Canada’s Defence Spending and NATO

Justin Massie

What do you believe are the implications of not meeting NATO’s 2% target, and what would be a reasonable approach for Canada to balance defence spending with other important priorities?

The first implication is one of credibility. If you’re a government that signs a document saying that, not only will you reach 2%, but that will become the floor, instead of a ceiling, and you have no plan whatsoever to even think of achieving that target, whether you appreciate that target, there is still a commitment from the Canadian government to meet it. I think not taking that commitment seriously, or being hypocritical about it—signing the document, but privately saying we have no plans of doing so and that even if we were to inject more money in DND we wouldn’t be able to spend it—signals to our allies that we don’t necessarily abide by our signature or our commitments abroad. I think that’s the most important message.

Usually, in history, recruitment was much easier when there was a perception that the soldiers deployed abroad had the kit necessary to achieve their military objectives. That was the case in Afghanistan after a few years, because the first ones that were sent weren’t properly equipped to achieve the job. I had the same feeling when I met the Canadian military in Latvia, I had the pleasure of meeting some of them a few weeks ago. My perception was that they don’t perceive that they have the military equipment needed to achieve their task, for instance, in terms of ammunition.

Canada’s job in Latvia as a framework nation is to defend that country in case of future Russian aggression. I was told that Canada has enough munition to hold for one hour of fighting—that seems to be insufficient to achieve the task. That certainly does not help Canadians that would like to join or are part of the military, and who want to stay in the military. They don’t have the equipment to do the job. The discussion tends to revolve around, well, do we need to achieve 2%? It’s beyond this. The implications are also about the capacity to recruit, our signals to our allies, and we’re basically saying to everybody, both Canadians and foreigners, that we are not taking this seriously. That is a significant cost.

Benjamin Zyla was recently on the programme, and he argued that Canada’s contributions to NATO shouldn’t necessarily be dismissed as “free riding”, because we’ve actively participated in NATO operations and made substantial commitments to support Ukraine. He emphasized the need for a balanced assessment of burden sharing within NATO, and the need to consider input and output metrics. Based on reactions, this appeared to be a fairly polarizing view. Should we contextualize Canada’s contributions to NATO within the framework of its middle power status, limited resources, and geopolitical considerations, rather than labelling it as a “free rider” based solely on defence spending benchmarks? Or are we really “free riders”?

Benjamin is right emphasizing that you basically need to look at both input and outputs. Input is the money you spend on defence expenditures and output is what you do with that money or kit. Canada is the opposite of Greece. Greece spends more than 3% of its GDP, or close to that, but it doesn’t use its military because it wants to prepare for a potential war against Turkey. It doesn’t deploy to Afghanistan, has offered a little to Ukraine—basically keeps its military at home. It achieves the 2% objective but basically does not help its NATO allies when they are in need. Canada is the opposite. We don’t spend enough, but we’re there in almost all missions.

I say almost because we were one of the first countries to withdraw from NATO operations in Afghanistan in 2010. But excluding that mission, Canada has taken part in all NATO operations in history, including right now in Latvia. When the Prime Minister says we have to look at what we’re doing, not just how much we’re investing, he’s right. However, our capacity to achieve those missions is based on how much money we put into the military in the first place. You can be there, but if you can’t achieve your objective—which is to raise up to more than 2000 troops in Latvia—because you don’t have enough soldiers, or you can’t deploy your frigates because you don’t have enough sailors, or when you don’t have any air defences, drones or counter-drone capacities, you can’t achieve your job, which is to defend the country against Russian aggression.

All the literature has demonstrated a clear correlation between how much you invest, and how much you can deploy. If we look at Canada’s support to Ukraine, for instance, we can say we’re the sixth largest contributor in absolute numbers, but the 20th per GDP. Which metrics do you want to use? When you look at what the Ukrainian military actually need to achieve—which is also Canada’s objective—which is for Ukraine to defeat the Russian military in its country, and have the Russian military retreat back home, when you look at the most important kit that we provided to Ukraine—tanks—our eight tanks are fewer than what Spain, Sweden, Slovenia, the Netherlands, or Poland have provided.

Is that enough? Do we need 15 tanks in Latvia? Or would they better be used in Ukraine right now? I’m in the camp that they would be of better use in Ukraine right now and there should be a plan to acquire more in the coming years to replace those that would be provided to Ukraine. If we’re going to defend Latvia, it’s going to be against the same enemy those tanks would be now facing in Ukraine. If we look at our artillery it’s the same—the four that Canada has provided are fewer than many countries—it’s fewer than what Portugal, Australia, the Dutch, the Danes, the Estonians, Norwegians, the Italians, Polish, etc. have provided.

When our prime minister, foreign minister, or defence minister is abroad and says we’re there to support Ukraine, as long as necessary, and we want to defeat the Russian military, but we only provide that little hit to achieve that counter-offensive, I think that there’s a disconnect between what we do and what we say we want to achieve.

What specific challenges and obstacles does Canada face in achieving the 2% target—why haven’t we?

First of all, because we don’t want to. Second, because we can’t. Very few governments or prime ministers have an individual preference when it comes to defence policy—actually caring about this issue. It’s usually something that’s imposed by external constraints. It’s rarely something that is really among the preferences of the prime minister. We could see this with Jean Chretien and Trudeau. Paul Martin and a few others had a different understanding of what was necessary, but they’re really few and far between.

They need to be convinced. The military needs to convince Cabinet members and they’re very reluctant to spend on military given the fact that our federal government prefers to invest in provincial jurisdiction issues. There’s little political will, so we need to face external constraints to invest. These can take two forms—our allies and domestic political costs. When there’s huge pressure from the United States for instance. We can remember what was happening during the Trump administration and during the NATO Summit—the pressure on Canada was significant. One of the reasons why Canada decided to increase its military commitments in Eastern Europe was to prove itself to the United States. We needed to invest more in NATO.

The second constraint would be the political cost at home. Usually, governments will spend more when the opposition parties are pressuring or mobilizing dissent against the government’s stance. Unfortunately, we don’t see this right now in Canada. We don’t see a Conservative Party pushing for Canada to invest more in the military. They’re saying so very timidly, but they’re not making that a salient or important issue in Canadian politics. If you’re in a government that has no political preferences in investing in this, you don’t face significant political costs when you’re meeting allies in Vilnius, you sign a document, despite knowing absolutely, clearly, that you have no intention of meeting that target, and there is no domestic cost to it—that to me explains the status quo, the inertia, and the fact that there’s no plan to achieve the 2%.

Canada’s role in training Ukrainian forces has been appreciated, but its material aid, particularly in terms of heavy weapons, has been limited. Should Canada reconsider its position and provide more substantial military support, including advanced weaponry, to bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend its territorial sovereignty?

I believe in the objective of defeating Russia’s aggression of Ukraine because that will send a clear signal that there’s no way in the 21st century that you can redraw borders by military force. I think that argument needs to be made clearly. The best way to defeat Russia’s military is to impose significant costs on its invasion. The only way you can do that is by providing heavy artillery. We usually use a number, so we will provide 500 million or a billion etc. However, what actually matters is not the amount, but the equipment being bought with this money, and whether it’s in use by the Ukrainian military.

If you look at the air defence systems that Canada announced in January, it’s still not being delivered. It has no utility in the war right now. The tanks have been deployed. The four howitzers have been deployed, but they’re very few. To what utility are our tanks to us if it’s not to face Russian aggression? Is it because we want to deploy it in Haiti or elsewhere in the world? I doubt it because we’ve sent 15 to Latvia, with the purpose to defend that country against Russia.

To me, a priority should be sending all that we can to Ukraine right now, to invest in a fast track, acquisitions process, and new equipment, more advanced, and take the opportunity of modernizing the CAF’s military equipment, by giving them what we have, and in buying new ones. But of course, we’re slow to this. Other countries such as Poland are months, if not years, ahead of us in their commands and in their orders, and we know the industry is limited in its capacity to produce. But even on other issues, such as munitions, we know that there’s a shortage. That’s why the United States decided to give cluster munitions to Ukraine. Canada does produce munitions and it could serve our economic interests to ramp up the production. I have not seen any orders signed by the government to increase Canada’s production of ammunition.

To me, it would be a very easy sell to the Canadian public to increase such production, and it would benefit our allies and Ukraine, knowing full well that there’s a shortage within the CAF, but also in US and European militaries. What we see in Europe and UK and the US are those multi-year orders being signed with industry because they need to have that provision, that stability, to increase and hire more workers, and augment the production line, etc. They need that provision and that multi-year commitment. I haven’t seen that from Ottawa, which does not make sense, because, again, it’s in contradiction with our political objective, which is to see the Russian military defeated in Ukraine.

It would make so much sense to send as much as we can afford to, and fast-track new acquisitions right now. This is what I was hoping to see in the defence policy update, which has not been released, and which may not be released if there’s no consensus in cabinet about the need to invest significantly more in the Canadian military. What I sense is, the reason why it’s been delayed now with so-called consultation is because there’s no such political consensus in the Liberal government. The only way it can be imposed is when you have a prime minister that really cares about it and pushes that agenda forward. I’ve not seen that from Justin Trudeau.

A few experts are thinking along these lines as well—if the DPU was not released ahead of the NATO Summit, which would have been an optimal or strategically sound time for it, can we even expect it at all?

If the cabinet had approved a budget to augment Canada’s defence expenditures, I’m confident that the prime minister would have wanted to showcase this to our allies. The fact that we did not do this means that we don’t have such a plan for increasing investments. The sense I’m getting is that it would be detrimental to our political capital, to publicize the plan. It’s better not to have a plan than to have a plan that would be criticized by our allies and by opposition parties. There’s no other reason I think, to explain such a delay. Even the consultations that were done in the Spring, to me, were not planned. I think we organized them only to delay the publication of that document.

It may become like the feminist foreign policy, which took years to be published because there was no consensus on what it consisted of. This is problematic because there was a clear window of opportunity to adopt such a document. Other governments have done it, but not Canada. I don’t understand why we are so slow compared to other countries. But there was that opportunity. There’s the current war, there’s the desire by a majority of Canadians to invest more in the military. There is no political cost of investing more because opposition parties won’t criticize you so much. There’s a window because we have a government that is not necessarily concerned about deficits. Future governments will care about deficits, and they will be cutting defence expenditures, not health care, education, or other social programmes.

DND is just incapable of spending that money because our procurement process is too politicized and constrained by other interests and objectives than simply providing the Canadian military with the necessary equipment to achieve our foreign policy objectives.

One thing I was hoping with the DPU was to emphasize our most important region of interest, because it’s quite bizarre to me, that we have an Indo-Pacific strategy without a foreign policy strategy or policy statement, and that we have a regional policy towards NATO now—by default, not by design—but not a defence policy. What I would have hoped the DPU would emphasize is the importance of defending Canada at home first, and then abroad.

But by having no policy on defending Canada, whether it’s through NORAD or through just in the Arctic, in general, we have to assume that other regions are taking priority, or that our Arctic policy is basically NORAD modernization and not much more. This means no submarines, for instance, which are obviously not part of NORAD modernization as announced a few months ago. The lack of those regional policies and lack of overarching defence policy just shows that Canada does not have a strategy. It basically has policies that are adapted to political circumstances.

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