Back about 2½ years ago I asked, relative to our national defence: how much is enough?
I concluded, based on the states of our various fleets of ships, army weapon systems and aircraft, that the 2% of GDP which, years earlier we had pledged to spend was about right to give us a military that is appropriate for a G7 nation. I explained, about a year later, the defence budget dilemma: “There is only one taxpayer,” I said, “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, I added, (s)he, Mr and Mrs Taxpayer 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; … [and] … spending that makes her or his life and, especially, the lives of their kids better.” I also explained that we cannot, must not try to grow the defence budget until we have reformed the military’s morbidly obese command and control superstructure and the monumentally screwed up defence procurement system.
Now, Peter Armstrong, writing for CBC News, adds some necessary perspective to the debate. He’s talking about a higher number but he begins, sensibly, by asking the key question: if we are going to spend more what should we cut? Cuts will have to be it because we are already running deficits that Canadians don’t like and we don’t need more taxes. Here, Mr Armstrong says, is how we spend now:
Where our tax dollars go ~ 2016/2017
CBC News Inforgraphic ~ Source: Department of Finance, Canada
It will be possible, but politically difficult to find efficiencies in ‘envelopes’ like benefits for children and the elderly and health and social transfers. And why should we, Peter Armstrong asks … what can we get for all that money? His answer is:
What could an Extra $60 Billion buy?
I’m not here to debate numbers with anyone, not even with the CBC, but I accept that the question is one of how we assess our national priorities. What is the greater threat: Putin’s opportunistic adventurism in Syria or Easter Europe or the way we ignore the pressing need for clean water on First Nations reserves here at home?
I will argue that we can and should do everything better, more efficiently, more effectively … we do not, I believe, have a revenue problems in Canada, we have spending problems ~ not just one, almost everything, except perhaps making interest payments on the public debt, can be done more efficiently and more effectively … saving billions and then tens of billions out of an annual spending plan of more than $311 Billion is possible. In fact, I would argue that a better disciplined government could eliminate the deficit ($17+Billion in 2018) and raise the defence budget to something like 2% of GDP over the next seven years without doing anything except very useful ‘fat trimming‘ surgery to our much loved social safety net.
One of the issues that Mr Armstrong says that President Trump wants to push is “Buy American.” He quotes President Trump as saying that ““The United States makes by far the best military equipment in the world: the best jets, the best missiles, the best guns, the best everything,” … [and explains that] … The U.S. is, after all, the largest exporter of weapons on the planet. A Swedish report last year found the U.S. was responsible for one-third of all arms exports. American arms exports increased more than 20 per cent over the past decade … [and] … Trump said on Thursday he was more than willing to make some deals for NATO allies looking to increase their military expenditures via the U.S. … [saying] … “We are not going to finance it for them but we will make sure that they are able to get payments and various other things so they can buy.”” I agree with Peter Armstrong that the US is the leader in selling military hardware but President Trump is wrong to say that America makes the “best” of everything … some American kit is, by far, the best on the planet, some is just OK and some is junk. If Canada is, as it
should must, going to rebuild its military, then it should pick the right hardware, and ‘right’ is not always “best” … we used to have a saying when I was in a job that dealt with procurement: “The ‘best‘ is often the worst enemy of the ‘good enough.‘ As I have said before, our military must be “adequately equipped;” first rate, tough, disciplined, well trained troops can get the most out of ‘good enough‘ equipment and they can, always, without fail, beat second rate soldiers who have the ‘best‘ kit in the world. Canada must choose its hardware carefully, based on what works and what can get the job done but, as I have also mentioned, defence procurement can, sometimes, very carefully, be used as a trade tool. Canada’s (and Europe’s) response to President Trump’s constant bullying might include giving preference to non-American equipment when it is both ‘good enough‘ and competitively priced.