Analysis: New NATO numbers cast doubt on minister’s funding push

As the government prepares to release its budget Thursday, the public has been inundated with claims that Canada’s military is desperate and starved for cash.

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New NATO figures show that Canada is sixth in military spending in actual dollars and 10th in defence spending per person.

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The data paint a very different picture than one currently being promoted by retired generals and defence analysts of a Canadian military teetering on collapse.

The NATO figures released last week show Canada in a solid position when it comes to spending actual dollars on defence; it is ranked sixth in the 30-member alliance. When it comes to per capita defence spending, Canada is ranked 10th with an annual outlay of $592 U.S. dollars for every person.

As the Liberal government prepares to release its federal budget on Thursday, the Canadian public has been inundated with claims from analysts, opinion columnists and retired officers that the country’s military is desperate and starved for cash.

That public-relations campaign has been designed to support the push by Defence Minister Anita Anand for billions of dollars in extra military funding. Anand’s plan could see the defence budget almost double to an astounding $40 billion a year.

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To make the argument for more cash, Anand and the retired generals point to NATO figures showing that, as a portion of the country’s gross domestic product, Canada spends 1.39 per cent. That figure is below the two per cent that NATO desires.

But Anand and the others carefully avoid the NATO data on actual defence spending or the global expenditure figures showing that Canada ranks 14th in the world when it comes to financing its military. Those sets of figures significantly undercut claims that the Canadian Forces is on the verge of collapse.

For good measure, retired generals and defence analysts throw in fantastical scenarios designed to generate fear among the public. Those include the possibility Russian troops could land in Iqaluit or the Russians might launch a sneak missile attack on Toronto’s electrical grid. Retired general Rick Hillier recently claimed the Canadian navy was so broke that every single one of its ships was confined to port because of a lack of fuel. That probably came as a surprise to the captains and crews of seven Canadian navy ships now at sea on operations in the Caribbean, Africa and in support of NATO.

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Canadian Forces personnel load lethal and non-lethal aid for Ukraine on a transport aircraft bound for Poland at CFB Trenton on March 7.
Canadian Forces personnel load lethal and non-lethal aid for Ukraine on a transport aircraft bound for Poland at CFB Trenton on March 7. Photo by LARS HAGBERG /REUTERS

Even Gen. Wayne Eyre, the head of the Canadian Forces, has embraced similar themes.

This is the same Eyre who in 2020 dismissed those analysts and retired officers who claimed the Canadian Army was teetering on irrelevance. “You could probably notice the Canadian proclivity to look at our navels and beat ourselves up,” Eyre responded at the time to such critics.

Projects are underway to buy new search and rescue aircraft, small arms, armed drones, fighter jets, new trucks, armoured vehicles and warships. Whether that money is being spent effectively and with proper oversight is another matter, but it is being spent or about to be spent.

The “Canadian Forces is on the verge of collapse” theme has materialized a number of times over the decades whenever military supporters think they can push governments into spending more.

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In 1999, a senior Canadian Army officer told this newspaper that, to prevent a collapse of the entire military, the government needed to immediately boost defence spending from $8 billion to $16 billion a year. The budget wasn’t doubled and the military didn’t collapse.

In both 1999 and 2002, the military warned it would have to shut down the Snowbirds unless the Liberal government provided more money. Then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien called the military’s bluff and the Snowbirds have kept operating.

In 2004, retired generals claimed both the air force and navy might have to be scrapped entirely because of a lack of money. That same year Canwest News Service (now Postmedia) warned the Canadian military was headed for “bankruptcy” and collapse.

And so on.

This time, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is being used by defence supporters to push for more money. But the failed invasion has shown that Russia’s military isn’t the mighty force that analysts, retired generals and NATO militaries had claimed it was.

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