Defence Spending – is it really necessary?
Jan 15, 2011

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Former Chief of the Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, coined the term “decade of darkness” to refer to the 1990’s when the Defence budget was slashed and the size of the Canadian Forces cut in the interests of eliminating the federal budget deficit. In reality, there were only limited increases in the years that followed until 2005 when the Liberal government under Paul Martin made a significant infusion to defence spending. In doing so, they identified several large equipment projects to be pursued. When the Conservatives came to power the next year, they made another injection into the budget and announced several projects, which are now adding to the capability of the Canadian Forces. Overall, the Defence budget has grown significantly over the past seven years. In addition to incremental funding received for deployed operations, it has increased from $15 billion in 2005/06 to $18 billion in 2008/09, and will approach $20 billion in 2011. These very positive increases have enabled the Canadian Forces to begin to rebuild capabilities after a decade of major reductions throughout the 1990s.

Now, during a time of global economic slowdown and the largest budget deficit in Canadian history, there is a constituency of Canadians who question the need for continued defence spending. Surely, they say, we have invested enough in the military that we can now focus on other priorities such as health care, education and employment. The reality is that it will take several years more to recover some of the capabilities and readiness confirmed by the government in its 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy. And military equipment doesn’t last forever; most of it is used hard, and is expensive to maintain and replace.

The most recent debate has been on the government’s decision to select the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as the replacement for the CF18 later this decade. Challenges to this huge project, estimated to cost $16 billion for acquisition and 20 years of maintenance, focus on the cost, the fundamental requirement, and the lack of a competition to guarantee value for money. Postmedia News reported that Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently told a CBC interviewer “What we do know is that the international situation will evolve. We don’t know what the risks and the threats will be in the future, but we know there will be some. And we know the men and women in the Canadian Forces, air, land and sea, will be called upon to respond. And when they are, we want to make sure they have a range of good, flexible equipment so they can respond safely and do their jobs effectively.”

This is a key point. We cannot predict what might be required of the military in the next year or two, let alone the time horizon applicable to major equipment purchases. The responsible approach is to ensure that the Canadian Forces are properly equipped, trained and supported to be flexible and ready for a wide range of possible duties – be they security for a major event, response to a natural disaster, classical peacekeeping, or combat operations.

Canada is dependent on our global relations and we cannot ignore what goes on in the world. If we wish to be recognized as a responsible nation, committed to our values and willing to participate with like-minded nations in the pursuit of our interests and security, we need to be able to field an appropriate military force.

There is no doubt that Canadians need to extract the best value for every Defence dollar. And history has shown us that the Canadian Forces must be provided with sufficient resources to do what will be asked of them – besides, can we send our men and women into harms way without the right tools to do the job?

For Canada to remain an effective ally in NATO and NORAD, to provide our own basic defence, and to exercise our sovereignty, we need a capable military. We mortgaged this capability through the 1990’s and are only now seeing it return to the level needed for future operations. Canada need not have a full spectrum of military capability, like our neighbours to the south, but we need to be able to continue to respond to the kinds of contingencies and everyday operations, which have become the norm. Continued maintenance of a viable defence budget for the long term is the only way to do this. And it is the right thing to do.
Colonel Terry Chester retired after 42 years of military service. He is currently Vice-President at the Air Force Association of Canada.
© Frontline Defence 2011