberals to Westland Agusta for fifteen Cormorant EH-101s at $593M in 1998.[38] The Cormorant is essentially the same aircraft that they cancelled previously. The second contract for 28 CH-148 Cyclones at a cost of $5.0B was signed with Sikorsky in 2004.[39] With the increased cost of maintaining the old Sea King helicopters and the subsequent purchase and maintenance price of both the Cormorant Cyclone helicopters, Chretien’s decision to cancel the original contract cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars more. Furthermore, the original requirement called for an off the shelf aircraft, but the Cyclone is clearly a developmental aircraft having existed only on paper when the contract was signed.

The biggest criticism of the Harper government is with its initial choice of the F-35 stealth fighter Generation 5 aircraft as a directed purchase. This aircraft was of course the choice of the RCAF and its desire to be able to counter similar potential threats from adversaries. There are two questions that must be answered here. The first is do we need a Generation 5 fighter. The second is do we need a twin engine fighter. These questions are important since you cannot have both. The only western Generation 5 twin engine fighter is the F-22 Raptor, which is out of production and not available for sale. Other Generation 4 twin engine aircraft are either approaching obsolescence (F-15 and F18E), or are as expensive as the F-35 (Eurofighter or Rafaele). Furthermore, the Eurofighter and Rafaele have experienced their share of technical problems for which the F-35 has been criticized. Clearly the RCAF has decided that stealth is more important in the long run than two engines, hence their choice of the F-35. Opposition parties have been pushing for a competitive bid process that, unless the RCAF is willing to change its requirements; will still result in the F-35 being selected.[40]

Land Equipment

            Smol does not discuss equipment for the Army at all. Indeed the decline of the Army under Trudeau was perhaps greater than the decline of the Navy at the same time. Canada was in the position of being the only country in the western world whose air force was bigger than its army. Indeed the bulk of the overall personnel cuts were in the Army and key weapon systems were withdrawn from service. For example, with the exception of those in the brigade in Europe, all of the army’s tanks were withdrawn from service. The intent was to convert to a light reconnaissance role, but no new vehicles or equipment were forthcoming for several years[41]

            The tank replacement project is perhaps telling of the Liberal approach to the Army. By 1975 the remaining Centurion tanks in Europe were too unreliable to operate under any conditions. Indeed they would have been replaced in the early 1970s, but as we have seen money that could have been spent to do so was wasted on aircraft that were not required. As with the new fighter aircraft, the Trudeau government only became interested in a tank because of NATO criticism and its impact on trade talks. The Trudeau government did indeed purchase the Leopard C1 tank, but only enough to equip the brigade in Europe and the armour school. They did not buy tanks for the armoured units in Canada but instead chose the lightly armoured and armed wheeled AVGP Cougar, which was procured not as a combat vehicle, but as a tank trainer. This latter vehicle was part of a larger buy that included armoured personnel carriers and recovery vehicles. Light handheld anti-aircraft weapons, new 2 ½ ton trucks and additional self-propelled artillery were also ordered.[42] All of these were delivered between ten and fifteen years after Trudeau came to power and only after he was shamed into doing so by Canada’s allies.

            The Mulroney Conservatives continued with the projects began by the Trudeau Government and added several new capabilities. A contract for the Air Defence Anti-Tank system was awarded on in 1986 with the first systems being delivered in 1993.[43] Armoured Engineer Vehicles were ordered in 1987 and were delivered in 1990.[44] Heavy Logistics Vehicles were ordered in 1987.[45] This government prepared a comprehensive White Paper that was published in 1987, which was to have been the starting point for increasing our defence capabilities, but was based on the threat from the Soviet Union. As part of the beefing up of Canada’s commitment to ground forces in NATO, a new tank and a Multi Role Combat Vehicle (MRCV) were proposed. The Leopard tanks bought by the Trudeau government were already approaching obsolescence due to lack of armour protection, armament and its ability to fight at night. However, these projects did not proceed primarily because of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

            Notwithstanding the severe cuts to the army that resulted from the Liberal Government under Jean Chretien, there was some new equipment ordered and delivered. Both the Coyote reconnaissance vehicle and the LAV III APC were ordered and delivered in order to replace the bulk of the old M113 fleet, by this time thirty years old. Interestingly enough these projects were directed purchases with no competitive bid process. This is not to suggest that a directed purchase is a bad thing, but it is interesting to note that the Chretien government was not subject to the same criticism for directed purchases as the Harper government. The LAV program was the single largest purchase under the Liberal government at a total of over $2B. It was broken into five smaller portions to avoid the political issues of a single large project associated with the EH-101. Finally, the support costs of this project that were estimated to be $900M were not included in the estimates.[46] All of these characteristics of the project implementation are the same as many being conducted currently and are the basis of heavy criticism. The choice of the LAV-III was perhaps a good idea at the time and was based in large part on cost. However, experience in Afghanistan showed that this decision was perhaps short-sighted.

            The other major projects undertaken by the Chretien Liberals were the tank upgrade and tank replacement. As mentioned above the Leopard C1 was obsolete and needed upgrade or replacement. The mid 1990s would have been a good time to replace the C1s with Leopard 2s as the Dutch Government had already declared some of these tanks surplus. Nevertheless, the Liberals elected to do this on the cheap and bought over a hundred older second hand Leopard 1A5 tanks from Germany and cross fitted their turrets to Leopard C1 chassis. This program was completed in 2001 at a cost of $145M.[47] Almost immediately a decision was made to remove the tank from service and to replace it with the Mobile Gun System (MGS) based on the LAV III chassis. This project also envisaged removing the ADATS turret from its M113 chassis and installing it on a LAV III, as well as using the LAV III Tow under Armour as a system of systems that would replace the tank.[48] Fortunately, this never saw the light of day and the tank was reintroduced later.

When the Martin Government chose to move the Canadian Contingent from Kabul to Kandahar, the Army assessed the situation and identified equipment that was needed based on the new threat. One of these was artillery. By this time the 155mm M109 self-propelled gun had been taken out of service and the artillery were using 105mm guns only. An Immediate Operation Requirement (IOR) was filled for six guns. However, the Harper government increased this to a total of 37 guns to equip all of the Regular Force Artillery Regiments.[49]

            The Chretien and Martin Liberals also replaced the Iltis light utility vehicle with the G-wagon in 2003.[50] This move was not only a result of a need to replace the Iltis because of its age, but also because of its lack of protection. Casualties began in the Balkans in the mid-1990s due to a lack of protection, but it took almost a decade to find a replacement. However, these vehicles were not much more survivable than the Iltis. In early 2006, after several IED attacks on the G-wagon culminating with the death of a diplomat, they ceased to be useful in such a theatre. The Conservatives countered with the procurement of a fleet of 75 RG-31 mine hardened vehicles which were ordered in November 2006 seven months after the election.[51] A fleet of 97 armoured logistics vehicles were also procured for Afghanistan.

Early in the deployment to Kandahar, the shortcomings in the LAV-III were becoming apparent due to IED strikes. The Conservatives countered this with the LAV Operational Requirements Integration Task or LORIT upgrade that provided additional belly and side armour as well as shock absorbing seats. A total of 141 LAV-IIIs were upgraded beginning in 2008. Following the withdrawal from Afghanistan a new LAV-III upgrade project began which has resulted in a completely rebuilt LAV 6.0 that incorporates all of the lessons learned from Afghanistan including the LORIT upgrades at a cost of $1.1B for 550 vehicles.[52]

Following major combat operation in 2006, it became apparent that heavy armour indeed had a role in Afghanistan. Thus, a squadron of Leopard C2 tanks was deployed. They were subsequently replaced by leopard 2 tanks leased from Germany. This move preceded a deal with the Dutch to purchase 100 second-hand Leopard 2 tanks that have subsequently been refurbished and put into service.[53] The return of the tanks has been criticized in some quarters as being inappropriate and a hang-over from the Cold War. The reality is that the tank remains a principle weapon system on the battlefield and was used to good effect in Afghanistan not only by Canada but by allies such as the United States and Denmark. Indeed, remarks from a decorated veteran of the Afghanistan War who served in them stated that these tanks saved lives.[54]

CCV is seen as a failure of the Harper Government. However, it should be noted that the original requirement for the vehicle came from the Army. The Statement of Operational Requirement (SOR), which was also written by the Army, was so stringent that none of the vehicles submitted for evaluation could meet the requirement. Thus, the project went back for the SOR to be rewritten. In the meantime the LAV 6.0 was being developed and its capabilities were only marginally less than the CCV project, which begged the question why is a second platform needed, with all the additional life cycle costs. Thus, the Army made the decision not to proceed.[55] It is unfortunate that this decision was not made sooner.

Other land equipment purchased by the Harper Government includes a complete suite of Expedient Route-Opening Capability (EROC) vehicles, again in response to the growing IED threat. Initially procured for the mission in Afghanistan, this capability is now embedded in the regular force Combat Engineer Regiments. New Armoured Engineer Vehicles have also been ordered. A contract for a new Tactical Patrol Vehicle has also been awarded. [56] Finally a fleet of new logistics vehicles is planned for 2015-17. This latter project did suffer some earlier setbacks, but is back on track having been tendered in 2014.[57] Numerous other smaller projects are also underway. Once delivered, these projects demonstrate the Harper Government’s legacy of almost completely re-equipping the Canadian Army, as opposed to Trudeau’s rust out.

Smol makes some other comparisons between Trudeau and Harper, which defy logic. First of all he suggests that while Trudeau was in power 328 soldiers died, 135 more than under Harper. Why the number of soldier’s deaths is even a point of comparison is beyond comprehension. Any soldier’s death is a tragedy, whether in war or peace and their numbers should not be used as a point of comparison.

Smol also suggests that Trudeau would be ready to use nuclear weapons and Harper would not. Again this is an incomprehensible argument. That we no longer have nuclear weapons is recognized as a good thing by all sides. However, as pointed out earlier, Trudeau’s unilateral withdrawal of our nuclear forces in Europe and reduction in manpower at the same time left a large hole in NATO’s defence at a particularly unstable time in history. The net result of Trudeau’s actions was to severely reduce Canada’s reputation on the international stage. Indeed Smol suggests that Trudeau was more supportive of NATO than Harper. Again as pointed out earlier Trudeau’s true desire was to pull out of NATO altogether and only beefed up Canada’s commitment when he was pressured into doing so by Canada’s allies. Today we have no bases in Europe, so our presence there will be much lower by default.  Unless Smol is suggesting we put a brigade and Air Group back into Europe, his argument has no basis in logic.

Finally let us look at Gross Domestic Product as a measure of Defence Spending. The figures provided by Smol are indeed correct and will not be contested.  In 2006 Canada’s GDP was about $1,164B. To use the argument that 2% of GDP should be spent on defence, an expenditure of $23B or an increase over the previous year of over 50% would have been required that year. By 2013, Canada’s GDP had risen to $1,821B and 2% of that would be $36B.[58] In order to meet such a level of expenditure, a much larger force would have to be recruited, trained, equipped and housed. Indeed, perhaps a return to pre-unification strength would require an annual budget of $36B. While many in uniform would welcome such an expansion, it would not only be impossible in a mere eight years, it would be hard to justify and would likely be completely unacceptable to the general public.

The Harper Government’s approach to first increase strength to meet the immediate needs and then to equip the force in being properly makes more sense. Rather than use GDP as a measure, Canada’s ability to respond when asked is a more appropriate measure. For example, compare the Harper Government’s response to the Typhoon in the Philippines with the Chretien response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami. The C17s and C130Js gave to Harper government the ability in to get support to the Philippines in a matter of days, whereas Chretien had to wait for leased aircraft to become available and could not get help to Sri Lanka for weeks.

Comparing the current government’s record with that of Trudeau, based solely on GDP is a shallow exercise. Trudeau inherited a strong and well equipped military, and with the commitment to NATO gave Canada a reputation as a reliable partner. Trudeau quickly dismantled this. The Navy declined to a third of its former capabilities, while the Army suffered a long period of rust out. Canada’s place in the world declined and new equipment only came on line after the government was pressured to do so by Canada’s allies. Even with the brief upsurge at the end of his time as Prime Minister, Trudeau oversaw a period of net reduction in the overall strength and capabilities of the Armed Forces.

Harper on the other hand inherited a much smaller force with significant equipment shortfalls. We were still seen as an unreliable partner. An increase in the paid ceiling has resulted in a twenty percent real increase in strength over the previous government. The army has almost completely been re-equipped and, with the exception of fighters, so has the RCAF. The RCN was in much worse shape than ever before as was the ability to build ships. The National shipbuilding Program will see two shipyards rebuilt to enable them to build ships for the foreseeable future to equip both the RCN and Coast Guard. Thus, the Harper Government has overseen a period of net increase in the strength and capabilities of the Armed Forces. Canada is now seen as a much more reliable ally than any time under Trudeau or Chretien.

So in answer to Smol’s question: Who supported the Canadian Armed Forces more: Pierre Trudeau or Stephen Harper?, the answer is clearly Stephen Harper. Would we like to see more? Could we afford to see more? The answer to both questions is clearly yes. However, expenditures on defence have to compete with other programs within the federal budget, most of which are non-discretionary, which limits the freedom of any government to spend on defence. Smol has not offered any references in his article, brief as it is. Nevertheless, the facts are clearly available to anyone with a desire to search. He is clearly on a political crusade and his article is designed to influence the less knowledgeable reader into thinking that Harper has not been good for the military. Harper has overseen a period of significant growth in capabilities and although there remains much work to do, further new capabilities will be delivered much faster than they would have under Trudeau or any of his successors. To suggest that Trudeau was a better supporter of NATO and of the Canadian Armed Forces than Harper is laughable.




Primary Sources

DND/PWGSC, Interdepartmental Review of the Canadian Patrol Frigate Project: Report on the Contract Management Framework, 26 March 1999.

Secondary Sources

Barrie, Ron and Macpherson, Ken, Cadillac of Destroyers: HMCS St. Laurent and Her Successors, (St. Catharines, 1996: Vanwell Publishing).


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[1]Smol, Robert, Who Supported the Canadian Armed Forces More: Pierre Trudeau or Stephen Harper?, Internet,, Accessed 30 September 2014. 2,3.

[2]The short-lived Progressive Conservative Government under Joe Clark will not be discussed. Even though his campaign included a commitment to change the course of defence spending, he was not in power long-enough to make a difference.

[3]Porter, Gerold, In Retreat, The Canadian Forces in the Trudeau Years, (1978, Ottawa: Deneau & Greenberg) 10.

[4]The Military Balance 1968-1969, (1969, London: The Institute for Strategic Studies), 21.

[5]Clearwater, John, Canadian Nuclear Weapons: The Untold Story of Canada’s Cold War Arsenal, (1998, Toronto: Dundurn Press), 93.

[6]Sean Maloney, War Without Battles: Canada’s NATO Brigade in Europe, (Toronto, 1996: McGraw-Hill Ryerson) 239-244. See also Porter, …, 9, 10.

[7]Smol,…, 2.

[8]Granatstein, J.L., Canada’s Army: Waging War and keeping the Peace, (Toronto, 2002: University of Toronto Press), 362-3.

[9]The Military Balance 1968-1969, (1969, London: The Institute for Strategic Studies), 21, and The Military Balance 1984-1985, (1969, London: The Institute for Strategic Studies), 29.

[10]The Military Balance 1990-1991, (1969, London: The Institute for Strategic Studies), 52.

[11]The Military Balance 1992-1993, (1969, London: The Institute for Strategic Studies), 38.

[12]The Military Balance 2004-2005, (1969, London: The Institute for Strategic Studies), 33.

[13]Hillier, General Rick, A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War, (Toronto, 2009: Harper Collins), 128-9, 158.

[14]Granatstein, J.L. Who Killed the Canadian Military?, (Toronto, 2004: Harper Collins), 176.

[15]The Military Balance 2014, (2014, London: The Institute for Strategic Studies), 39. The paid ceiling under Harper was raised from 60,000 to 70,000, as opposed to the suggested increase to 65,000 by Martin, and the current strength is about 68,500 based on a comment by the CDS in September 2014.

[16]Porter, … , 43.

[17]Barrie, Ron and Macpherson, Ken, Cadillac of Destroyers: HMCS St. Laurent and Her Successors, (St. Catharines, 1996: Vanwell Publishing), 13, 17.

[18]DND/PWGSC, Interdepartmental Review of the Canadian Patrol Frigate Project: Report on the Contract Management Framework, 26 March 1999, 13.14. See also Porter, …, 72.

[19]Ibid, 15.

[20]MacPherson, Ken and Ron Barrie, The Ships of Canada’s Naval Forces 1910-2002, (St Catharine’s, 2002: Vanwell Publishing), 262-5.

[21]Porter,…, 73.

[22]MacPherson and Barrie, 299.

[23]Internet,, Accessed October 17, 2014.

[24]Internet, Mitchell, Dr Paul T., “The Deal of the Century”: Canada’s Problematic Submarines in Historical Perspective, the Laurier Institute for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies, Accessed October 9, 2014. 

[25]Internet, Konrad, Stephan, An Important Success: Canada’s National Shipbuilding Strategy, The Atlantic Council of Canada,, Accessed 01 October 2014.

[26]Internet,, Seaspan, Shipyard Modernization Project, Accessed October 10, 2014. See also Internet,, Irving Shipbuilding Inc. News, accessed October 10, 2014.

[27]Internet,, Modernizing Canada’s Halifax Class Frigates, Accessed October 10, 2014.

[28]Stachiw, Anthony L. and Tattersall Andrew, Canadair CF104 Starfighter, (St. Catharine’s, 2007: Vanwell Publishing), 2007. 41.

[29]Stachiw, Anthony L., Canadair CF-5 Freedom Fighter, (St. Catharines, 2003, Vanwell Publishing) 13-15.

[30]Ibid, 13.

[31]Porter, 103.

[32]Ibid, 102-3.

[33]Ibid, 164-5.

[34]Internet,, Accessed October 17, 2014.

[35]Internet,, Accessed October 17, 2014.

[36]Internet,, accessed October 14, 2014.

[37]Internet,, Accessed 20 October 2014.

[38]Internet,, Search and Rescue Helicopter Contract Signed, DND News Release April 23, 1998. Accessed 06 October, 7, 2014.

[39]Internet,  , Maritime Helicopter Status (Fact Sheet), Accessed October 7, 2014.

[40]Internet,, Canada Preparing to Replace its CF-18 Hornets, Defence Program Acquisition News, Accessed October 8, 2014.

[41]Porter, … 108-9.

[42]Granatstein, J.L., Canada's  Army,…, 375.

[43]Internet,, Rheinmetal Defence-History, Accessed October 9, 2014.

[44]Jane’s Military Vehicles and Logistics 1998-99, 6.

[45]Ibid, 389.

[46]Stone, Major Craig J. Stone, An Examination of the Armoured Personnel Carrier Replacement Project, Canadian Military Journal, Summer 2001, 59-65.

[47]Jane’s’ Armour and Artillery 1999-2000, 3.

[48]Internet,, accessed 20 October 2014.

[49]Internet,, Background – Artillery – BAE M777 Towed Howitzer, accessed October 7, 2014.

[50]Internet,, National Defence, Additional G-Wagons to be Procured. Accessed October 7, 2014.

[51]Jane’s World Armies 2014, 124. Note: in the 1990s the Army asked for Nyala armoured vehicles to be procured for operations in the Balkans. The government at that time was prepared to buy only three.

[52]Internet,, Background – LAV-III LORIR, Standardizing Afghan LAV Upgrades, CASR, accessed October 9, 2014.

[53]Jane’s World Armies 2014, 124.

[54]Conversation between the author and MWO R. Stacey May 08, 2014.

[55]Internet,, accessed October 20, 2014.

[56]Jane’s World Armies 2014, 124-5.

[57]Internet,, Logistics Vehicle Modernization (LVM) Project (W847L-150067/A), accessed October 10, 2014.

[58]Internet,, Canada GDP, Accessed October 10, 2014.