The first budget from Prime Minister Paul Martin’s minority Liberal government is in and the Canadian military will soon reap the benefits.

The government has set out what many in the industry consider a positive advance in defence policy: a five-year program that pledges $12.8 billion for defence initiatives, such as expanding the Canadian Forces membership, improving the operational stability of the forces, and purchasing new equipment, including medium-capacity helicopters, logistics trucks and utility aircraft.

“I think it was a bold initiative on the part of the government, and (it) reflects two things,” says Douglas Bland, PhD, professor and chair of the defence management studies program at Queen’s University (Kingston, ON). “That they have been paying attention to the studies done by the Senate and the House of Commons, and even academics, and that they have recognized the depths of the problems facing Canada.”Norbert Cyr, spokesperson for the Canadian Defence Industries Association (CDIA), says his organization welcomes the budget.

“It’s an excellent first step,” he says, suggesting that it reflects a commitment to critical areas that have been subject to budget shortfalls for many years.

Too Little, Too Late?
At first glance, the year-by-year breakdown of this budget may appear discouraging, given that more than $10 billion of the new money is allocated for the last two years of the five-year timetable (see table). Such concern is heightened by the fact that the plan comes from a minority government, which is under the constant threat of a non-confidence vote and may not last the duration of the plan.

Many contend, however, that the timing of fund allocation is not only beneficial, but also necessary.

“The fact is that there would be little point to giving additional money early on because the forces couldn’t spend it,” says Cyr, citing a lengthy and outdated procurement process that can spread out the process of purchasing a ship over the course of a decade or more. “The department has money but then they have to go out and actually spend it and acquire material. The process that they have to do that is very cumbersome –– it’s slow and it’s based on an old model.”

Col. Howard Marsh (Ret’d), senior defence policy analyst with the Conference of Defence Associations (CDA) (Ottawa, ON), agrees that too much money too soon would be ineffective.

“In the next 24 months, the Department of National Defence really will have difficulties spending any money given to it,” he says. “If someone gave you $10 million and said ‘spend it by next Friday’ you couldn’t. So if someone gave the government $10 billion they couldn’t spend it within the year. The modest increase is probably about the rate of spending.”

As for the possibility of a change in federal leadership, analysts expect that the basic structure of the defence budget would not be radically altered following a transfer of power. Bland points to the emphasis on personnel-related expenses and the political leanings of the likely replacement government as reasons to be optimistic about consistent budget allocation to defence.

“The early amounts of money are going to be spent bringing people into the forces, and once they’re hired, or recruited, then that can’t change,” Bland says. “And besides that, the only other people that are apt to form a national government –– the conservative party –– it’s pretty much their agenda (to support higher defence spending).”

Marsh agrees that, in his opinion, a change in government would likely have little effect on the overall tone of the military budget. And Cyr adds that regardless of who is in office, the CDIA will remain vigilant on the subject of future spending.

“That’s one of the objectives that we have set as an organization,” Cyr says. “To keep track of these promises and ensure that they are kept by the government –– either this one or a future government –– in order to meet the armed forces needs.”

Given the timing of the fund allotment, the military will have to walk a fine line in the early years of the proposed spending model.

“The real crisis for the government is what to do between now and when these budgetary measures actually start to produce people and equipment capabilities,” says Bland. “That’s going to take a number of years.”

In the meantime, much of the money will go up to extending the life of existing capabilities, such as maintaining Hercules aircraft while beginning to train personnel and establish new facilities to go with new aircraft later on.

A Welcome Change
This new commitment from the government marks a change in the country’s approach to defence policy, acknowledging the link between a strong military, foreign policy and diplomacy.

“It’s a recognition that if Canada is going to have a significant foreign policy, and to take its place in the world, as the government seems intent on doing, then they better have an instrument to do it,” Bland says. “And they’re not going to have an instrument to do anything if they don’t start investing in national defence.”

“The focus is to get on the world stage,” Marsh adds “with the capability to go to trouble spots relatively quickly and when you get there, to have the military, the diplomatic and the development skills to affect a change.”

Cyr and Marsh also point to an ongoing lack of focus on military issues, which has put the current government on alert. By placing a priority on paying down the national debt and reducing the size of the public service, the discretionary nature of defence spending caused it to fall by the wayside.

Geopolitics also contributed to this neglect, as the post-Cold War world that emerged in the late 1980s made the world look like a safer, less threatening place dominated by economic rather than military concerns. Nevertheless, Bland says that the need for a strong military was always apparent, but went unnoticed.

“The signs were already there that the demand for armed forces was going to increase, not decrease, with wars in Bosnia, and the Balkans, and in Africa and Somalia,” he says. “But the government ignored those signs and decided to live off the resources that they had at hand. We’re now well past the end of that trail.”

The Next Step
As a starting point, the government seems to be placing the focus on recruiting in the immediate future, attempting to make good on a Throne Speech promise to add 5,000 people to the regular forces and 3,000 to the reserves. Bland approves of this emphasis, although with the exception of highly skills positions such as doctors, he does not regard recruiting as the real challenge.

“The problem now is that the training establishments and the infrastructure, the barracks and equipment, and everything needed to train recruits have been cut back so severely, that even with people beating down the door it’s hard to get them in and get them trained,” he says, noting that the new funding should address this issue.

And Marsh adds that such new funding in the 2005 budget is a clear acknowledgement of the military’s problems, which should lead to the eventual stabilization, expansion and modernization of the Canadian Forces – given enough time.

“The Department of National Defence is like a super tanker,” he says. “It takes some time to turn it around.”


By Kristine Archer