The Liberal government finally released on June 7, after 18 months of anticipation, its new defence policy. As with any other official policy document, and especially defence policies, it is important to remember that its value is limited. A comparison of recent defence policies — the last ones were released in 2008, 2005, and 1994 — with actual outcomes shows that these documents, after a few years, carry a limited connection to reality. Nevertheless, they do serve important planning functions and they signal Canada’s intentions to its allies and to the Canadian public.
An official defence policy also serves as a yardstick by which to evaluate the government’s performance. What does this new version of Canada’s defence policy signal? What does it tell us about the Liberal government’s intentions?
The most positive aspect of the policy is that it does not significantly increase the defence budget. This may seem counterintuitive, because the government has been touting what it claims is a 70 percent increase over 10 years. This is accurate in a narrow sense, but it must be nuanced: First, a good portion of this increase will come in the second half of this 10-year period; its status is, therefore, at best uncertain. Second, thanks to some administrative magic, the budget is not actually increasing from 1 per cent to 1.4 per cent of GDP, as Ottawa claims. The real increase corresponds to about half of that, as new accounting rules now incorporate expenses that were not previously taken into consideration.
For some critics, this new money is insufficient. But Canada does not face a direct, conventional military threat; Canada is, fundamentally, a secure country. As such, there is no strategic rationale for massive investments in the defence budget. Canada faces some threats, especially terrorism and in the cyber realm. Ottawa is also rightly concerned — as Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s speech on June 6 demonstrated — with the implications of the Donald Trump presidency in the US, and it watches with a wary eye Russia’s revisionist ambitions and China’s rise. But these are not existential military threats to our country.
The policy calls for limited new investments, and many of them focus specifically on Canada’s cyber and counterterrorism capabilities. In a context of gaping budget deficits at the federal level, large and rapid new investments in defence would not have been justified or necessary. The policy, in fact, can mostly be viewed through the lens of continuity. It identifies the same three core missions for the Canadian Armed Forces (defending Canada and North America, and remaining engaged in the world), and calls on the CAF to continue being able to perform a wide range of missions, from full-scale combat to stabilization operations, disaster relief and assistance to civil authorities at home.
There are some questionable elements in the policy. Chief among these is the decision to increase the size of the regular force by 3,500 and the reserve force by 1,500. In a context where resources are already stretched, adding 5,000 personnel will further strain the defence budget, about 50 percent of which is devoted to human resources. This will not relieve pressure on the procurement and readiness portions of the budget.
Finally, it is regrettable that the government did not seize the opportunity to clarify the status of the replacement of the CF-18 fighter aircraft. The policy does indicate that the government will purchase 88 new fighters through an open competition, as opposed to 65 as was the plan until now. But now would have been the time to scrap the poor idea of purchasing an interim capability of 18 new jets. Instead, the government — like many of its predecessors — simply punted the decision down the road.
This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail on 7 June 2017.