Defence takes a back seat in budget

KEN POLE  –  Mar 29, 2023

A year after the federal government committed to a defence policy overhaul which would update Canada’s current policy, set out in 2017 under the name Strong, Secure, Engaged (SSE), Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland has confirmed that the policy review remains a work in progress – and could stall under the planned 3% reduction in across-the-board spending while focusing on mostly domestic economic issues.

The overhaul was announced less than a month after Russian President Vladimir Putin set the world on edge with his “special military operation” in Ukraine, an invasion which quickly deteriorated into the kind of land warfare not seen in generations.

“Russia’s illegal and barbaric invasion of Ukraine is the most significant threat to the rules-based international order since its creation following the Second World War," the government said in its main budget document. “Thousands of Ukrainians have been murdered, and many millions more have been displaced.”

Freeland, who was Minister of Foreign Affairs when SSE was released, referred to Putin and Ukraine almost in passing as her budget focused mainly on internal economic challenges.

She said Putin, together with the three-year pandemic, had “cruelly revealed to the world’s democracies the risks of economic reliance on dictatorships.” On Ukraine, she said its people “have reminded us that we must never take our freedom and our democracy for granted.”

Pending the outcome of the latest defence policy review, major new spending isn’t in the cards even though the budget reiterated the government’s commitment to “stand with” Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”

The budget document catalogues that support, which so far has amounted to $5.4 billion in in civil and military support, the latter at a time when the Canadian Armed Forces is challenged to sustain its own resources including personnel shortages.

To date, the more than $1 billion in military aid and equipment donations have included an array of armoured vehicles, including German-built Leopard main battle tanks, as well as 39 combat support vehicles, four British M777 howitzers, an advanced surface-to-air missile system, anti-tank weapons and small arms.

Also, through Operational UNIFIER, Canada has trained more than 35,000 members of Ukraine’s security forces since 2015, and more than $81 million to train and support demining what has become one of the most heavily-mined countries in the world.

As for other defence programs announced in previous budgets and elsewhere, mentions are brief.

The most costly of these is the procurement of 88 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters for the Royal Canadian Air Force, the first of which won’t be delivered for another three years. The new fighters also will require $7.3 billion to modernize, replace, and build new infrastructure, a key element of Canada’s NORAD modernization commitment.

Yet another major NATO-related procurement is currently in the wings. The day before the budget was tabled, Public Services & Procurement Canada confirmed that the U.S. State Department has been asked to approve the potential purchase of up to 16 Boeing P8-A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft for the RCAF.

“The final decision will be based on the capability offered, availability, pricing and benefits to Canadian industry,” Procurement Canada said. In service with Australia, Britain and India as well as the U.S. Navy, the twin-engine Poseidon is a militarized version of the 737-800 civilian passenger platform.

The bottom line for DND is that the government expects it to produce a policy update that “will ensure the Canadian Armed Forces remain strong at home, secure in North America, and engaged around the world.”

That could be a devilish task subject to many unpredictable details and with the government determined to reduce its annual deficits over the next few years.

Ken Pole