Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Canada doesn’t deserve its reputation as a defence laggard

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia

Canada's defence budget reached 1 per cent of GDP last Friday, thanks to a $404-million contract for upgrades to LAV III armoured vehicles.

This spending was announced four days after U.S. President Donald Trump complained, again, that U.S. allies were not spending enough on defence. In 2014, all NATO countries agreed a spending guideline of 2 per cent of GDP. In Canada's case, this would require doubling the defence budget of $20.7-billion.

Story continues below advertisement

Before Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan Sajjan draws up a shopping list, he should consider this: It is possible, within the NATO definition of "defence expenditure," to take a more expansive view of what constitutes defence spending.

Read more: NATO 'eagerly waiting' to hear from Trump and his team, general says

Related: Sajjan meets with Mattis as Trump warns NATO members must step up defence spending

NATO considers "pension payments made directly by the government to retired military and civilian employees of military departments" as defence spending. Pensions provided by the Department of National Defence are counted, but death and disability payments provided by Veterans Affairs are not – to the tune of $3.6-billion annually. The NATO definition includes national police forces, when they "are equipped as a military force." The RCMP is organized along paramilitary lines, and has many officers deployed along borders and remote frontiers where contact with hostile actors is anticipated. Take, for example, the officers who patrol the St. Lawrence Seaway, whose job it is to interdict smugglers, some of whom are armed. Conservatively, Canada could count $200-million of the $2.8-billion RCMP budget as defence spending.

The NATO definition includes border guards when, again, they "are equipped as a military force … and can, realistically, be deployed outside national territory." Canada Border Services Agency personnel patrol with the RCMP and U.S. agencies. Conservatively, $100-million of the $1.6-billion CBSA budget could be counted as defence spending. Counting the Veteran Affairs budget and these small parts of the RCMP and CBSA budgets takes defence spending to $24.5-billion or 1.2 per cent of GDP.

The Canadian Coast Guard and its $2.5-billion budget provides another easy way to raise the numbers. Expanding its role to include some security functions, and adding a light gun to each vessel, would make it count under NATO – and raise spending to $27-billion or 1.32 per cent of GDP. If that is not enough, Mr. Sajjan should consider that further spending increases are locked in due to procurements already under way. This is because spending on new equipment is not counted in the federal budget until the year in which the equipment is delivered.

The $3-billion for Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships and $26-billion for Canadian Surface Combatants are not counted as current spending. Nor are the $2.3-billion for search-and-rescue planes, $800-million for combat trucks, $781-million for naval jetties, or the $3-billion for maritime helicopters (since only a handful of "interim" aircraft have been delivered). Nor, indeed, are the $3-billion for Joint Support Ships and roughly $3-billion for Super Hornet fighter jets. If the Coast Guard were given a security role, another $5-billion in new ships could be included in this list. Together, these commitments total $47-billion. By 2027, payments for equipment delivered under current procurements could raise annual spending by $3-billion, to $30-billion or 1.46 per cent of GDP.

Story continues below advertisement

If Mr. Sajjan wished to raise spending further, a responsible next step would be to increase annual spending on maintenance, training, housing and health services, all of which have been neglected in recent decades. An additional $1-billion for maintenance and training would improve combat capability, while $1-billion for housing would boost recruitment and retention. Another $500-million for medical personnel and facilities would result in healthier soldiers, sailors and pilots. Together, these mundane investments could push spending up to $32.5-billion per year or 1.59 per cent of GDP. Finally, Mr. Sajjan could initiate the replacement of Canada's fleet of second-hand submarines. Conservatively, this would require $5-billion, which (spread over 10 years) could push annual defence spending to $33-billion or 1.61 per cent of GDP by 2027. Canada would then rank a respectable 7th among the 28 NATO countries, up from its present ranking of 23rd. Most importantly, all these reasonable measures could be justified without any reference to Mr. Trump.

Report an error
Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.