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Defence on the cheap

HMCS Victoria in the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 2015. It is one of four submarines purchased from the Royal Navy in 1998.
Combat Camera

Canada’s military policy needs a serious review

Canada’s military is in trouble. Allegations of sexual misconduct by senior officers are a deeply troubling symptom that has drawn into question the military’s leadership more than anything since the Somalia affair in 1993. And there are other deep-rooted problems.

To start with, the Canadian Armed Forces is understrength. The Royal Canadian Navy is short of recruits to crew its vessels and the Royal Canadian Air Force has been contending with a shortage of pilots and other trained personnel. Army combat units and domestic bases are seriously understaffed while overseas missions continue.

Equipment is wearing out and becoming obsolete. The Department of National Defence is following up its bewildering purchase of well-used Australian F-18 fighter jets with a search of commercial markets for old cargo and VIP aircraft. The air force does not have a large enough budget to upgrade its search-and rescue helicopters and the purchase of next-generation fighters is still unsettled.

Senior officers want the F-35, for which Canada has provided development funding, but the government delays, delays and delays—wary of public condemnation at the eventual $77-billion life-cycle price tag. The navy is putting small, lightly armed Arctic and offshore patrol vessels in the water, but the ships it really needs—replenishment vessels and surface combatants—are years, perhaps decades, away. Few now expect the government to build all the 15 originally promised CanadianSurface Combatant (CSC) ships.

The four submarines purchased from the Royal Navy in 1998 are aging and the RCN is beginning to make a case for new ones. There is little to no chance of this happening given the initial cost of the CSC ships the navy really requires: $80 billion and rising with every year of delay. And even more than that for the fighter jets.

There are no signs that DND’s broken procurement system will be fixed. Decision-making for DND procurement is shared, uneasily, by three ministers and four departments: National Defence, Canadian Coast Guard, Public Services and Procurement Canada and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. Bureaucratic turf wars happen, and they undermine a military already facing an uncertain future.

“Canadians do not have to take defence seriously, and unsurprisingly, we do not take defense seriously,” wrote Queen’s University political scientist Kim Richard Nossal. “We spend as little as we can get away with.” He’s right. We are willing to be marginal players militarily and happy to let the Americans defend us. It has always been defence on the cheap.

This is just another reason why the CAF is having trouble with enlistment. Who wants to serve in inferior equipment, aging ships or second-hand aircraft while worrying that adversaries are better equipped?

Our potential foes are spending heavily on their militaries. China is building a huge fleet of aircraft carriers, destroyers, submarines and vessels with up-to-date missiles while expanding its control over the South China Sea and negotiating a network of bases around the Pacific.

Russia’s economy may be enduring Western sanctions, oil price drops and a shrinking population, but its military seems to get everything it wants. Russia and China’s neighbours are right to be worried, as both powers are eyeing the Arctic and its shrinking ice cap as a new field for economic development and military control. That ought to bother our government and citizens, but there is no sign it does. The Nanisivik Naval Facility on Baffin Island promised by Stephen Harper’s government in 2007 remains incomplete.

Norad needs major, expensive upgrades and Canada has two options: proceed or infuriate Washington. Funding for this will be found only by cutting other defence priorities. With Ottawa’s finances so deep in the red thanks to COVID-19 and heavy spendingon social programs, the possibility of the CAF escaping the budget cutters is slim.

There is a tiny defence lobby in Canada, while those who favour doing less are much more vocal and better connected. In July, an open letter signed by more than 100 politicians, academics, activists and artists urged the federal government not to buy new fighter jets. It argued that the real threat is from climate change and pandemics and that the money should be invested in health care, education, housing, clean water, green infrastructure and Indigenous communities.

Those are important issues, of course, but so is national defence. The CAF must accept its portion of the blame for the crisis facing the military. Since the Second World War, generals and admirals have wanted the CAF to be able to fill all combat roles, even though it is something voters in every party do not want to pay for.

Who wants to serve in inferior equipment, aging ships or second-handaircraft?

Despite this, each general and admiral continues to call for it lesttheir service be sharply cut. But what admiral with any sense, with the slightest understanding of political reality, would ask the government for new submarines today?

Cabinet ministers, Liberal and Conservative alike, have pretended to go along with all this while knowing that their governments—and the Canadian public—would never provide the funds necessary for state-of-the-art equipment for all three services.

The result, as Nossal stated, is that Canada does not take defence seriously. It’s time for a serious, thorough defence review to find out what kind of military Canada really needs.


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