Matt Gurney: A few billion for jets and radars is good, but the military is still in crisis
Isolated high-cost procurements don't change the fact that the military is desperately short staffed and missing many key modern capabilities.
By: Matt Gurney
Two weeks ago at The Line, I looked at a speech by Chrystia Freeland, our deputy PM and finance minister. Freeland had gone to D.C. to address the Brookings Institution, and laid out an interesting plan for how Canada and its allies can work together to meet the growing challenges in our less-stable post-pandemic world. The problem, as the column noted, is that as good as Freeland's speech was — and it was pretty good! — it was hard not to notice that Freeland's government wasn't doing many of the things Freeland was asserting democracies should be doing. In some cases, we're kinda doing the opposite, even. As I joked later on Twitter, it was like someone showing up at a health living conference to give a speech on healthy habits holding a burrito in one hand and an unfiltered cigarette in the other.
The column I wrote then, though, wasn't the column I had planned to write that week. I already had a topic in mind. The Freeland speech, though, took precedence because, frankly, it was more newsy, but also because it was a natural companion to the piece I was planning to write: eight months after Putin invaded Ukraine and we realized we might once again live in an era when conflicts between great powers are possible, what has Canada done, if anything, to increase its own strength? Are we actually making improvements, or does the status quo endure?
The answer, it turns out, is complicated. But overall, it's not a pretty picture. It's time for us to put down the national burrito, stub out the smoke, and get to work, because we're already falling further behind.
Before we get into the analysis, let's recall the context. In the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion, before it had become clear that Russia was actually losing in the face of spectacular Ukrainian resistance and advanced NATO weapons, there really was a brief shining moment when it looked like Canada — its Liberal government, more specifically — had been firmly kicked in the butt by reality and was considering actually taking national defence seriously, probably for the first time since the Second World War. In March, Defence Minister Anita Anand was talking about "aggressive" spending increases. Freeland was defending further planned increases in April. Even the prime minister has implying that Canada might need to get serious on the military.
Okay. So. That was a while ago now. What's happened?
Objectively speaking, there has been progress. Canada has committed billions to replacing the CF-18 fighter jets with F-35s — 88 of them. (That's still way too small an air fleet for a country our literal size — it's not a lot of planes for such a big place, folks — but it's something.) Billions more have been committed to modernizing NORAD's early warning systems. And, miracle of miracles, we finally got around to replacing the goddamned Second World War-era pistols!
These are real, tangible things. These things matter. They will leave the Canadian Armed Forces better off, our soldiers better protected and our continent more secure. This is good news.
It's also the bare minimum.
Even these big spending announcements, and even the itty bitty pistol one, don't actually add capabilities to the Canadian military. They replace existing ones. They maintain our capabilities. Sure, we can quibble about "maintain" or "replace" — the F-35 will give Canada a stealth capacity it has never had before, and all that jazz. Fine. Fair. But it isn't really adding to the overall list of missions we are capable of conducting. It's fleshing out capabilities that, due to advanced age and wear-and-tear for our critical equipment, were starting to exist only on paper. The government deserves credit for this, but only a really small amount of credit. Getting the urgently necessary basics done, many years after they should have been handled, is good, but it's not worth a pat on the back. It is the bare minimum the country deserved and that the military needed to function, so that's how far I'll go in my praise: congratulations, Liberals, on responding to a massive change in our geopolitical order by accomplishing the bare minimum that was already overdue.
If that sounds scathing, here's the worst part: that's me being sincere. Thanks for the bare minimum! I wasn’t sure we’d get even that
So yeah. Good, but … you see the problem here, no? In a new era of global instability and geopolitical turmoil, the Canadian response, thus far, has been to get caught up to where we should have been 10 years ago. At the latest. And it's far from clear that, if not for Russia kicking off the largest conflict we've seen in Europe since 1945, we'd have even bothered to do these necessary, long-overdue things.
And this is all shaping up to be just the latest iteration of a little game both Liberals and Conservatives like to play with the Canadian Armed Forces (and, come to think of it, most policy files). They'll point to specific investments or particular accomplishments when defending their record. And the investment and accomplishment may well be excellent indeed! But they won't speak to the full, broader picture. And the full, broader picture of the Canadian Armed Forces is grim, and some new F-35s and 9mm pistols isn't going to change that.
There was a little story last month you might have seen. After Hurricane Fiona wrecked big parts of several Atlantic provinces, the feds sent in the military. This is right and proper. The troops would have made a welcome sight in those communities, of course. What you might not have noticed, though, was that Nova Scotia had to go public with its desire for more troops. It asked for a thousand. It got 500. It kept asking for more. It got the 500. And most of those 500 were troops already stationed in Nova Scotia; only about 200 were actually sent in from elsewhere. The government never really commented on this, but it's not hard to suss out the problem: the military couldn't scrape together any more troops.
Again, no one is saying that aloud, but what else explains it? There have been whispers of a major manpower shortage for years, and we're starting to see some of it breakthrough into full public view. The first real obvious red flag was just before the pandemic; the then-chief of the Canadian Army (since promoted to Chief of the Defence Staff, our top military officer) warned that the growing use of the armed forces in domestic operations, primarily disaster relief, was pushing the military beyond its limits. The constant drain on manpower, budgets and time was burning out people, eroding our ability to take proper care of equipment and, critically, to mount large-scale training exercises. Exercises, that, for instance — just to pluck one example out of thin air — would simulate a large-scale battle against an aggressor somewhere in, like, Europe or something.
Gee, why would we ever need to simulate that?
Since then other little bits of info have come public. Haiti, a country that Canada has mounted military interventions in before, is currently in a state of near anarchy. The Haitian government, such as it is, is asking for international help, and Canada has sent some equipment, and nothing else. Maybe this is a political calculation; our last intervention there involved some appalling incidents of Canadian personnel sexually exploiting local civilians. Or maybe we just don't have the manpower. Canada also pledged more troops for the NATO battlegroup we're leading in Latvia but could only come up with about a hundred. That's better than nothing, but only marginally.
And consider this: just a few weeks ago, the Canadian Press reported that the military, with an authorized strength of just over 100,000, was 12,000 personnel short of that goal. That's a huge shortfall. It's not all the fault of the Trudeau government, to be clear. There's a lot going on there. The sexual misconduct crisis in the Forces probably isn't helping recruitment or retention. The pandemic shuttered recruiting stations across the country for years, disrupting the flow of new personnel into the military — that'll take years to smooth out. A very tight labour market is driving most wages up, making the military less competitive. And then there is, alas, the sad truth that Canadian military recruitment is chronically dysfunctional. Qualified recruits are undoubtedly walking away from a process in which it takes a shocking amount of time to get anything done.
The point here isn't to pin the blame entirely on the PM or his government — they deserve a share of it, sure, but we've got a bigger problem than blame assignment here. Our military is dramatically short of personnel. Some recent big-ticket purchases are good, but we've got other major programs that are veering into fiasco territory — our new fleet of naval ships being the most recent example. We also have capabilities today that are heading toward obsolescence without any plan in place to do anything about that, with our procurement schedule likely to take longer than the equipment has remaining arrive life (hello, Victoria-class submarines). Other modern capabilities are missing entirely: self-propelled artillery, mobile air defence systems, anti-drone defences, and advanced anti-tank weapons. All of these things are being shown as absolutely vital in the battlefields of Ukraine. Hell, for that matter, have we even replaced all the weapons we gave to Ukraine months ago? Have we even begun to, or is that paperwork stuck on a procurement clerk’s desk somewhere?
Maybe we don't need all these things and capabilities — there are limits to how much we can spend, so we might have to make some hard trade-offs. We need a full defence review, in light of changing geopolitical realities, to help clarify our needs and our wants.
But what we need most of all is an honest appreciation of the scale of the problem. The Canadian Armed Forces is a bit of a mess, and while that's not solely Justin Trudeau's fault, it's his job to fix it. That's going to take huge investments of political will and cold, hard cash, and he'll probably want to dodge those, and just point instead to what he's done already with the jets, the new radars and the pistols.
In other words, he'll point to the bare minimum, and hope the price tag sounds impressive enough to let him off the hook for doing any more. Don't let him get away with it, Canadians. The stakes are just too damn high.
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