"Strong, Secure, Engaged" will it be properly funded?

CHRIS KILFORD  –  Jun 8, 2017

08 Jun 2017

As for the New Defence Policy, entitled "Strong, Secure, Engaged", it all comes down to funding. Defence Minister Sajjan would not say where the funding would come from. As Deputy Director, I was part of the team that worked on the Martin defence policy implementation plan in late 2005, and then we switched to creating the Harper CFDS in early 2006 (it was finally published in 2008).  As you can imagine, I paid close attention to this latest policy effort.

If you’re a skeptic when it comes to Canadian government defence policy statements, then you probably didn’t pay much, if any, attention to the latest announcement. If you’re an optimist, and there aren’t that many left, then the old saying “hope springs eternal” might have come to mind.

And why not, especially when Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland gave a stirring foreign policy speech in the House of Commons, the day before the new “Strong, Secure, Engaged” defence policy was released.

Of course, back in 2005 Paul Martin’s government issued its own energetic, but short-lived, International Policy Statement, A Role of Pride and Influence in the World, with Bill Graham’s accompanying defence section. Stephen Harper's government followed with their own spirited Canada First Defence Strategy in 2008.

Harper’s ambitious defence plan, however, was no match for the $55.6-billion federal deficit in 2009-10 and the $33.4-billion shortfall that came after. As a result, much in Canada’s defence world came to a grinding halt. More recently, the government’s long-term economic and fiscal projections also had little to offer in the way of encouragement, with deficits forecast for at least the next 35 years.

Now that defence spending is set to grow, one can only assume our annual deficits will get bigger and bigger.

Amid all the fanfare surrounding the release of our latest defence policy, it’s probably safe to say that some in Ottawa had their fingers tightly crossed that folks wouldn’t be taking the time to re-visit the old one, and certainly not the one before that. Not to be too unkind, because there is little latitude when it comes to defence policy-making in Canada, the similarities to the Martin and Harper defence policies are clearly there.

For example, “troop to task” numbers set out in the new defence policy – not unsurprisingly because Graham was a member of the defence minister’s advisory panel – are very similar to those found in his 2005 defence plan. The 2008 strategy predicted the defence budget would reach $30 billion in 2027-28. There was also a promise to invest $490 billion in defence over 20 years, grow the regular force to 70,000, the reserves to 30,000 and the civilian workforce to 25,000.

The new policy, nine years on, promises a defence budget of $32.7 billion in 2026-27, and $553 billion over 20 years. As for the personnel numbers, everything is the same except the new policy adds another 1,500 personnel to the regular force.

However, when it comes to peace operations, the United Nations is front and centre. In the Harper plan, the UN was mentioned just once, in passing. Then again, we have been waiting since August 2016 to know where the government will send up to 600 Canadian blue berets.

Perhaps now that the defence policy is out, we’ll hear more?

And then there’s the United States. In April, Canada’s Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence warned that Ottawa was not doing enough and “relying entirely on the Americans to provide for our defence,” as Sen. Colin Kenny said. Clearly, someone got the “client state” message. As it stands, we now know that Canada’s defence plan has been well received in Washington, who expects Canada to be there when needed.

At the end of the day, however, one can’t help wondering if the new defence policy will survive for long.

What happens when the bills start coming in? Will the new defence policy end up becoming nothing more than a footnote in some graduate student’s thesis on Canadian defence policy, much like Martin’s and Harper’s?

Better yet, will the policy last much beyond President Donald Trump’s time in office? That’s probably the best question to ask.

– Chris Kilford is a fellow at the Queen’s Centre for International and Defence Policy. He is a former Canadian defence attaché to Turkey (this commentary first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen 8 June 2017)