Skip to content

Canada’s New Defence Policy – Our North: Strong and Free.

Does this mean Canada is going to fund its military properly?

The short answer to this question is no, Canada is not going to fund its military properly. This defence policy update is nothing more than smoke and mirrors that will allow the current Canadian government to say they’re treating national security seriously in the months leading up to the next election.

In fact, the Trudeau Liberals have no intention of being serious on anything that has to do with Canada’s military. If they were serious, they wouldn’t have back-ended all of their funding for the CAF until the late 2020s.

To make sense of this document, let’s look at the context in Canada and abroad.

In Canada:

As of this writing, the Liberals are running third in polling for the next election and there are no signs this is going to change. While Canadians are not big on spending money on defence, the Liberals are being hammered regularly for their defence spending by international partners. With each passing week, the list of folks prepared to call out Canada’s paltry defence spending grows. One of the most recent international player to do this was the President of Poland.

In Canada, these repeated dress-downs are finally being recognized by Canadians and it appears the silent majority of centrists and the not-so-silent right-of-centre parts of the political spectrum are starting to speak loud enough that the Liberals have got the message.

This growing orchestra of voices is being amplified by the Conservative Party of Canada which is suggesting that it and only it will prioritize Canada’s national security.

It is in response to the growing number of people in Canada who are concerned that Canada’s laggard defence spending is impacting the country’s international reputation, PLUS the perception the Conservatives are stronger on defence, PLUS an upcoming election that has driven the Liberals to produce a document that states they’re going to increase Canada’s defence spending to 1.76% of GDP.

To be clear – none of what is being done presently, or in the future, is being done because the top leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada cares one wit about the Canadian Armed Forces and its capacity to defend Canadian interests either here in Canada or abroad. They (the Liberal leadership) could care less about the military and the role it plays vis a vis Canada’s foreign policy.

This fact has been proven over and over again during their nine years in the government (recent examples: Haiti; sending only officers to Red Sea re: Houthis; No planes for NATO exercise; Can’t shoot down balloons). The facts prove that the current government doesn’t see the military as something worth funding. It does not resonate with their base. More importantly, it does not resonate with the ideology that Trudeau and his senior leadership team follow as it pertains to Canada and its role in the world.

Since the days of Lloyd Axworthy’s tenure as Foreign Minister, too many Liberals have believed the misguided proposition that soft power will make Canada relevant on the world stage. Axworthy put forward Canada’s policy of soft power back in the mid-90s. Conveniently, this policy came forward when the Chretien Liberals were implementing a massive spending review, which resulted in significant budget reductions for the Canadian Armed Forces. The result was a Liberal government that thought it was being relevant when in fact it was the beginning of what would become a generational effort to hallow out Canada’s military. And by generational, I mean both the Liberals (Chretien and Trudeau) and the Harper Conservatives.   

The International Context:

As already mentioned, many international actors have called Canada onto the carpet for its defence spending.

Setting aside the link that exists between international concerns for Canada’s underfunding of defence and the recent and growing domestic recognition of this international concern, several other international factors have driven the Liberals to deliver an updated defence policy. These factors include:

The Ukraine-Russian War: In response to the Russian threat most countries in Europe have or are going to increase their defence spending over the next few years. Just in the past year, NATO’s collective average spend on defence as a percentage of GDP rose from 2.57 percent in 2022 to 2.66 percent in 2023. With expected increases in spending by Germany, Poland, the UK and several other countries, the gap between Canada’s spending and the rest of NATO will move from negligent to downright derelict.

In Canada, our defence spending was 1.32 percent in 2021, 1.29 in 2022 and 1.33 in 2023. Imagine if the NATO spending average increased to something like 2.83 percent (entirely possible) and Canada did nothing to increase its defence spending. The difference is already bad, but it would increase to a whopping and hugely embarrassing 1.5 percent. Perhaps most importantly, it would be no where near the 2 percent funding goal that Canada and the rest of NATO agreed to in Wales back in 2014.

So that Mr. Trudeau would still be invited to NATO meetings and/or would not be treated as a pariah at future NATO meetings, his government finally had to take some steps to increase Canada’s defence spending.

Is 1.76 percent of GDP satisfactory for NATO? My answer to that comes below, but briefly, I think answer is yes. At this point, our allies will take anything they can get.   

AUKUS: While it is most likely the case that Mr. Trudeau could care less, Canada’s security establishment was less than impressed that Canada wasn’t brought into AUKUS. Nevermind brought in, by all accounts Canada was never even approached to see if wanted to be included in the three-country defence pact.

It was and remains a bad look for Canada and if there’s one thing Liberal Party of Canada doesn’t like, it’s not being part of the in-crowd. In Canada’s new defence policy, it indicates that Canada will explore the purchase of between 8 and 12 diesel-electric submarines. There is no mention in the document about nuclear boats. Nevertheless, at the event to announce the new defence document, Mr. Trudeau went off script and said that Canada was going to look at nuclear subs. To be very clear – while Canada could use two to three nuclear subs to patrol its arctic waters, there is less than a one percent chance Canada will purchase this type of platform. It is too costly, and politically, anything nuclear in Canada is just too hot. 

So why did he mention nuclear submarines even though it wasn’t in the defence policy? I speculate he mentioned it for the same reasons the Liberals indicate they’re going to get to 1.76 percent in defence spending by 2030 – because the Liberals want the nations of AUKUS to get the impression that Canada is serious about defence. But fear not, the United States in particular, will see through this ruse and it is my position they’ll rebuff Canada regarding AUKUS. As our neighbour, they can’t help but think the Liberal’s commitment to funding national defence is questionable. Their Ambassador and generals might sing praises of Canada’s commitment to better fund its military, but rest assured, this is one of those situations where the proof will be in the pudding.  

The bottom line is that Canada will not get into AUKUS because we are nice and because we make announcements that yet-to-be-elected governments in the future will do certain things. The countries involved in this alliance are serious countries when it comes to national security, whereas Canada is not. At least that’s the case for the moment.

Now, had the Liberals bought the F-35s back when they took power in 2015 as had been planned and had the Liberals agreed to lead a mission to Haiti allowing the United States to keep its attention squarely focused on Ukraine and Israel and Hamas, one wonders what might have happened regarding Canada’s participation in AUKUS.

Donald Trump: Despite everything know about Mr. Trump, he could be the next President of the United States. While countries in Europe say they are investing in their militaries because of the Russian threat, another reason they’re investing billions in defence is to head off the political whirlwind that will be a Trump presidency.

During his first term, Mr. Trump railed repeatedly about allies not carrying their weight when it came to defence spending. However, during his first term Mr. Trump was surrounded by people who were largely of the Washington establishment and he, like most presidents before him, had to play things in such a way that he could get elected for a second term. Meaning, he was more reserved in his criticism than he might otherwise been. Nevertheless, many countries started to get the message and by the time Biden became president, many countries in Europe had already started to ramp up their defence commitments.

But these conditions of restraint will not be present should Trump be elected in November 2024. In January 2025, Donald Trump will eschew the Washington elite and as a one-term president who doesn’t need to win another election, he’s going to say and do some radical things. Things like pulling the US out of NATO or pull US support from Ukraine.  

Mr. Trudeau has to have a leg to stand on to counter whatever criticisms Mr. Trump will level should he become president. For the short time he will be in office if Trump is elected, Trudeau will have to hope that Trump is willing to look past the fact Canada’s defence spending is backloaded several years into the future, and is a commitment that will need to be honored by another political party (most likely the Conservatives).

Will Trump avoid laying into Canada’s defence spending delay? Most likely he will. Like his first term, Mr. Trump’s second time in office starting in January 2025 will be gong-show like and Canada (thankfully) will not be on the radar. But eventually, Trump will hit his stride and when he does he’ll look to name and shame those countries who still aren’t pulling their weight. Were he still in government, Mr. Trudeau could point to Canada’s 1.76 percent commitment as evidence that the country is finally putting its back into the exercise of growing its military. I suspect this will be enough for Trump, but I suspect it will continue to be the case that other American politicians will not be so charitable. As I said already, the Americans know Canada well and it’s my guess Our North, Strong and Free will be discounted until the Americans actually see the spending increase.  

So What is the Problem with Canada’s new Defence Policy Statement?

Let me start off by saying that on my own blog, I have argued that a new Conservative government should aim to fund the Canadian military from somewhere between 1.75 and 1.85 percent in their first term. In this regard, the new defence policy statement is a welcome document.

The major flaw of the document is twofold: 1) Its major funding commitments are heavily backloaded. 2) It lacks specifics on platforms and timelines.

Let’s tackle the first issue. Canada will only begin to reach its 1.76 goal in 2030-31. That’s six years away. This in no way jives with the current state of affairs facing Canada and its allies. Within one to two years, it is most likely the case that Russia will have wholly or partially defeated Ukraine (or we will have descended into WWIII). Regardless of what the outcome is, does anyone think that Russia will no longer be a threat? The answer is no one.

Let’s look at the facts of the Ukraine-Russian War. Putin’s power is as entrenched as ever. The only thing that will remove him is illness, and there is nothing to say he’ll be replaced by a moderate when he finally goes. The Russian military will be as honed and deadly as ever. The war in Ukraine has forced the Russian military to modernize. It is now as experienced as any military in the world. Finally, the Russian economy and its military-industrial complex has proven extremely resilient. Outside of American bombers and long-range missiles hammering Russia’s infrastructure, none of these factors are going to change.

So, in 2026-27 when all of this goes down, where will the Canadian military be relative to its current defanged status? Very little will have changed and Canada will still be inconsequential.

And this is to say nothing of the Pacific where China is said to be priming itself to re-take Taiwan in and around this same timeline.

It takes years to purchase equipment (especially in Canada) and takes years for the soldiers operating the purchased platforms to become proficient in their use. What the new Liberal defence policy is stating to our allies is that we’ll be ready to contribute to whatever challenges are confronting the Western alliance somewhere around 2033 or so. This would be silly if it weren’t so irresponsible.

Let’s discuss the next point, which is the lack of details on timelines and the platforms to be purchased.

The word “explore” is used several times to describe the capabilities the CAF needs to be a viable fighting force. Purchasing tanks – will be explored. Purchasing a long-range missile capacity for the Army – will be explored. Purchasing diesel subs for the Navy – will be explored. New infantry fighting vehicles – will be explored. All will be explored. No timeline specifics and no costing are offered.

And where there is costing, there are no timelines. For example, nearly $19B has been set aside for “tactical helicopters” but there’s no indication of when these might be purchased. And what is meant by “tactical helicopters”? Are we talking a Black Hawk-type platform? Or Black Hawks and Apaches? Obviously, the CAF knows what they want, so why not give more information?

But very little information is provided and that gives you all you need to know about this document. It is left intentionally vague because it serves to limit any commitments a future Liberal government might need to explain away. Because don’t forget, when the big money for this document starts to flow, it’ll be in 2029-30, and there’s a chance – and not a small one that the Liberals will be in power again.

Convenient timing wouldn’t you say? The lack of specifics and commitments abets any future Liberal government that may come to power in five to six years which may want to back away from the commitments it made way back in 2024.

What Should the New Defence Policy Update State:

As already stated, I think 1.76 percent is a reasonable number for Canada. I would like it to be higher, but I’ll take it and so will most Canadians.

To give Canada credibility, the new defence policy statement should have indicated the following:

  • The spending ladder to get to 1.76 percent should be accelerated by two years. Instead of the bulk of the funding coming into effect in 2030-31, it should have targeted 2027-28. A perfectly reasonable objective.
  • It should have announced the outright purchase of tanks and armored fighting vehicles. Canada uses the Leopard tank platform. That doesn’t need to change. Instead of “exploring” the purchase of tanks, the document should have indicated that Canada will be purchasing X number of tanks by 2028 or thereabouts. We will also be purchasing whatever the latest version of the LAV platform is, so the same could have been said for this capability. With naming, costing, and putting a timeline to these two capabilities, this document could have been much more meaningful. Extending the purchase of the Latvia anti-tank and short-range air defence capabilities to the rest of the Army wouldn’t have been another easy win. If the RBS-70 and SPIKE systems are good enough for the battlegroup in Latvia, they’re good enough for the entire Army.  
  • It should have announced that at the retirement of Canada’s Upholder-class submarines in 2030 and indicated we would have four diesel submarines in the water to replace these boats. Can four diesel ships be purchased and built in what would amount to five years? It wouldn’t be easy, but since whatever we buy will be built by countries that are already building the platforms, it’s not impossible. As mentioned above, the re-arming of Canada’s military needs some urgency – so let’s see some urgency as it pertains to this key capability for the Navy.
  • There should have been a statement that Canada will embrace the following principle: that the CAF will expedite the purchase of equipment where that equipment has been in the use of one or more of its allies for more than one year, and that such purchases will forego the lengthy evaluation/assessments periods that generally plague Canada’s military procurement processes. Let me give you an example. Let’s say Canada wants to purchase wheeled artillery.  Presently, there are two systems available in the European market: a) the French CEASER, b) the Swedish Archer system. Both systems appear to work very well and both the French and Swedish armies face similar conditions to the CAF. Deciding between these two systems doesn’t need to take four years. It should be a one yea max. Ask for an expedited Request for Proposal by each company that manufactures the system, evaluate it, decide, and then purchase the bloody things. Why it takes 5-6 years (or longer) to buy an off-the-shelf product for the CAF is inexcusable. Whatever bureaucratic process exists that allows for this to happen should be changed immediately. 

Before I sign off, let me acknowledge that the analysis that’s above is overly harsh of the Trudeau Liberals. But let me say that my analysis doesn’t apply to the entire Liberal Party of Canada. I know there are centrist Liberals who understand the importance of properly funding the CAF. I think people like Paul Martin and John Manley understood that Canada needs a credible military. Today, there are most certainly Liberals who understand this same principle. Perhaps it’s Anita Anand. Perhaps it’s Mark Carney. In the near future, the Liberals will return to their political roots which is at the centre of the political spectrum. If they do, I think much of what is outlined in the defence policy update will be implemented. I guess we shall see.

Published inCanadian Armed ForcesDefence PolicyForeign PolicyOpinionUncategorized

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *