COMMENTARY: How the coronavirus crisis is bad news for Canada’s military budget

After COVID-19, will Canada ever buy new fighter jets, new warships or new submarines? Probably not in your lifetime.

Will Canada ever pay its multi-billion-dollar share for new northern warning radars or continental ballistic missile defence? Highly unlikely for a very long time.

Will Canada ever come close to honouring its longstanding commitment to NATO and Washington to spend two per cent of its GDP on defence? Fat chance.

Such opinions are almost universally held in the Canadian Armed Forces today.

Government spending is about to be turned upside down by the demands placed on the treasury by COVID-19. The first casualty in the looming battle for public money will almost certainly be what is the biggest line item in the current budget: $22 billion in military spending.

With a $113-billion deficit suddenly a prospect, the last thing any government will want to pay for are military purchases that will cost tens of billions of dollars, however badly the new kit has been needed for many years.

Spending more on defence was a tough sell in Canada, even during the boom years that ended a couple of weeks ago. Equipment was allowed to become more and more antiquated over the decades despite an endless stream of shameless promises that the shortcomings would soon be addressed.

This never happened because the politicians always had other priorities to try to entice voters into supporting them. Stephen Harper’s mantra was, balance the budget. Justin Trudeau wanted to spend heavily on programmes that advanced his pet progressive projects.

Both prime ministers and those before them seemed content to hang on to the U.S.’s coattails, even as those tails became shorter and shorter and U.S. foreign policy became more erratic at a moment when Russia and especially China presented very real new security challenges.

The public bought into the archaic idea that Canada was a leading global force for good in peacekeeping and that the force’s top priority no longer had to be defending the country or helping its NATO and NORAD partners. The Trudeau government regarded the armed forces as a glorified constabulary to help out with forest fires, floods, tornados, and, if it ever came to that, earthquakes.

Fighter jets were withdrawn from the air war against Islamic State that the U.S., Britain, France, Australia, Belgium and Poland continued to be part of. Combat troops were sent as trainers to Ukraine and Iraq.

As small a contribution as Canada could get away with was made to the NATO mission that the Trudeau government finally and reluctantly agreed to lead in Latvia.

The only other meaningful initiative was a small blue beret medical mission in Mali in support of the prime minister’s romantic pursuit of a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. After two years of indecision about whether to go, the African operation only lasted 12 months, causing the troops involved to throw up their hands in disbelief and despair.

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Those who advocate for greater defence spending and for Canada to assume a role in the world commensurate with its position as a G7 nation and the world’s 10th largest economy are as aware as every Canadian today that the economy is imploding, that the chief priorities during this emergency must be to restore public health and somehow revive the shattered economy.

But the hazards confronting Canada and the West will not vanish just because of a fiscal crisis that may last for years.

China is still ascendant economically and militarily. Even after dealing with its own huge problems with COVID-19 earlier this year, Beijing still has more than US$3 trillion in the bank.

Beyond China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and ISIS continue to cause mischief when they are not causing mayhem. Moreover, looming like a dark cloud over Canada is whether Washington still has Ottawa’s back or whether it will ever be able to rediscover the internationalist vision and the mojo that has kept the world on a more or less even keel since 1945.

It is a cruel irony that if national defence had been taken more seriously by previous Canadian governments or those now in power, Canada would not be in this jam. The RCAF would have F-35s today and the country would already be well along in the process of building radars and missile defences in the north as well as new surface and sub-surface warships for the Royal Canadian Navy.

As a result of poor planning and expedient political decisions that helped win federal elections, much smaller countries such as Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands and poorer countries such as Italy and the United Kingdom are already flying stealthy F-35s.

But the problems are bigger than that. Barring a rapid full recovery from the economic consequences of the coronavirus, the RCAF and RCN will have to continue making do with nearly 40-year-old F-18s and 30-year-old plus frigates until the middle of the century.

Also ditched from the list of badly-needed acquisitions will be long-awaited replacements for the rickety nearly 40-year-old Airbus aircraft the RCAF uses to fly the prime minister around and equally old maritime surveillance turboprops.

The excuse that will be heard today and for many years to come is that because of the coronavirus rampage, Ottawa has no money to spend on national defence. There will be little talk of emerging threats such as cyber and information warfare or how the Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien, Paul Martin, Harper and Trudeau governments dithered forever over whether to acquire vital new military platforms before deciding to postpone almost every decision basically leaving Canada’s defence in the lurch.

The dire consequences for the Canadian Forces of the coronavirus invasion will gladden Beijing. It comes as the PLA-Navy put 25 new destroyers in the water last year, is building several aircraft carriers, scores of submarines, fielding a new generation of potent hypersonic missiles and using its staggering financial reserves to buy goodwill from Italy and Greece, Africa, South Asia and Cambodia.

The grey men in Beijing will regard the Canadian government doing nothing new to defend itself or its Pacific interests and its ambivalence regarding the intrusive nature of the state-controlled Huawei 5G cell telephone technology as fresh evidence that the West is becoming even wobblier on defence and security.

Notwithstanding the grave financial hole that the COVID-19 has suddenly dropped Canada in and the stark fiscal choices that must soon be made, Canadians must not make it so easy for China and others to have their way with us.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas

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