The defence budget dilemma

A member at, who self identifies as an officer in the Medical Branch, said, in a discussion about the defence budget woes: “If neither the defence budget nor the number of CAF personnel increase, it is indeed a zero sum game. More personnel for cyber and SOF would require a reduction from some other line of operation (1 x infantry battalion, for example). More F35s could equal fewer surface combatants for the RCN. More support enablers (eg sigs, log, medical) in an austere environment  = fewer bayonets on ops with a force cap. This is the  calculus that we must conduct for every operation.” That’s pretty much it: continuing to spend less than 1% of GDP on defence, a sum that Prime Minister Trudeau appears to think is adequate, means that senior officers and bureaucrats must make more and more painful choices. They can only “rob Peter to pay Paul” so often; the well can and (soon) will run dry. Do we want ships or aircraft? Combat soldiers or the logistics specialists who are absolutely 100% needed to keep combat soldiers alive, armed and fed in the field? New tanks or new ships? It looks like we cannot, for much longer have some, even barely enough of each.

There is no magic in the 2% number. I explained how I got to it, over a year ago, but my key point is that any number is, really, a measure of two things:

  1. Capacity ~ which I believe Canada, as one of the world’s “top ten” (nominal GDP) or, at least “top 10%” (GDP by PPP) countries, has aplenty; and
  2. Commitment ~ which, sadly, I think is sadly lacking.

But, before we, Conservatives, can even begin to discuss how much to spend on defence and how to spend it we must remind ourselves of a few fundamentals:

maxresdefaultThere is only one taxpayer and (s)he pays for everything from waste water treatment and snow removal at the local, municipal level, through health care and education, at the provincial level, and refugee claim adjudication and search and rescue centres at the national level. (S)he has priorities, and in general, absent a clear existential threat to Canada’s sovereignty or security, national defence is almost never very high on that list. In fact, Carlos the Cleaner and Wendy the Welder want …

  • Lower taxes;
  • Less, or at least more efficient, better focused spending, but (s)he does not want to see some wild eyes fanatic take a chainsaw to the social safety net or medicare;
  • Spending that makes her or his life and, especially, the lives of their kids better.

maxresdefault (1)A lot of things besides just numbers of troops go to make up the generally accepted (by NATO) definition of defence spending (p.10 on this link), including …

  • NATO defines defence expenditure as payments made by a national government specifically to meet the needs of its armed forces or those of Allies. A major component of defence expenditure is payments on Armed Forces financed within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) budget. Armed Forces include Land, Maritime and Air forces as well as Joint formations such as Administration and Command, Special Operations Forces, Medical Service, Logistic Command etc. They might also include “Other Forces” like Ministry of Interior troops, border guards, national police forces, customs, gendarmerie, carabinierie, coast guards etc. In such cases, expenditure should be included only in proportion to the forces that are trained in military tactics, are equipped as a military force, can operate under direct military authority in deployed operations, and can, realistically, be deployed outside national territory in support of a military force. Also, expenditure on Other Forces financed through the budgets of ministries other than MoD should be included in defence expenditure.
  • Pension payments made directly by the government to retired military and civilian employees of military departments should be included regardless of whether these payments are made from the budget of the MoD or other ministries.
  • Expenditures for peacekeeping and humanitarian operations (paid by MoD or other ministries), the destruction of weapons, equipment and ammunition, and the costs associated with inspection and control of equipment destruction are included in defence expenditures.
  • Research and development (R&D) costs are to be included in defence expenditures. R&D costs should also include those for projects that do not successfully lead to production of equipment.
  • Expenditure for the military component of mixed civilian-military activities is included, but only when this military component can be specifically accounted for or estimated.
  • Financial assistance by one Allied country to another, specifically to support the defence effort of the recipient, should be included in the defence expenditure of the donor country and not in the defence expenditure of the receiving country.
  • Expenditure on NATO Common infrastructure is included in the total defence expenditure of each NATO country only to the extent of that country’s net contribution.
  • War damage payments and spending on civil defence are both excluded from the NATO definition of defence expenditure.

bspp_section_bastille_day_2008I don’t know to what extent we apply all of those expenses to reports that lead us being seen as spending only 1% of GDP on defence, but I do know that many countries do count many things that would surprise us ~ the Paris Fire Department is counted as part of the French defence budget; we should do the same, when it is fair and honest to do so.

maxresdefault (2)Finally, any sensible look at defence spending must, can only, come after one has some sort of grand strategy in domestic (including internal security), fiscal-economic, trade, foreign, industrial and defence polices are all integrated. Only then can any government make a realistic determination of what Canada needs in the way of defences and, then, how much that will cost over many years, even decades and generations. Every government, from R.B. Bennet’s* to Justin Trudeau’s will say that it had or has a strategy, and most probably actually believed that they did or do. I disagree.

As I have said before we only ever had one, coherent grand strategy ~ Prime Minister St Laurent’s which rested mainly on a foreign policy platform he set out in his famous Grey Lecture in 1947, but, in reality, he was describing the foundation of a real, coherent grand strategy, arguably the only good one Canada ever had. A lot has changed since M. St Laurent’s time, but a lot hasn’t: Canada is still rich and blessed, it is still a thriving liberal democracy that respects the rule of law, we still want to promote our social values and act, image004responsibly, in the international arena. What has changed is the situations we face … and some have gone full circle. In the 1950s we faced a serious Russian (USSR) threat to peace, 25 years later, by the early 1980s that had, essentially, disappeared, but 25 years after that, circa 2014, it was back again. I would argue that the global cc758828-a82c-4a66-8e8b-c83a72ecd6eb-largestrategic situation that Prime Minister St Laurent faced was a full order of magnitude more dangerous, to Canada, than anything that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces, but today, in the 21st century, there are more and, often more complex, threats, albeit far, far less dangerous.

The key question is: what defences does Canada need? It really doesn’t matter what admirals or academic analysts or even ministers and the prime minister want, all that matters is what Canada needs. Once the needs are determined it is possible to cost them industrial-cleaning-pic567eb6acd2d77c3f7df2bfcbaee43f6aout, over time and then figure out how to pay for them. Part of figuring out how to pay for them is to persuade Carlos the Cleaner and Wendy the Welder that the country’s needs are, equally, her and his needs, too. The whole grand strategy needs to be understood, believed and supported by “ordinary, working Canadians,” on farms, in towns and villages and in suburbs and big cities, too. One of the things Prime Minister St Laurent did, especially in the 1949 election, was to “sell” Canadians a strategic vision of Canada in the world. It secured him the popular and political mandate to, for example, spend money to create a (relatively) large, professional peace time military in the early 1950s. Canadians listened to M. St Laurent, they believed him, they trusted that he would manage wisely and prudently and they re-elected him and his Liberal government in 1953.

In the early 21st century we, Canadians, must, first get our own fiscal house in order … see my first and third points, above. We must convince Canadians of the need and find ways to downloadpay for it without raising taxes or taking a chainsaw to the social safety net. A responsible Conservative government will, most likely, have to take that surgeon’s scalpel about which I keep talking to layers and layers of fat in hundreds and even thousands of programmes in dozens and dozens of departments (including National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces) and agencies in order to bring the country’s finances back into good order. Then, after fiscal common sense has been restored, the government can look at how to pay for the defences Canada needs. What out allies expect is one, fairly small, aspect of our national need; it is single factor ~ but it may be a compelling one if, for example, the USA ties trade negotiations to defence burden sharing.

I am pleased that Conservative leadership hopeful Erin O’Toole has promised to double 21030548_erin-otooledefence spending, according to an article in the Toronto Sun (just reinforced by an e-mail from Mr O’Toole to CPC members). The Sun says that Mr O’Toole’s “policy paper is clearly designed to show O’Toole is serious about not only national defence but also key foreign affairs issues. “The security of Canada, its sovereignty and the safety of its citizens must be recognized as the first and most important responsibility of Government – and is even more so today than it has been for over a generation,” the statement notes. “Every day, we see the war against terrorism, Russian aggressiveness and Chinese geopolitical posturing in the news” … [and] … O’Toole served in the Canadian Armed Forces for more than a decade before becoming a lawyer, entering the House of Commons in 2011 … [and, further] … Other measures O’Toole proposes in the paper include creating a Defence Procurement Agency with the aim of depoliticizing major equipment purchases; strengthening Arctic security measures; implementing new co-operation agreements with Israel and Ukraine; and creating a cyber warfare division within the Canadian Forces.” Mr O’Toole is to be commended for this stand, but now he has to:

  • Convince ordinary, hard working Canadians in, say Surrey Centre (a suburban riding in the Greater Vancouver area) that they should want to take that surgeon’s scalpel to e.g. health care transfers so that Canada can have more soldiers, and voters in Calgary Centre that building more warships is more important than helping refugees come to Canada and voters in Brampton Centre (in Greater Toronto) and voters in Halifax West that fighter jets matter almost as much as the social safety net. It will not be an easy sell;
  • Demonstrate that he will cast a wide net over defence spending so that what we “claim” is fully consistent with the NATO standard and embraces parts of our coast guard, national police services and even the border services; and
  • Enunciate a concrete set of proposals that politicians like Scott Brison, Marc Garneau and Andrew Leslie cannot shoot down on simple, logical grounds …

Team Trudeau has some very smart, very talented people in it, and some of them know a lot about defence policy and defence capabilities and defence spending.

Until then the government of the day must decide if it wants 12 first rate warships but only, say, six battalions of infantry and two small, NORAD only, fighter squadrons, or if it wants to be able to send more than a few hundred soldiers and one “six pack” of jet fighters overseas so it will have to settle for, say, only six or eight first rate warships and so on … it is a decision that the prime minister and cabinet must make, it is unfair to offload it on to General Vance and the defence staff and DND and Treasury Board officials.


* I start with Bennet because until 11 December 1931 Canada was not a wholly sovereign state and could not, legally, develop a grand strategy. Thus Sir John A’s ‘National Policy‘ was, essentially a protectionist tariff regime, national, I suppose, and a policy, too, for that matter but hardly as grand as its title would suggest.

By Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.


  1. We have needed a comprehensive defence paper/vision that’s put in front of the people that pay for such things for how many governments, for sure the last two I hear whining from both conservatives and liberals but none of them has actually had the guts to look at Canadians and say this in our estimation is what we need and why, do you agree ? A lot of the taxpayers are upset that none of the politicians ask do you agree and if you don’t what is the sticking point ? If O’Toole has the balls to ask that question and follow up on it I might vote conservative for te firt time in my life But I certainly wouldn’t for the last group of spineless twits.

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