Philippe Lagassé: Why is Canada buying so much American military equipment?
Some argue the recent flurry of procurement decisions are designed to curry favour with the Americans, but the reality is that it's in our best interests.
By: Philippe Lagassé
Christmas came early for the Canadian Armed Forces in 2023. Last month, the Canadian government announced the acquisition of up to 16 P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, 11 MQ9-B SkyGuardian remotely piloted systems (i.e. drones), and a suite of land command and communications and surveillance systems. These purchases are on top of earlier decisions to purchase 88 F-35 fighter aircraft and nine CC-330 Husky transport and refuelling planes. Over on the naval side, Irving Shipbuilding completed its fifth Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship for the military, and rumour has it that the government will soon greenlight the first batch of Canadian Surface Combatants.
Although we’re used to hearing that Canadian defence procurement is broken and that the military is stuck with rusting equipment that isn’t being replaced, the past 12 months suggest that it’s time to ease up on that trope. Procurement isn’t the biggest problem facing the CAF anymore: it’s personnel shortages and operational overstretch. As Line editor Matt Gurney recently argued, the CAF are in bad shape, but it’ll become increasingly difficult to blame this on aging equipment.
Given how many significant defence procurements have been announced of late, we might ask if the government is trying to signal something here. David Pugliese, the dean of Canadian defence journalists, has floated the idea that Ottawa is responding to American pressure. The United States has regularly called on Canada to spend more on the military and the American embassy apparently urged the Canadian government to move ahead with a sole-source of the P-8, made by Boeing in Washington state, after Montreal-based Bombardier and various federal and provincial politicians called for a competition. Another theory might be that Canada is trying show that it’ll be prepared to do what it takes to be part of the AUKUS submarine and technology pact. Still another interpretation may be that the government is trying to counter perceptions that it is indecisive and can’t get stuff done.
There’s something to each of these hypotheses. The Canadian government is surely looking to show the United States that we’re serious about defence and committed to recapitalizing our military. Although these procurements aren’t connected to AUKUS, Ottawa is probably worried about being left out of the deal and looking at ways to bolster its reputation in Washington, London and Canberra. Domestically, these procurements give the Trudeau Liberals clear examples of where they’re delivering on foreign policy and national security issues, broadly defined.
That said, we shouldn’t read too much into the government’s announcements. These procurements were a long time coming. What we’re seeing are the results of defence policy and spending decisions made several years ago. They were the culmination of policies initially pursued by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives — such as the AOPS — or those outlined in the Trudeau government’s 2017 defence policy Strong, Secure, Engaged. These acquisitions weren’t spurred by an immediate effort to curry favour with the United States, but reflect the impact of Ottawa’s longstanding military acquisition plans and defence spending increases.
The notion that Canada is buying American equipment because of pressure from the United States should also be approached with caution. Looking at recent contracts, it’s obvious that big American defence companies are well-represented. The F-35 is manufactured by Lockheed Martin, the P-8 by Boeing, and the MQ9-B by General Atomics. Lockheed Martin is also providing the combat systems for the Canadian Surface Combatant. The CC-330 Husky planes, however, are made by Airbus, the Canadian Surface Combatant is based on the Type 26 frigate designed by Britain’s BAE Systems, and the army’s new command and communications systems will be provided by General Dynamics Mission Systems Canada. So, yes, Canada buys a lot of military equipment from the United States, but there’s a fair share of Canadian, British and European manufacturers who win contracts, too.
It's also worth stressing that the United States doesn’t need to pressure Canada into buying American military equipment; Canadian defence policy already leans toward the acquisition of weapons systems that are based on, or are interoperable with, American technology. Put simply, we buy lots of American weapons systems because we want to, not because Washington is telling us to. Canada aims to make meaningful contributions to allied coalitions and the binational defence of North America, which requires us to invest to higher-end capabilities that are fully interoperable, and not merely compatible, with those fielded by the United States. Full interoperability allows for sharing of sensitive data, notably for command, control, control, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) and a common operating picture. Since the United States sets the pace of military technological change, we keep up by buying our most advanced weapons systems from them.
There are also advantages to operating fleets that are widely used among our allies. Getting and borrowing parts is far easier when you operate fleets that are in service across the globe. Supply chain security and resilience makes this doubly important. Interchangeability is increasingly prized in Canadian defence procurement, as a result. Given the size of the United States military, it tends to maintain platforms that have the largest global fleet sizes. For example, about 2,500 F-35s will eventually be built, compared with fewer than 300 Rafales and under 1,000 Eurofighters. Similarly, upgrading your weapons systems is much simpler and less expensive when there’s a continuous and scheduled upgrade path. Here again, American platforms are quite attractive, since the United States doesn’t dither on these upgrades and fronts most of the research and design costs.
Canada’s inclination toward American weapons systems will probably increase as new technologies and innovations emerge. No other ally spends as much on military research and development as the United States. Canadian geography and our alliance commitments mean that interoperability with the United States is critical, and interchangeability with America’s large fleets increasingly carry a lot of weight. It’s also a good deal for Canada. We’re able to buy complex weapons systems that plug and play with the world’s largest military and our most important ally for a fraction of the cost involved in developing them ourselves. That makes a lot of sense a country that spends relatively little on defence and that shares a continent with United States.
Still, it’s important to acknowledge the downsides of our penchant for advanced American platforms and systems. One is that we don’t foster as much technological expertise and capacity in Canada. In purchasing the P-8, for instance, Ottawa isn’t investing in the anti-submarine warfare knowhow that General Dynamics Mission Systems Canada honed in upgrading Canada’s current maritime patrol aircraft. More ominously, there’s a risk that an aggressive American administration could leverage, or cut us off from, certain upgrades, parts, or capabilities in a future dispute. This is a low-probability scenario, but one that could have a high impact on our military and sovereignty if it were to happen. That’s the pressure point we might need to worry about, rather than the United States’ influence over specific procurement decisions.
Philippe Lagassé is an associate professor at Carleton University.
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