Hard spending decisions needed

May 15, 2017 by David J. Bercuson
The first submarine Canada obtained, HMCS Victoria, is scheduled to be retired in just five years.
Wikimedia

Lee Berthiaume, writing for the Canadian Press last fall, referred to “internal Defence Department documents” in a story about the need to spend billions, beginning soon, to upgrade Canada’s submarines. He referred to those documents, obtained through the Access to Information Act, in estimating the cost of upgrading the submarines at $1.5 to $3 billion. In the hubbub surrounding the lead up to the government’s announcement to obtain a small interim fleet of Super Hornets and put off the final decision on a more substantial CF-18 replacement program, the submarine story was virtually buried.

One way or another, the submarine saga will be disinterred shortly. The first submarine Canada obtained, HMCS Victoria, is scheduled to be retired in just five years. Five years is a lifetime when it comes to major Canadian procurement projects. The other three submarines will follow soon after.

There’s no point here in going over the long saga of Canada and its four Upholder-class submarines—“Upholder” to the British who built them and “Victoria-class” to the Royal Canadian Navy which acquired them. Suffice to say that a nation with the largest coastline in the world, depending heavily on seagoing commerce, with daily challenges, from fishing boats lost at sea to human smuggling, and a prolonged Russian buildup of its Arctic military forces, needs an adequate submarine fleet.

There were many defence experts who questioned why Canada purchased these submarines in the first place in the 1990s and no doubt there will be many more who will complain about either putting billions of dollars more into the fleet or—heaven forbid—buying an adequate, modern, under-ice capable fleet to replace the Victoria-class submarines.

Modern weapons, especially large ones—from armoured vehicles for the army to jets for the air force to the surface warships the navy will need in the next decade—don’t come cheap. And neither do submarines. But a people who claim sovereignty over the second largest country in the world, with a relatively small population, will need to face the fact that defence isn’t cheap and it should certainly not be the last item on the spending agenda. 

Why is this the case, especially when it is hard to point to real military threats to the “peace, order and good government” of Canada?  In a word: deterrence.

Take the case of the buildup of Russia’s Arctic military presence. The National Post called it the “biggest Arctic military push since the fall of the Soviet Union.”

Should we expect Russian troops to ride Russian warships to our northern coast, backed by Russian air power? The chances are only slightly better than an invasion from Mars. But sovereignty, as we are currently seeing with the proliferation of Chinese advanced weaponry on the “islands” they have built from sandbars and protruding rocks in the South China Sea, can be a fuzzy concept. A small Russian push here, a slightly larger one there, and suddenly we will be sailing into what we consider our own waters at our peril. Can we expect the United States to pull our chestnuts out of the fire for us? Possibly, but with Donald Trump in the White House, nothing is certain except the very large invoice he will hand us.

We do not have the military forces to defend every square centimetre of our sovereign claims on our east and west coasts, or in the Arctic. But as a self-respecting nation, we must make an effort to deter action against us, or we will slowly see bits and pieces of our home and native land lost to us.

What, then, is the answer? It will take government leadership–especially from the current government–to educate Canadians that the time we can keep a low profile regarding our own defences and hope to offset the shoddy state of those defences by sending expeditionary forces abroad is over. Hard spending decisions need to be made, not only about the F-35 but about our navy, including the supply ships and submarines.  We don’t need a “large” air force or a “large” navy. But we do need them to be adequate to deter any challenges to our sovereignty.

The debt is increasing by the month and the deficit is rising. In the early 1990s, the Liberal government of the day met similar financial challenges by virtually choking the life out of the military. With the new U.S. president demanding that America’s allies pay their fair share for the common defence, that tactic won’t work this time.


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