Canada’s military: Funding should be focused on protecting sovereignty

David Kilgour
CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier sailed into the port of Victoria after a four month deployment in the Arctic.Click here for high-resolution version

Canada’s military seeks to be future-oriented, adapting to advancing technologies, changing political dynamics and global economic shifts. Predictions about its future are currently difficult, partly because the March 29 federal budget is expected to cut $2.5 billion from defence spending.

Prime Minister Harper confirmed last May that Canada’s military role in Afghanistan will end once the current training mission concludes in March 2014. Our country will contribute $110 million per year over three years (2015-2017) to help sustain the Afghanistan National Security Forces.

Problems with the planned purchase of Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft have worsened with the latest controversy over its capacity for in-flight refueling. Confirmation of the multi-billion dollar purchase is still months away, but the new issue is particularly sensitive due to the earlier serious cost underestimates. Overall, buying the F-35 fighter appears to enjoy little support among Canadians.

In mid-2010, the government announced its ship-building strategy, through which the current surface fleets of our Navy and the coast guard will be replaced. The long-delayed joint support program should come under the political microscope in the near future and will hopefully avoid the F-35 errors.

The Canada First Defence Strategy (2008), which set out plans to spend $490 billion on defence over twenty years, declared that the role of our armed forces is to protect Canada, then North America, and finally to contribute to international peace and security.

Harper’s government has sensibly been anxious to assert Canadian sovereignty over Arctic territories designated as parts of Canada. It is building up Arctic defence and infrastructure as part of its long-term program of protecting our nation’s presence in a region increasingly claimed by competing powers. The government feels that exploration of the Arctic energy and mineral resources is critical to Canada’s growth.

Global climate change and melting ice have raised concerns that the Arctic may open up to maritime navigation and competing naval operations. This will probably include the deployment of stealth snowmobiles with hybrid gas-electric engines, amphibious craft to operate in tandem with patrol boats and icebreakers, and unmanned aerial vehicles. Aviation and defense industries are competing to win military contracts for a range of equipment intended to increase Canada’s Arctic capability.

Paul Mitchell at the Canadian Forces College says Canada is unlikely to be threatened by fleets of advanced bombers across the polar region, even given a further collapse in Russian relations with the West. He concludes that options other than fighter jets should be considered. Light attack craft, such as the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 or the Embraer Super Tucano, could be used to counter “low and slow” threats, such as hijacked civil and commercial turbo-prop aircraft.

Others say Canada’s aging GF-118s should be replaced with the Saab Gripen E/F, which is designed to operate in cold climates, has the latest sensors, is capable of firing the most advanced weapons, is compatible with our air refuelers, and can be 100% built in Canada.

The Defence department decided last July to begin billing provinces, municipalities and other government departments in most cases where the military’s assistance is required. It long held the authority to recover costs incurred when the military participates in domestic disaster relief, but for fifteen years waived it. Many Canadians feel that, as we pay for our military through taxes, we shouldn’t be billed for emergencies. The government now wisely appears to have backed away from its early decision to start billing.

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Harper earlier indicated that he was not considering a direct Canadian military mission in Mali, one of Canada’s closest historical friends in Africa, despite the reality that the often-glacial UN Security Council approved international intervention in December. The chair of the African Union has also petitioned NATO members to send forces to expel al-Qaida-linked fighters, warning that convoys of Islamist extremists advancing on government-held towns represent a threat to the world. France launched air strikes on Jan. 11; it appears that Canada will join the governments of Mali and France in providing some logistical support for African and French combatants.

While the government seeks to determine what kind of military it can afford in a period of shrinking budgets, Canadians are not hesitant about describing what they want.

At one extreme are those who call for Canada, like Iceland and Costa Rica, to abandon our standing army and no longer be part of NATO. Most Canadians appear to favour a military which is adequately equipped and funded to protect our sovereignty over territorial waters and airspace, and to have a say at the table on global security by rapidly deploying anywhere in the world on occasions when needed to protect civilians under siege. I favour this approach.

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.