The review of Canada's defence policy took more than a year to assess the potential threats in the world and came back with one real priority: we'd better figure out a way to pay for a military.
There are some new things in the Liberal government's blueprint: more drones, surveillance, cyberdefence and special forces.
But the big thing is an admission – a rare one – that Canada must spend more to have an army, a navy and an air force.
It's going to be a lot more, $7-billion a year more a decade from now, in 2027, on an accrual-accounting basis. And it won't really buy a bigger or flashier fighting force. Mostly, the extra money is needed because there wasn't enough set aside for the long-planned buys of essential equipment, such as fighter jets and warships.
The policy issued Wednesday was supposed to take stock of the challenges the military will face in the coming world, but the assessment was groundbreaking: The job is still to protect Canadian territory, work with the United States in North America and NORAD and join with allies in global security, either in NATO missions or UN peacekeeping. There's terrorism and there's cyberthreats. That's not news.
The real issue was cost. And on that score, the Liberals were refreshingly realistic. They dispensed with some of the perennial flim-flam of Canadian defence policy, which involves underestimating what the military needs and low-balling costs, then shifting budgets around to make do.
This was a Liberal defence policy for the harder realism of 2017, when the Liberals have been forced to face the fact that there isn't enough money set aside for the planes that make the air force an air force and the ships that make the navy a navy. There's a new U.S. President, Donald Trump, who demands allies bear a greater share of the defence-spending burden. Plus, there's concern, outlined in a speech by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland on Tuesday, that the United States might "shrug off the burden of world leadership," requiring other countries to do more.
But it was a long way from the way Justin Trudeau's Liberals talked about defence when they ran for office in 2015, or even last year. This was a good defence policy, but for the Liberals, the snag is that it clashed with so many of the things they said about military matters in the past.
Remember how Mr. Trudeau talked about pulling CF-18s from air strikes in Iraq and Syria, as he suggested a Liberal government would be less combat-minded? He emphasized a return to Pearsonian peacekeeping. Last year, he tasked Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan with preparing a deployment to a UN peacekeeping mission; that's still on hold.
Instead, Mr. Trudeau is proposing to devote the kind of money to defence that his Conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper, was unwilling to spend.
Even if the biggest bumps in spending are slated to come five years from now, the increases start this year and will see the defence budget rise from $17.1-billion to $24.6-billion in the 2026-27 fiscal year, in accrual accounting terms.
Is that what Liberal voters expected? A Justin Trudeau government spending billions more on the military? No.
Mr. Sajjan said Canadians want the government to equip the military properly. But the price tag alone means increased defence spending is a new Liberal priority – and that will be a surprise to many of those Liberal voters.
In 2015, he promised to save by ordering cheaper fighter jets than the F-35s that Mr. Harper's Conservatives planned to buy. Now, his Liberal government says the military needs 88 fighter jets, not the 65 Mr. Harper's government planned to buy – at roughly double the cost estimated by the Tories. Similarly, the Tories promised to buy 12 to 15 warships and now, the Liberals say it will be 15, period – but they'll cost $30-billion more.
Give Mr. Sajjan credit for that. It was always widely believed that 65 fighter jets would be too few – the last time Canada bought fighters, it ordered 138 CF-18s. The cost estimates for planes and ships were low-balled. Thank goodness Mr. Sajjan did away with that guff.
The Liberals say they were surprised at the extent of the budget shortfall for big equipment buys. In the harder world of 2017, they chose to look past their campaign rhetoric and face the real cost of a military. The political question is still whether Liberal voters of 2015 want to pay it.