For more than a decade while in power, the previous Conservative government lashed out at a large, faceless bureaucracy that it blamed for undermining its ambitions for the Department of National Defense (DND).
That tactic appears to have been adopted by the current Liberal defense minister when explaining the government’s intention to cut $1 billion from the defense allocation.
Appearing earlier this week on CBC Radio The current, Defense Minister Bill Blair cast the proposed cut as good fiscal stewardship at a time when ordinary Canadians are feeling the impact of rising inflation and a shortage of affordable housing, political factors that the Liberals see as obstacles for re-election.
When in power and frustrated by their inability to carry out their defense agenda, the federal Conservatives under Stephen Harper made giving the Canadian Armed Forces “more teeth and less tail” their mantra. Essentially, they argued that the DND was plagued by a bloated bureaucracy that needed to be deflated.
Blair borrowed some pages from that argument this week.
“Canadians are facing difficult decisions and we have to make difficult decisions too,” Blair said during the interview, which aired Monday. He said he believes the DND has a responsibility to contribute to the planned $15 billion overall reduction in government spending ordered by the federal Treasury Board.
“Our objective is to increase military capacity in our contribution inside and outside the country,” he added. “It is also to support the men and women who do that important work for us, but that does not mean that the bureaucracy that administers that important work is immune to the scrutiny that we are asked to apply.”
Blair also claimed that under the current government, defense spending is in the process of doubling to $40 billion annually. He also suggested that the government has seen little return on its investment so far, dusting off another old argument made by the Conservatives during the last round of belt-tightening in the DND, when the Harper government was trying to balance the budget.
“Over time, we have already made very, very significant increases in the defense budget, and what we have not seen is an increase in military capability commensurate with those budget increases,” Blair said.
The minister, who was appointed during last summer’s cabinet reshuffle, said that even in his short time at the ministry, he has “seen significant expenditures… that do not directly contribute to increasing military capacity or supporting families of military”.
He offered no examples in the interview beyond executive travel. In a statement issued last week that sought to reframe the cuts as savings, Blair also spoke of consultancy as a budget area worthy of elimination.
But there are several oversimplifications in Blair’s budget statements to date that worry experts who know the DND budget inside and out, including a former deputy chief of the defense staff. One of them is the claim that the budget has doubled.
DND has been underspending its capital budget
According to leading federal estimates, the current defense budget is $26.5 billion and will not reach $40 billion for several years. The goal of doubling expenses remains an aspiration.
Military procurement expert Dave Perry, vice-president of the Canadian Institute of Global Affairs, said the DND has been unable to spend significant portions of the extra money it has already been given.
“The Department of National Defense has been saving the finance department more than a billion dollars each year by spending less of its capital account,” said Perry, whose organization has occasionally hosted conferences sponsored in part by defense manufacturers.
The capital account is intended for the purchase of new equipment. In 2023, it represented about $6.1 billion in expected spending.
Many projects aimed at producing the military capabilities that Blair claims have not been executed (including the recent decision to buy F-35 fighter jets) have been postponed or stalled in a sclerotic procurement process.
Retired Vice Admiral Mark Norman, former vice chief of the Defense Staff and former navy commander, took issue with the idea that DND does not offer good value for money. He noted that the military is increasingly being used as a force of first resort to respond to catastrophes (the effects of the pandemic on nursing homes, wildfires and other natural disasters) while maintaining overseas deployments such as the Latvian battle group. NATO and train Ukrainian troops.
‘They need to look in the mirror’
The lack of results, Norman claimed, occurred on the Liberals’ watch.
“They need to look in the mirror,” said Norman, who earned the ire of the Liberal government in 2017 when he was accused of leaking cabinet secrets related to a long-delayed shipbuilding program. The case against him was dropped.
“Even though they are no different from the previous government (they like to celebrate every time they buy big shiny things), their procurement record is abysmal. It’s getting worse, it’s taking longer. Even relatively simple projects, which are possibly military available in the market, they are still taking years longer than they should.
Both Norman and Perry are skeptical that cuts can be made through consulting and service contracts without touching military capacity.
The budget for these services in the DND was $6.5 billion in 2022, according to federal public accounts records. That covered thousands of contracts for everything from security guards at DND properties to contracted training and education services (both uniform and non-uniform) to engineering and architectural services.
Perry described it as “essential funding” to shore up operations in an army with a shortfall of up to 16,000 troops, a figure reported to the House of Commons defense committee last week.
DND basically has three major spending categories. The first part compensates civilian and military personnel, while the second finances the acquisition of new equipment and builds infrastructure. The third component of DND spending is what Perry describes as “an umbrella category: operations and maintenance.” Several billion dollars are spent there on maintaining existing fleets of planes, ships and vehicles, as well as training.
When the Conservatives cut the defense budget, that third category took the biggest hit. This time it could also be the main objective.
It’s not the 90s anymore
Both Perry and Norman say the geopolitical climate has changed radically since the cuts of the 1990s. The world now faces an active war in Ukraine involving a major power and an increasingly assertive China.
Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Canada increased funding for the military at times of intense geopolitical tensions. Just a few weeks ago, Canada signed a NATO commitment to make spending two percent of the country’s gross domestic product on defense a “durable commitment” or goal.
Norman said that while he may be bucking both his allies and history, he doesn’t think the federal government will change course.
“I’m not surprised at all that they want to implement cuts,” he said.
“I think if anyone still had doubts about whether or not we were a serious nation, the fact that we cut the defense budget at this time is going to confirm that we do not take these international obligations seriously.
“And I have a hard time understanding the logic, despite the fact that they need to share the pain with the entire government. But we are supporting a war in Ukraine. Maybe that is a pause, a moment to reflect and ask ourselves: Is this really the time to cut the defense budget?”
In his interview with CBC The current, Blair questioned the description of the budget year as a cut. He said it was more of “a reduction in the pace at which we have been increasing the defense budget.”
That’s probably not how the department itself will see it, Perry said.
“Any reasonable person who would have expected to have $900 million more (in three, four, or five years) [and] They are told they won’t have that $900 million, they would consider it a cut to their budget,” Perry said.