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Chris Kilford: Deficit will shape Canada’s defence strategy

In the 2015 speech from the throne, the Canadian government committed to launching an “open and transparent process to review existing defence capabilities” and said it would “invest in building a leaner, more agile, better-equipped military.

In the 2015 speech from the throne, the Canadian government committed to launching an “open and transparent process to review existing defence capabilities” and said it would “invest in building a leaner, more agile, better-equipped military.” The government also committed to formulating a new national-defence strategy for publication in early 2017.

As part of the process, public and online consultations began in April 2016 and wrapped up at the end of July. The findings were published in late October by Ipsos Public Affairs. In total, 4,708 people made 20,325 submissions via the online portal and 97 mail and email submissions were sent in. As Ipsos noted in the report, the nature of the online consultation phase largely attracted individuals and groups with vested, and what turned out to be pro-defence, interests.

Most submissions included calls for increased defence spending, new equipment and more personnel in uniform. When participants were asked to consider what should be the top priorities of the Canadian Armed Forces, everything ended up on the list, including domestic security, Arctic sovereignty, NORAD, NATO and, despite the challenges, more international engagement in the form of peace operations.

The result is that the Ipsos report, although well-presented, isn’t too helpful for the government as it tries to craft a new defence strategy. On the other hand, it probably doesn’t matter, given Canada’s federal deficit and the imminent arrival of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump. Both will shape our future defence plans, not the public consultations.

Currently, the government predicts the federal deficit will be close to $25 billion this year, while the TD Bank has said more like $34 billion. Economic-growth figures offer little in the way of encouragement. As for military expenditures, Canada already devotes about $20 billion or one per cent of our GDP to defence, putting us among the top 15 to 20 defence spenders in the world and the sixth-highest in NATO.

It’s doubtful, given the deficit, that defence will receive any additional funding and might even receive less. As a result, someone will have to decide which capabilities stay and which will go.

At the same time, the Canadian government is well aware that Trump intends to hold America’s allies to account when it comes to their lack of military spending.

In our defence, we can certainly point out that the one per cent of GDP we do spend brings a degree of collective benefit that many others in NATO don’t offer. Greece, for example, spends more than two per cent of its GDP on defence, but a good deal of that money is burned up over the Aegean dogfighting with Turkish jets.

Canada also has hundreds of military personnel providing air and medical support to the coalition fighting ISIS, while others work with Iraq’s ministries of defence and interior, and train Iraqi security forces. Next year, 450 troops will arrive in Latvia. As many as 600 more will deploy on a United Nations mission, most likely in Mali.

This latter contribution might seem small, but if it does come to pass, only NATO members Italy, France and Spain will have more blue helmets deployed than Canada.

There’s no escaping the simple fact, however, that the Trump administration will question our long-term defence plans. For example, according to NATO figures, the regular force has shrunk from a high of 68,000 troops in 2013 to just 65,000 today. Trump and Congress will also have to decide if it really is in America’s best interest to sell us Super Hornets when all of their major allies are converting to the F-35.

Of course, previous Canadian governments have successfully charted similar choppy waters with Washington in the past and come through largely unscathed. However, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Ottawa could be the last sympathetic American face we’ll be seeing for quite some time.

Chris Kilford, who recently moved to Victoria, is a fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

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