Armed Forces budget: even 2% of GDP “will not be enough”

Anita Anand did not close the door to this possibility. We will increase our defense spendingshe repeated a few days ago, before heading to a meeting of the Council of Ministers. She did not, however, provide a percentage. The details will be known on Thursday, when the federal budget is tabled.

Currently, the Canadian government allocates the equivalent of approximately 1.4% of its GDP to its military expenditures. Going to 2% would represent about $16 billion more per year, according to several experts. As an indicator, this is twice as much as what the federal child care program should cost annually, once created.

This amount may seem astronomical, but many former members of the Canadian Armed Forces believe that it would be insufficient to make up for all the backlogs in equipment purchases that have accumulated over the past two decades.

Even if we reached 2% this year […] it won’t be enough. We won’t have any yet [suffisamment] to make up for any lack of equipment. »

A quote from Pierre St-Cyr, retired colonel of the Canadian Armed Forces

Professor Stéphane Roussel, specialist in defense policy at the National School of Public Administration (National School of Public Administration), throws the same type of warning: The idea that the 2% becomes a magic threshold and that we will solve all the problems is, in my opinion, really erroneous.

Professor Stephane Roussel

Photo: Radio-Canada / Benoit Roussel

Why? First, because the grocery list that has piled up under successive governments of Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper – the latter at one point cut the defense budget below 1% – is long. Very long. In addition to the old CF-18 fighter planes to be replaced, there is also the entire radar system to be modernized in our Far North, which is separated from Russia only by an ocean.

Right now, says professor and co-director of the Strategic Analysis Network Justin Massie, if Vladimir Putin decided to attack Canada with missiles, it is not certain that we would be able to detect them in time to first be able to intercept them, or even retaliate before they hit Canadian territory.

The icebreaker makes its way through the ice in Baffin Bay.

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent in the Far North.

Photo: The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward

To increase surveillance in Arctic waters, which will become increasingly strategic with melting glaciers, there is also a lack of drones, low-orbit satellites and, potentially, nuclear-powered submarines. Nor does Canada have planes to refuel its future fighters.

The catch is that each of these pieces of equipment costs a fortune. Just to replace the CF-18s, which are 40 years old, the federal government expects to spend close to $20 billion. By way of comparison, in its last environmental plan, Ottawa announced $9 billion in new investments.

It is extremely expensive and it goes up every yearadds Justin Massie. Inflation in defense is not 5%, but rather 10% or 15% [par année]because it’s high tech.

Choose, but what?

Airplane on an airstrip.

A plane at the military base in Trenton, Ontario, which is preparing to deliver equipment to the Ukrainian army via Poland.

Photo: The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick

In short, even if the Trudeau government agrees to an increase in the military budget on Thursday, choices will inevitably have to be made. And that’s where the shoe pinches, says retired Colonel Pierre St-Cyr.

What are the Canadian Forces Engagement Priorities […]? It’s not clearhe points out in an interview. However, to know what one needs, it takes, according to him, a clear-cut foreign policy.

Several options are available to Canada: would we like, for example, to focus on surveillance of the Arctic and create better defense capabilities in our Far North? Or prepare for a major NATO military deployment in Europe? Or rather focus on peace missions around the world (which Justin Trudeau has done very little for years)?

A female soldier and military equipment.

NATO has intensified its military exercises in the Arctic Circle since Russia invaded Ukraine. This is led by Norway.

Photo: Reuters/Yves Herman

While several experts criticize the federal government for not having clearly defined its defense priorities, Professor Stéphane Roussel is a little more understanding, because it is always difficult to predict what will the next war be made of.

For example, in the early 2000s, explains the professor ofNational School of Public Administrationyou had a lot of people saying that Canada should specialize in peacekeeping and drop all heavy combat forces […] or find specialties.

The problem, he says, is that if the next mission not related to this specializationthe army will quickly caught off guard.

So in a country like Canada, where the population is relatively small and the resources are necessarily limitedwe often end up keeping a small number of equipment in each of the areasalthough it may make it more difficult large-scale and long-term operations.

When soldiers are missing

The shortage in the Armed Forces is not only material. It also affects staff. Some experts estimate that there is a shortage of at least 7,500 soldiers at present, partly due to the shortage of manpower. The military sector struggles to compete with other areas of the Canadian economy. And since personnel represent 45% of the Armed Forces’ expenditure, an increase in the budget could make it possible to offer more competitive salaries and, potentially, fill this shortage.

Money that is not used

Portrait of Justin Massie in front of a library.

Professor Justin Massie

Photo: Radio-Canada / Benoit Roussel

Before elaborating on the ways in which we could manage a possible increase in military spending, there is a question, perhaps even more fundamental, which arises: are we able to spend the sums already budgeted? The record of recent years in this regard is not brilliant.

In a report released recently to the House of Commons, we learned that in 2021, the Department of National Defense had not used a portion of its budget. Thus, $1.2 billion of a total envelope of $28 billion was returned to Treasury Board, largely because of delays in the purchase of military equipment.

We have a dysfunctional procurement system, meaning we can’t spend the money we receive. »

A quote from Justin Massie, professor of political science at UQAM and co-director of the Network for Strategic Analysis

How to explain such inefficiencies? Since military procurement involves billions of dollars in investment, governments generally want to ensure that their choices are beyond reproach in the eyes of the public.

This is called the “test Globe and Mail explains retired Colonel Pierre St-Cyr. In other words, [tu veux t’assurer] only if it makes it to the front page [du journal]you are not faulted. As a result, committee reviews are multiple and can lengthen the process.

The other issue is that often it is the elected officials themselves who stretch the sauce unnecessarily.

The best example is probably the replacement of fighter jets. In 2015, seeing that Stephen Harper was caught in a storm with the purchase of the F-35s – which he had concluded without a competitive tender – Justin Trudeau promised not to procure the Lockheed Martin planes.

However, in March 2022, the same Liberal Prime Minister began final negotiations with the American manufacturer to acquire 88 F-35 aircraft. The question that was on everyone’s lips: why couldn’t he have done it seven years earlier?

Stephen Harper in front of an aircraft.

In 2010, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government announced that it would replace aging CF-18s with F-35s.

Photo: The Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz

Specialist Justin Massie thinks that, in order to limit the partisanship in the acquisition process, it is important that the political parties, especially the Liberals and the Conservatives, agree on a five-year or even ten-year plan for future acquisitions to avoid backtracking each time there is a change of government. This kind of bipartisan consensus exists in countries like Australia and France.

Ukraine, an opportunity to seize

Anita Anand walks with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Jens Stoltenberg during their visit to a military base.

Defense Minister Anita Anand walks with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during their visit to the Adazi military base in Adazi, Latvia.

Photo: The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld

Despite the slowness of the acquisition system, several experts believe that the conflict afflicting Ukraine still offers an opportunity to catch up.

There is a window of opportunity for the government in public opinion to increase defense spendingbelieves political scientist Stéphane Roussel who thinks that, for the first time in a long time, it feels like there’s a threat hanging over Canada. Suddenly, adds Justin Massie, war is no longer something theoretical.

There is reason to wonder, however, if this social acceptability will last. Many experts doubt it.

If in a few years, for example, the Ukrainian conflict is resolved and the federal government wishes to achieve a balanced budget, are we going to want to cut national defense or child care more? asks Mr. Massie.

Retired Colonel Pierre St-Cyr also recognizes that many Canadians do not see the need to invest in defense in times of peace.

In short, even if the Trudeau government decides to reach the famous 2% in Thursday’s budget or to come close to it, there is no guarantee that this ambition to flirt with this percentage will be here to stay.

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