For more than a decade, and while it was in power, the former Conservative government railed against a great, faceless bureaucracy it blamed for undermining its ambitions for the Department of National Defence (DND).
That tactic appears to have been adopted by the current Liberal defence minister as he explains the government’s intention to cut $1 billion from the defence appropriation.
Appearing earlier this week on CBC Radio’s The Current, Defence Minister Bill Blair presented the proposed cut as good fiscal stewardship at a time when ordinary Canadians are feeling the bite of rising inflation and a shortage of affordable housing — political factors the Liberals see as obstacles to re-election.
When they were in power and frustrated by their inability to pursue their defence agenda, the federal Conservatives under Stephen Harper made giving the Canadian Armed Forces “more teeth and less tail” their mantra. Essentially, they argued that DND was afflicted by a bloated bureaucracy that needed deflating.
Blair borrowed a few pages from that argument this week.
“Canadians are being faced with tough choices and we’ve got to make tough choices too,” Blair said during the interview, which aired Monday. He said he believes DND has a responsibility to contribute to the planned overall government spending reduction of $15 billion mandated by the federal Treasury Board.
“Our goal is to increase the military capability in our contribution at home and abroad,” he added. “It’s also to support the men and women who do that important job for us, but that does not mean that the bureaucracy that administers that important work is immune from the scrutiny that we’re being asked to apply.”
Blair also claimed that under the current government, defence spending is in the process of doubling to $40 billion annually. He also suggested the government has seen little return for its investment thus far — dusting off another old argument advanced by the Conservatives during the last round of belt-tightening at DND, when Harper’s government was trying to balance the budget.
LISTEN | Defence Minister Bill Blair takes questions on defence spending — and what’s next as department is asked to make cuts:
The Current19:52Canada’s defence budget facing cuts of $1 billion
Featured VideoThe Liberal federal government is looking to cut almost $1 billion from Canada’s defence budget over the next three years. Matt Galloway asks Defence Minister Bill Blair what kind of impact that will have, and what message it sends to both new recruits and the wider world.
“Over time, we’ve already made very, very significant increases in the defence budget, and what we have not seen is an increase in military capacity commensurate with those budget increases,” Blair said.
The minister, who was appointed in last summer’s cabinet shuffle, said that even in his short time in the ministry, he’s “seen significant expenditures … that are not making a direct contribution to increasing military capacity or support to military families.”
He offered no examples in the interview beyond executive travel and consulting. In a statement issued last week that was meant to recast the cuts as savings, Blair pointed to consulting as a budget area worthy of the axe.
But there are several oversimplifications in Blair’s budget statements to date that trouble the experts who know DND’s budget inside and out — including one former vice chief of the defence staff. One of them is the assertion that the budget has doubled.
DND has been underspending its capital budget
According to the federal main estimates, the current defence budget sits at $26.5 billion and won’t reach the $40 billion mark for several years. The goal of doubling expenditures is still an aspirational one.
Military procurement expert Dave Perry, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said DND hasn’t been able to spend significant portions of the extra cash it has been given already.
“The Department of National Defence has been saving the finance department over a billion dollars every single year by underspending its capital account,” said Perry, whose organization has occasionally hosted conferences partly sponsored by defence manufacturers.
The capital account is intended to buy new equipment. In 2023, it accounted for about $6.1 billion in planned spending.
Many projects that are meant to produce the military capabilities Blair claims have not been delivered — including the recent decision to buy F-35 fighter jets — have themselves been postponed or stuck in a sclerotic procurement process.
Retired vice-admiral Mark Norman, the former vice chief of the defence staff and former commander of the navy, took issue with the notion that DND isn’t providing value for money. He pointed out that the military is being used more and more as the force of first resort to respond to catastrophes — the pandemic’s effects in long-term care homes, forest fires and other natural disasters — while it maintains overseas deployments like NATO’s Latvia battlegroup and training Ukrainian troops.
‘They need to look in the mirror’
The failure to produce results, said Norman, happened under the Liberals’ watch.
“They need to look in the mirror,” said Norman, who earned the wrath 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.
“Notwithstanding the fact that they are no different than the previous government — they like to celebrate every time they buy big, shiny objects — their procurement record is abysmal. It’s getting worse, it’s taking longer. Even relatively simple projects, which arguably are military off-the-shelf, are still taking years longer than they should.”
Both Norman and Perry are skeptical of the notion that the cuts can be realized through consulting and service contracts without touching military capability.
The budget for those services at 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” propping up operations in a military short of up to 16,000 personnel — a figure reported to the House of Commons defence committee last week.
DND basically has three big buckets of spending. The first part compensates civilian and military personnel, while the second part funds acquisition of new equipment and builds infrastructure. The third component of DND spending is the one that Perry describes as “a catch-all category, operations and maintenance.” There, several billion dollars is set aside for the maintenance of existing fleets of aircraft, ships and vehicles, and to provide training.
When the Conservatives cut the defence budget, that third category was the one that took a major hit. It could be the primary target this time as well.
It’s not the 1990s anymore
Both Perry and Norman say the geopolitical climate has changed radically since the cuts of the 1990s. The world is now facing an active war in Ukraine involving a major power and an increasingly assertive China.
Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Canada increased funding to the military at times of heightened geopolitical tensions. Just weeks ago, Canada signed on to a NATO commitment to make spending two per cent of the country’s gross domestic product on defence an “enduring commitment” or goal.
Norman said that even though it may be bucking both its allies and history, he doesn’t see the federal government changing course.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that they’re going to want to implement cuts,” he said.
“I think that if anybody still had doubts as to whether we were or were not a serious nation, the fact that we would cut the defence budget at this moment in time is going to confirm that we do not take these international obligations seriously.
“And I have difficulty understanding the logic, notwithstanding the fact that they need to share the pain across all of the government. But we’re supporting a war in Ukraine. Perhaps that’s a pause, a moment to pause for reflection and ask ourselves, is this really the time to cut the defence budget?”
In his interview with CBC’s The Current, Blair disputed the description of the budget exercise as a cut. He said it was rather “a reduction in the pace at which we have been increasing the defence budget.”
That’s likely not how the department itself will see it, said Perry.
“Any reasonable person that had anticipated having $900 million more — three, four or five years from now — [and] is told that they will not have that $900 million would consider that to be a cut to their budget,” Perry said.