Military Needs for Canada
OTTAWA – PERSPECTIVE – Not so long ago Ottawa was being made fun of by those who claimed that attempts to renew our military equipment, including frigates, helicopters and fighter planes, were just an exercise in conservative ideology. No matter what kit is proposed, a chorus of voices always protests that peace-loving Canada has no need to spend such sums on the tools of war.
We were withdrawing from Afghanistan and the Middle East was not just quiescent but seemed to be succumbing to the siren call of democracy and human rights through the Arab Spring. Militarily, Russia was seen as a Potemkin village, and the idea that we needed the capacity to respond to their probing of North America’s air defences dismissed as the ravings of ideologues.
The University of British Columbia’s Michael Byers called it a “make-believe threat.”
Today, in the face of naked Russian aggression in Ukraine, a spike in its probing of the air defences of numerous NATO allies and the rise of the murderous Islamic State movement in Syria and Iraq, the criticism of the federal government’s policy has flipped. Now it is that Canada has been running down its capacity to engage militarily far from its shores. We are in danger of becoming a toothless laughing stock, quick to threaten the bad guys but unable to field properly kitted-out troops where the national interest requires them to be.
It so happens that latter criticism is entirely justified; the Conservatives have been stealthily running down the navy, army and air force for short-term budgetary reasons.
The result has been the West’s most aggressive rhetoric on the defence of freedom coupled with an embarrassing inability to make good on that rhetoric.
The truth of the matter is Canada has for years been able to behave irresponsibly on military matters because we outsourced our defence to the U.S. taxpayer. Ever since President Roosevelt’s 1938 promise that the U.S. would never let outsiders threaten Canada, we were largely relieved of the responsibility most other countries face of offering a credible defence of the nation. And President Kennedy’s promise to bear any burden and pay any price to defend freedom around the world also basically let us off the need to be able to project significant power internationally when required in defence of our interests.
But faced with an increasingly isolationist U.S. electorate and commander-in-chief, the Roosevelt and Kennedy guarantees have been downgraded to a voice mail box that an assistant checks occasionally for messages. Inconvenient calls are not returned.
Here are two realities for a Canada waking up to the diminishing value of the American security guaranty in a dangerous world. The first is that every single bit of the much criticized defence procurement of the last 30 years, whether frigates, fighter planes or light-armoured vehicles, has been called into extensive service. It did not gather dust in warehouses.
The second is that it takes far too long to get the kit we need, in part because of the rancorous debate and second-guessing that takes place. Every armchair general claims we don’t really need this or that piece of equipment because there is no credible threat when the purchase is proposed. The average time it takes from a major defence purchase first being mooted until actual delivery is now more than 16 years. If an urgent and unexpected mission crops up and you don’t have the necessary equipment, you can’t buy it at Walmart. Military conflict today is largely a come-as-you-are affair. Serious countries take the long view of their security needs and equip themselves accordingly.
Talking the talk is not enough. We must put boots on the ground and walk the walk.
Brian Lee Crowley is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think-tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca