Spending the allocated defence funds… or trying to: an update

Sustaining the Canadian Armed Forces ability to conduct missions in the world involves complex, expensive, and multi-year procurement processes that are already difficult to fulfill when governments hold the majority in the House of Commons. Now that we have a minority government, it begs the question, if the government struggled to deliver on the investment promises made in their Strong, Secure, Engaged defence policy during their first mandate, will they succeed in their second?

Announced in 2017, it charted a way forward to continue being active and relevant on the world scene well into the future. The ambitious plan called for an increase in defence spending from $18.9 billion in 2016-2017 to $32.7 billion in 2026-2027. One of the pillars underpinning the policy was a long-term outlook on spending that would see capital expenditure, the funds allocated for the acquisition of equipment and infrastructure rise to a total of $164 billion over 20 years. It was a realization that if Canada wants to be a leader in the world, a UN Security Council member, and a committed partner in NATO, ready to take on important responsibilities, it needs to be equipped for the 21st century security environment.

The results so far have been mixed.  While the government has largely been successful in raising overall defence spending, capital spending continues to lag behind the goals set by the policy.  The government initially sought to spend $6.1 billion on capital in the policy’s first year of implementation but fell well short of that by 2.4 billion, nearly 40 percent. This established a trend that continued into the second year as capital spending fell short of the target set out in the policy by roughly the same amount. In the current fiscal year 2019-2020, the government is set to underspend by $2.1 billion compared to its own benchmarks, though the fiscal year is not complete.

The targets identified in this policy were deliberately ambitious and as such the government was always going to face an uphill battle in meeting them. The will is there, but the means are hampered by complex bureaucratic barriers and redundancies. The whole system is in dire need of an overhaul… one that, while it has indeed begun to take shape, remains unfinished business. Without a better model, we will likely see the trend in missing targets continue.

This failure to adequately spend allocated funds on equipment and infrastructure has concrete consequences on Canada’s national security. It means that our service members have to rise up to the challenge of executing their mission without the right tools. This represents not only an unnecessary risk to the men and women in service, it also limits ability to carry out successful missions… the true measure of what the Canadian Armed Forces are called to do in making the world safer, more prosperous, not only for us, but also for vulnerable communities all over the world.

During the elections, the subject of national defence was swept under the carpet. This was a missed opportunity to have frank and honest conversation that could generate consensus on the way forward across party lines. For decades, military procurement has proved to be an Achilles heel to conservative and liberal governments alike. Multi-year delays and inadequate initial cost estimates have become nothing short of the norm. Every party can agree that getting the right tools, at the right price, in the right timeframe, is in everyone’s interest, and this can serve as the right sentiment to work together on streamlining the defence procurement process.

The commitment to create a single overarching military procurement agency announced in the Liberal platform has promise, but to actually be successful at spending the amounts budgeted it will be important to move quickly on determining what this new body will look like, and provide it with the authority, and the means to succeed. This government will also have to show some serious political resolve in the face of a plethora of competing demands in order to address the spending challenges while at the same time staying the course on its much-needed investment growth curve. To do otherwise could put the underpinnings of a sound defence policy at risk and, in so doing, jeopardize Canada’s ability to shape the world we want to live in, protect the common good at home and abroad.

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