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Ottawa lays out $62-billion in new military spending over 20 years

Canada's Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan (R) speaks to Canadian Forces Corporal Kevin Huard after announcing Canada's new defence policy in Ottawa.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Ottawa has unveiled a plan to boost military spending by more than $30-billion over the next decade – much of it to pay for the ballooning cost of new warships and fighter jets – while leaving the bulk of the new expenditures until after the next election.

The blueprint for defence spending includes a more assertive role in protecting Canada's sovereignty in its vast Arctic reaches.

The government wants to expand the northern zone where incursions by foreign airplanes, such as Russian military aircraft, require an interception by Canadian fighters.

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The Liberals are proposing to add 5,000 regular and reserve personnel to the Canadian Armed Forces, buy a bigger-than-expected fleet of 88 new fighter jets and pay for the expanding cost of 15 warships, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced.

The plan is an unexpected pivot for the Liberal Party, which campaigned largely on social spending and infrastructure promises in the last election. The move reflects a desire to demonstrate to the United States and to the world that Canada is making a bigger commitment to defence expenditures.

What Mr. Sajjan did not explain is how the government will pay for this expanded military budget, whether through higher deficits or budget cutbacks in other departments.

The Liberals did make a point of calculating how the increased spending would affect Canada's overall military commitment among North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries. U.S. President Donald Trump has complained vociferously about countries that spend less than 2 per cent of their annual economic output on defence.

According to this new blueprint, Canada's defence spending will increase to 1.4 per cent of the country's annual economic output by 2024-25, up from the current level of 1.19 per cent, under the government's revised formula. U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis applauded the announcement, welcoming "Canada's marked increase in investment in their military."

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Among the big-ticket items in the defence policy is a firm pledge to buy new surface combatant ships for the Royal Canadian Navy. The former Harper government had initially planned to acquire 15 such vessels, but later backed off and said the number could be as low as 11.

The Liberals have brought the project back to 15 vessels and vastly increased the acquisition budget, saying they will cost between $56-billion and $60-billion – far higher than the previous government's forecast of $26.2-billion.

The Trudeau government is also increasing the commitment to fighter planes, saying the long-term replacement fleet for Canada's aging CF-18 warplanes will consist of 88 aircraft at a cost of up to $19-billion. The Conservatives had previously planned to buy 65 Lockheed Martin F-35s at a cost of $9-billion, before retreating from the controversial purchase.

As part of its plan, Ottawa is still exploring the purchase of an interim fleet of 18 Boeing Super Hornet fighter jets to meet short-term needs. However, the Trudeau government is embroiled in a commercial dispute with U.S.-based manufacturer Boeing, and has threatened to jettison this acquisition.

The Liberals are also planning to hire 605 new special-forces soldiers. These elite troops require less support when on operations and have been used significantly in Iraq, where Canada has helped train Kurdish fighters to take on Islamic State militants.

The new military-spending plan would push Canada's defence budget to $32.7-billion a year in the 10th year of the plan, up from the current level of $18.9-billion. The expenditures would begin to significantly rise in the next decade, or after the next election scheduled in 2019.

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Over all, the government said the plan includes $62.3-billion in new spending over 20 years. Only $6.6-billion in new money comes over the first five years of the plan, but the numbers quickly increase in following years. Between years 6 and 10, when many new acquisitions would be made, the government is planning on spending about $24-billion in new money.

The defence policy released Wednesday, called "Strong, Secure, Engaged," builds on the Trudeau government's announcement earlier this week of a more robust and independent foreign policy.

Regarding the Arctic, the federal government said it wants to significantly expand Canada's northern Air Defence Identification Zone. Any foreign planes flying into this zone without having filed a flight plan are liable to be intercepted by Canadian fighters.

The zone currently ends in the middle of Canada's northern reaches, but the Liberals now want to align it "with our sovereign airspace."

"They're saying this will now encompass the entire Arctic archipelago. That's a lot of extra real estate," defence analyst David Perry said.

He added the message for the Russians, who are increasingly assertive in the Arctic, is "we're taking concrete steps to operate more effectively in our own backyard."

Pressed on where the new money will come from, at a time when the Liberals are running $29-billion deficits, Mr. Sajjan did not provide a clear answer.

"We did a thorough, rigorous costing process," he told reporters on Wednesday. "Parliament and Canadians can look not just at our government, but future governments, to hold them to account with the funding that is required by the Canadian Armed Forces over the next 20 years."

He went on to reject the notion that the plan is meant to ease the pressures for increased spending that are coming from the Trump administration.

"This defence policy is for Canada first of all," Mr. Sajjan said.

A senior Liberal official said the government is not expecting to win votes among its traditional constituency with the promise of increased military spending, but said the exercise was designed to offer an "evidence-based assessment" of long-term defence needs. The official said the plan would bring back defence spending to historical levels, and does not constrain spending on other issues because much of the new money is amortized over a long period.

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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