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Chris Kilford: Ottawa likely rethinking budget cutbacks

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CDA Institute Guest Contributor Chris Kilford, a Fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University, offers his analysis and insight into the complicated area of defence budgeting and allocation.

Last December, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army guided missile frigates Yancheng and Daqing, and the Fuchi-​class oiler Tai Hu, paid a successful week-​long port visit to Victoria. All three ships were new. Well, nearly. The Yancheng was the oldest, commissioned in 2012. I’d almost say the Chinese were showing off.

No doubt, they know that we’ve had to lease our supply ships from Chile and Spain, and even though the Halifax-​class frigates have been modernized, they are, on average, still 22 years old.

Looking at the sleek Chinese warships, I wondered what the analysts in Beijing might have said about our government’s “streamlined” frigate-​replacement project announced last summer. The one that won’t begin until the early 2020s and then spans the next 20 to 25 years. Too little, too late, I expect.

As for me, about 10 years ago, I was part of the small military team that crafted the defence-​policy implementation plans for both the Martin and the Harper governments that spoke to the immediate need for new equipment, including supply ships and frigates.

After that I spent a valuable year working with Colin Kenny, then chairman of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. I can’t say the Martin and Harper defence strategies or our implementation plans were perfect — they never are. But we did have some good ideas and decent funding.

However, by the time I left for Afghanistan in the summer of 2009, the global financial crisis was upon us. Stephen Harper’s ambitious Canada First Defence Strategy had hit the streets the year before, but it was no match for the $55.6-billion dollar federal deficit in 2009-​10 and the $33.4-billion shortfall the following year. After that, much in Canada’s defence world stalled.

Sadly, the long-​term economic and fiscal projections released by the government last month offer little in the way of encouragement, especially if you happen to belong to the team now shaping Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s defence strategy. Deficits, according to the government, will be the new normal for at least the next 35 years.

It’s important to note at this point that shortly after their election in 2015, the Liberal government committed to “building a leaner, more agile, better-​equipped military.” But with the fiscal projections the way they are, it’s likely the emphasis will now be on the word “leaner,” and this will require some far-​reaching and risky decisions.

Some of our core capabilities, such as main battle tanks, submarines and transport helicopters, just to name a few platforms that come to mind, might need to go. And this includes the people who work with and support them. However, once you give up a capability, it’s not likely coming back, and that’s always the risky part.

There are, of course, other ways to save money when budgets are tight. Bases can be closed, ceremonial guard units and acrobatic teams chopped, the part-​time force trimmed, civilian and contractor positions reduced and even search and rescue outsourced. All reasonable suggestions, one might think, but seldom do they go over well around the cabinet table.

With Donald Trump in the White House, it’s quite possible that Ottawa has had to grudgingly rethink the breadth and timing of defence cutbacks. That will come as some relief for the team drafting the latest defence strategy, yet also points to the fact that our defence plans are often more to do about keeping Washington happy than anything else. Fiscal projections aside, for a country with global commitments and global aspirations, that’s not really the way it should be.

Chris Kilford is a Fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

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Guest Tuesday, 21 February 2017
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