In most modern, Western countries, and Canada is no exception, defence spending, in the annual budget, looks something like this …
… about half of the defence budget in e.g. Australia, Britain and Canada is spent on people: salaries, costs of education and training, costs of direct personnel support, etc. About ¼ is spent on operations and maintenance, bullets and beans and spare parts and fuel and ammunition and so on; most countries aim (and usually fail) to spend 25% on new equipment ~ new ships, new tanks and rifles, new aircraft, new radios and, and, and … and, of course, there are always “other” minor expenses. Some defence experts complain that the priorities are all mixed up; we need more spiffy new weapon systems, they say, and that means we need to spend less on people.
That high cost of people is only fair because it reflects, perhaps even understates their value. Without good captains and highly skilled and well trained crews, our warships are just big, expensive piles of steel and aluminium and electronic circuit boars that will rust away in our harbours … ditto for the tanks and howitzers and shiny new jet fighters and helicopters if we do not recruit, train, support and retain the right sorts of people to sail, use and fly them, and look after them, too.
And, indeed, our people need looking after at least as much as the equipment does … the “tooth to tail” ratio is much misunderstood, especially by civilians. The fighter pilot and tank gunner and the sailor all need to be fed and supplied with ammunition and fuel and paid and cared for when they are wounded or sick and so do the people who fix the airplanes and tanks and ships.
Canada currently spends less than $19 Billion on its national defence and about half of that, a bit more than $9 Billion “buys” us about 68,000 full time and 27,000 part time (reserve) military personnel and about 24,000 civil servants. In my estimation we should spend closer to $40 Billion on defence (2% of a nearly 2 Trillion dollar GDP ~ which has declined since quite markedly since 2013) and half of that, nearly $20 Billion, could buy us something like 100,000 full time and 50,000 part time military personnel and 40,000 civil servants to manage and support them, and we could, as most countries aspire to do, spend 25% of the budget, year after year after years, on a steady flow of always needed new equipment.
One of the dilemmas of smaller forces, like Canada’s, is that there are too few “economies of scale” to be had in either the new equipment (capital) or operations and maintenance parts of the budget: the costs, per ship or airplane, of operating a fleet of ships or aircraft is higher if you have only 20 ships than it it is, per ship, if you have 50. It is the same for aircraft, it costs more to operate and maintain each of only four C-17 transport aircraft than it would to operate and maintain each of 12 … the overall costs can be “amortized” over a greater number of units. Put simply, larger forces are more cost effective than smaller ones.
Most sensible countries, Canada being one, look at defence spending as a necessary evil; almost every government wants to spend as little as possible on defence. That’s actually just good sense. But the desire to spend as little as necessary should be balanced with a desire to get the best value for money … and sometimes that means “right sizing” the defence force and its budget. NATO, has said, and Canada has agreed that 2% of GDP is about the right size for the defence budget of a modern, peaceful, Western nation that aims to keep itself secure and safe and at peace. Canada may say that it “aspires” to that goal but no government since Lester Pearson’s has achieved it and none, not a Conservative government and certainly not this Liberal one actually wants to spend that much.
Is the 2% goal wrong?
No … it’s a pretty sensible level of defence spending for countries that really want to maintain a world at peace, as opposed to those, like Canada and many of it allies, that just want to hope for peace. But 2% is not a magic bullet … 1.5% of GDP, spent carefully, will do more than 2% spent as a job creation slush fund. But spending too little, cutting defence spending again and again and again just because it is unpopular can leave a country with what I have described as a Potemkin Village, a military that is more show than force.
The advent of a nuclear face-off circa 1950 changed the strategic calculus for the rest of the 20th century. We suddenly had the “come as you are war” which meant having regular, professional forces in being and not being able to rely upon time and space to give us time, as we had in past wars, to mobilize our reserves. We would do well, 101 years after the battle of Vimy Ridge, to recall that it, in April 1917, was the first time since war was declared (in the summer of 1914) that the full Canadian Corps, of four infantry divisions, was in battle as a corps ~ it took us over 30 months to get from a tiny standing army backed by small but eager reserves to a full corps composed of about 100,000 of the Canadians who served overseas during that war. We went to war again in the late summer of 1939 and it was not until the summer of 1943, over 40 months later, that we had a small corps, of only two divisions and an independent armoured brigade, in battle, in Italy. It takes a long time to mobilize and equip and train an army. The operational doctrine of the long and expensive cold war said that we could no longer have that time.
It is not clear that we must or even should still have small reserves and a relatively larger permanent force. Perhaps the time has come to re-examine the assumptions that underlie our force structure ideas. Maybe we need 150,000 uniformed people but, maybe, the split should be 50/50 or 75,000 full time and 75,000 part time sailors, soldiers and air force members. Maybe a country like Canada, with a population that will, in 2050, approach 40 million, should have a larger force: say 75,000 full time and even 150,000 part time military members … maybe our reserve force “regiments’ should have 500 or 750 soldiers and be required to “generate” a trained company (125 soldiers) rather than having only 150 soldiers and being hard pressed to “generate” a platoon of only 30 soldiers. I have my own ideas, but someone who has the necessary information at their disposal needs to look ahead at our strategic situation and develop a force model and a sane budget for 2050. That should be a job for skilled civil servants in the defence policy staff.
Our strategic priorities for the next 30 years or more need to be:
- Containing and reducing threats to global peace and security by helping to maintain alliances like NATO and groupings like AUSCANNZUKUS and supporting global peacemaking and peacekeeping efforts, even the generally worthless United Nations efforts;
- Confronting current threats to peace ~ like Russia ~ and deterring (by matching the growth in military power of) potential future threats ~ like China;
- Cooperating with the USA in the protection of North America; and
- Securing the land we claim as our own, the waters contiguous to it and the airspace over both.
When we work out the costs, of people, above all, but also of ships, tanks, guns and aircraft, and of ammunition, food and fuel and everything else, of doing those four things ~ and of doing them well enough ~ then we will know what what sort of forces we need and how much we must budget to build and maintain them. But no matter what the size and what the cost, I guarantee that people will still be the biggest single expense if we keep our priorities straight: and the overarching priority is that people cost more than machines because they matter more than machines.