February 8, 2017 12:38 pm
Updated: February 8, 2017 12:47 pm

If we want to keep Trump off our backs, take our military seriously, for a change

Until Canada starts treating the Armed Forces as a vital instrument of national policy, the Americans will have every right to wonder who their northern allies think they're kidding.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

This week has seen a succession of Canadian cabinet ministers heading to Washington to meet with the new Trump administration. Chrystia Freeland visited with Congressional leadership and newly minted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Bill Morneau is set to meet with U.S. financial officials and Congressional leaders. The first visit, though, was by National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, where he met with U.S. Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis.

READ MORE: Chrystia Freeland heads to US to meet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

The Sajjan-Mattis meeting seems to have gone well, but that was always a safe bet. Both men served in Afghanistan and both were well regarded by their troops. Mattis made a point of lauding Canada’s contributions to the war in Afghanistan, including graciously noting that when one of his Marine units was pulled out of the fighting after a long spell on the front, it was a relief for him to know that it was Canadians who were taking their place on the line. “I was hugging and kissing every one of you guys coming off the plane,” the Secretary said.

WATCH BELOW: Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan discusses a meeting with Trump adviser Stephen Schwarzman and was encouraged by an earlier call with his U.S. counterpart, James Mattis.

Hey, who doesn’t love hugs and kisses? It’s a great start to what’s hopefully going to be a productive relationship. But it’s just a start, and as I’ve written previously here, the U.S. has a reasonable right to expect Canada to do more to contribute to continental and international security. We have very good personnel, but we don’t have nearly enough of them, with our Navy and Air Force in particularly grim condition. We need more troops, more equipment and training time for those troops, and more and newer ships and planes, just to live up to our domestic security needs and existing international commitments. It’s been a long time since we’ve met even that all-too-modest standard.

It seems that Sajjan might have had some good news to share with Mattis in that regard. Though the minister himself is being coy, sources have told the Canadian Press that Canada is prepared to up its military spending. Canada, like all members of NATO, has committed to spend two per cent of GDP on national defence, but actually spends only $20 billion a year, less than half the target. The gap won’t be closed overnight, if ever. But some substantial commitment and a pledge to ramp it up over time might buy us some time with a Trump White House that is clearly willing to call out allies viewed as freeloaders.

READ MORE: U.S. defence secretary James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis was ‘hugging and kissing’ Canadian troops in Kandahar

After the meeting, Sajjan noted that it’s not just how much a country spends on defence that matters, but what they do with said military. That’s true as far as it goes, but … what the Liberals are doing with Canada’s military isn’t exactly encouraging.

Credit where it’s due: there are two big things this government has gotten largely right. It has stepped up to lead one of four battlegroups NATO has stood up in Eastern Europe to deter any possible Russian aggression, and it has apparently called off, at least for now, a plan to send up to 600 Canadian troops to Africa for a peacekeeping mission under UN command. (This is an easy decision since the only real justification for such a mission is that the Prime Minister seems to have bought the Liberal party talking point that peacekeeping is what the Canadian military is for and has traditionally done.) So that’s good. And another bit of fairness to the Liberals: they may be bad on national defence, but they have company. The Harper Conservatives weren’t much better. A bit better, to my mind, but not nearly good enough.

That being said, there’s still problems galore. The first is that a peacekeeping mission to Africa was even on the table to begin with. The UN missions to Africa of late have been appallingly ineffective, with the forces being unable or unwilling to protect civilians from harm … at best. At worst, they’ve joined in the raping and pillaging with gusto and, thanks to pathetic oversight, get away with it. Why would we condone that by joining in?

WATCH BELOW: Chrystia Freeland has been named Minister of Foreign Affairs, following her high-profile stint as Minister of Trade, as PM Justin Trudeau looks to shake up his federal cabinet.

There’s also the Liberal plan to spend billions to acquire as many as 18 Boeing F-18 Super Hornets to fill an operational gap they say exists because our current CF-18 jets are too old. They are indeed getting old, which is a good reason to skip the interim process and just buy a new fleet of jets already — something they’d do if the Prime Minister hadn’t campaigned on two utterly irreconcilable promises at the same time: that Canada would hold a fully open and transparent competition to replace the jets and that under no circumstances would Lockheed Martin’s F-35 win that competition. That’s an odd – one might say “wrong” – definition of open and transparent.

Last but not least are reports emerging that Canada’s project to procure warships for the Navy, already known to be at risk for gigantic cost overruns, is such an unfolding train wreck — well, shipwreck, I suppose — of procedural incompetence that major companies are threatening to walk away without bidding.

READ MORE: US secretary of state Rex Tillerson speaks with Canadian counterpart Chrystia Freeland

None of this is necessary. The military has predictable, reasonable needs for new equipment on a generally foreseeable schedule. A modest annual budget line for a few billion dollars for military procurement, sustained over many years, would be enough to keep the military properly equipped. The only reason we repeatedly bungle the process so badly is because of successive federal governments, Tory and Liberal alike, defer spending a dime on defence as long as possible in fear of public backlash. Procurements are then rushed when the gear finally gives out, driving up the cost, and in order to make the big expenditure more palatable to voters, we design complicated procurement processes so that politicians can claim to be saving or creating Canadian jobs. It’s a national embarrassment that never stops, and a damned expensive one, too.

READ MORE: Trump sets NATO on edge, but he’s got a valid point to make

Sajjan is right that it’s not just what you spend on a military, but how you use it. But it’s also how you take care of it. Until Canada starts treating the Armed Forces as what they are — a vital instrument of national policy, instead of an applause line at a Liberal policy convention or a jobs creation program for struggling industries — the Americans will have every right to wonder who the hell their northern allies think they’re kidding.

Matt Gurney is host of The Morning Show on Toronto’s Talk Radio AM640 and a columnist for Global News.

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