You can’t manage what you can’t measure …

There’s an old saying, often and incorrectly attributed to W Edwards Deming, that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” Like all popular sayings there is enough truth in it to make it a useful concept.

One way of measuring a nation’s “will” or “commitment” to something is to measure what it spends as a percentage of its GDP. Our GDP represents our total capacity, sometimes, as in the early 1940s, we actually spent more prosecuting the war than we had as a GDP ~ in other words, we borrowed.Later, in the 1950s, our spending on national defence rose to well over 7% of GDP and then appears to have entered a sharp decline, the decline was not real until around the 1960s, the apparent decline was really caused by a rapidly growing economy … GDP was growing so fast that defence spending as a % of GDP did decline, in absolute terms, even as, by every other sensible measure, it grew.

Still, from about, say, 1965 until 2015 Canadian defence spending has declined, by almost every measure except dollars, but, especially, as a reflection of the national will and commitment.

This graph, which was included in an article by Matt Gurney in the National Post, back in 2014, shows what has happened: toronto-na0609_militaryspe-copy.jpg

A whole host of things happened, beginning in the 1960s:


First: We lost faith in American leadership and in America’s strategic vision.

Second: Our economic growth slowed, then even stagnated for a long period, making the “choice” to spend on defence more and more difficult for politicians.

Third: The very real threat of Soviet aggression faded and then disappeared and the new threats posed by less clear enemies using different strategies and tactics are harder for voters (and political leaders) to comprehend.

Finally: In Canada we reached the entirely sensible conclusion that America would “protect” us, in its own self interest, from any external threat. We “signed on” to do a small share of continental defence in exchange for security under the American strategic umbrella.

But, as we enter the 21st century it seems that Wordworth was right, and the “world is,” indeed, “too much with us.” We hanker for a return to simpler times, not realizing that those “simpler” times were fraught with real, deadly dangers and that we had to make strong political commitment, in blood and treasure, too, to face them down.

Korea cdn soldier

Now Canada has a GDP of about $2 Trillion, that is approaching 3% of the world’s GDP and it is about 10% of the US’ GDP (as one would expect) and it means that each of us has an average personal GDP over over $50,000. How much should we spend on our national defence? How much is enough?

In 2014/15 we budgeted about $20 Billion for our national defence, about 1% of GDP.

Is that enough?

A year ago NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg asked us to ramp up our spending to 2% of GDP within a decade. During the recent election campaign respected Canadian strategic analyst and academic Dr Elinor Sloan warned that our Navy, for example, is no longer able to do the tasks we, Canada, have assigned to it and the projected budget will not solve the problem.

So, the answer appears to be that neither $20 Billion nor 1% of GDP is enough.

How much would be enough?

My guess is that 2% of GDP is a good target, but …

  1. It is more than most of our principle allies are spending, according to World Bank data ~
    1. Australia – 1.8%
    2. Britain – 2%
    3. Germany – 1.2%
    4. Netherlands – 1.1%
    5. USA – 3.5%
  2. It would mean more than doubling, more like trebling the defence budget over a  decade – growing it by 2 or 3% a year above the rate of inflation; and
  3. It would require a combination of both political courage and a clearly communicated and understood strategic justification.

The latter is the hardest …

What is the threat to Canada? Why should we ramp up our spending and, probably of practical political necessity, take money away from other programmes than benefit Canadians?

America ~ our protector ~ has no “peer” or even “near peer” enemy. The size and shape of the US military has been and still is sufficient, in and of itself, to deter any enemy. Is is very likely that we do not need to “invest” in advanced, expensive weapons systems to defeat a “near peer” enemy. New F-35 or Rafale fighters, for example, are likely to be retired 25 or 30 years from now never having fired a shot at a Chinese J-31 or a Russian PAC-FA. Ditto our next generation warships: they will probably never trade missiles with a modern Chinese, Russian or Iranian destroyers and frigates.

But the new model of warfare might be asymmetrical. Asymmetrical warfare demands different, but not necessarily smaller or less expensive military responses. One might posit, for example, that asymmetrical warfare will require bigger, better special operations forces; the problem for the military planner is that current army (25,000±) is just big enough to “generate” the current special operations forces, if we want to, say, make them half again as large and not make them any less effective we must understand that a bigger “base,” say and army of 37,500± will be required and that will cost a lot more money. Asymmetrical operations may also require more and better resources for intelligence gathering and for naval and air patrolling. More money again. Finally it will, very ,likely, be necessary to engage various enemy forces, national and sub-national, in direct combat operations so the right mix of tanks and guns and heavy lift helicopters and giant transport aircraft and, perhaps, amphibious assault ships, too, and new, sophisticated escorts for them, will be required.

It is not at all hard to imagine how quickly a defence budget of 2% of GDP would be spent.

The first thing the Government of Canada needs to do is to “measure” the threats and then explain them to the Canadian people. It is fairly certain that once they can “see” and understand the threats most Canadians will want their government to manage better and to divert resources from, say, some social programmes and to national defence.

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