Waiting for the Defence Review: Some Comments on the 2017 Federal Budget

CDA Institute Senior Editor Matthew Overton provides comments and perspective on the recent Federal Budget on behalf of the CDA and CDA Institute. 

The announcements contained in the 2017 Federal Budget highlight yet again the pressing requirement for the release of the Defence Policy Review. Without a clear view on the role desired of our national Armed Forces – what likely missions (the last Defence Statement outlined six) what level of readiness, the tempo of operations anticipated, in what combination and to what effect – this latest and most significant addition to a string of delays for capital spending is difficult to understand in terms of how it contributes to meeting Government expectations.

With the broad spectrum of capabilities that are required to meet the publicly renewed commitment to UN operations, our domestic defence as well as our contributions to NATO such as OPUNIFIER reductions in the delivery of core programs such as SAR aircraft and armoured vehicle upgrades may make Canadians feel that they are looking through a glass, darkly, into what that Policy may entail.

The cumulative impact of the succession of expenditure deferrals, as pointed out in detail by other commentators, are considerable and negative for the short and longer term. This raises important questions on exactly how much Armed Forces structure the Government believes necessary now and into the future – and the timing of their replacement – as the current fleets of equipment and infrastructure grow older each year. These decisions affect the balance between maintenance (the bills for which grow with the age of the item) and keeping men, women and their equipment competently combined and poised for action.

The annual Budgets will not answer these questions – that is for a Defence Policy to define – but they do provide indicators on the envelope of the possible. Even with further economies and efficiencies wrung from structure (should DND be named as one of the 3 departments to be reviewed) and then reallocated within the department to help with that rebalancing, the reality is that this has been going on for some time in DND. Inevitably, less monies available over a given period will lead to less output ie. fewer forces at reduced abilities to deploy and reduced capabilities to act when called upon – something for which successive CDSs have been acutely aware and will have provided military advice to their Ministers. General Vance is certain to be no different.

By contrast, the changes announced for the care of Veterans look positioned to have an effective, beneficial impact upon their implementation. Of note are the improved access to a dedicated education and training benefit, scaled to the length of service as well as more job-​focused transition services, expanded access to the Military Family System and an improved informal caregivers support policy amongst others.

While the major issue, and campaign promise, of an option for lifetime pension rather than lump sum payout remains, it’s much anticipated resolution is slated for later this year – like the Defence Policy Review. As likely as these veterans initiatives are to reassure Canadians and veterans that Canada is indeed a nation grateful for their service and as such a support to recruiting and retention, more appealing yet to potential recruits and those that influence them will be a clear understanding of what the Armed Forces are expected to deliver and that they are funded appropriately to do so.

The next months will no doubt be trying ones for the two Ministers as they work towards delivering the results promised concerning a pension option for injured veterans and a credible, effective Defence Policy. Significant waymarks for their Cabinet posts in both cases, the more difficult and potentially consequential of the two for Canada will be the reaction of our allies to our defence policy decisions. In this, it may not have been unwise to continue the consultation and deliberation process as the context clears in the next months within NATO and for our close partner, the United States, before charting the course ahead. This summer will prove the worth or consequences of such an approach.

Prior to the Budget speech, the Prime Minister rose in the House to reaffirm that “We will continue to work together with the U.K. and all our allies to show the world that freedom and democracy will always triumph”. While the glass remains dark, once it clears, with the Federal Budget as just announced, it is not certain yet that in the future, Canada will have as much to contribute towards securing that triumph.

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