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COMMENTARY: Canada spends $22B a year on defence, but leaders spend little time discussing it

WATCH: The Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds said that a pilot had to eject from his aircraft shortly before a performance at the Atlanta Air Show.

A Royal Canadian Air Force CT-144 Tutor from the Snowbirds crashed over the weekend near Atlanta, Georgia. Fortunately, the pilot bailed out in time and was not hurt.

That the RCAF’s aerobatic demonstration team is still flying 56-year-old Tutors would have been like Canada flying Spitfires until the end of the 20th century — except, of course, we stopped flying Spitfires in 1950.

That Canada still uses Tutors is a searing indictment of governments, going back decades, for having failed the Canadian Armed Forces. Equally telling, there was no mention of the aircraft’s age or the problems this creates for maintainers and pilots in any of the brief articles published about the Tutor crash. Nor did any Canadian political leader commenting on this crash in any substantive way while out campaigning.

READ MORE: Canadian Snowbirds pilot unhurt after ejecting from aircraft at Atlanta airshow

As this incident underlines, defence issues are not being discussed by any of the parties in the runup to the federal ballot on Oct. 21. That may actually be a good thing. During the last campaign four years ago, there was plenty of uninformed talk about the wisdom of buying F-35 fighter jets to replace nearly 40-year-old CF-18s while Justin Trudeau announced that his government would have no intention of ever replacing the Hornet fleet with stealthy F-35s, preferring alternatives that he said were less expensive.

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Ironically, despite Trudeau’s vow, the F-35 is today not only on the government’s list of three aircraft types that are under consideration but has become the odds-on favourite to be chosen as Canada’s next manned fighter jet, no matter whether it is the Liberals or Conservatives who win the election, though the Liberals have a bizarrely drawn-out timetable that would not see the new fleet fully operational by 2032.

READ MORE: With billions at risk, federal parties promise to fix defence, procurement (Oct. 5, 2019)

This is of a piece with an equally odd decision two years ago to spend half a billion dollars to acquire surplus Australian Hornets to fill an alleged capability gap until the F-35s are operational.

These strange decisions should matter because the first responsibility of any government is usually to ensure the safety of its citizens and territory. Beyond that, and in terms that Canadians might better understand, Ottawa currently spends about $22 billion a year on defence though there is little evidence that the public or their politicians care much about how this enormous sum is spent.

Though few federal departments cost more than the Department of National Defence each year, it is almost as if their thin defence platforms carry signs in invisible ink that state: “Not to be discussed.” Nor is there much pushback from defence industries, the media or the military community to demand that legislators talk about this.

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The excuse trotted out since at least the early 1960s is that there is no reason for Canada to pay a full share for its own security when the U.S. will do so anyway. But that notion crumbled when Trudeau admirer Barack Obama told the prime minister and parliament three years ago that the U.S. expected Canada to spend more on defence.

Ignored & Ignited: Military, defence issues missing in election campaign
Ignored & Ignited: Military, defence issues missing in election campaign

Under Donald Trump, the world has just witnessed the president’s infamous abandonment of the Syrian Kurds. The Liberals removed Canada’s voice from any debate about Syria debate, when days after winning power, Trudeau ordered the RCAF to withdraw its jets from bombing missions there and in neighbouring Iraq. Airstrike operations ended in March 2016.

Sensing ebbing U.S. willpower, as well as power, Australia has been bulking up in a big way with F-35s, submarines, assault ships and attack helicopters to protect or isolate themselves from the growing global disorder. Few politicians in Canada have even begun to think about what to do about this, let alone ways Ottawa might establish closer ties with Canberra or leading European countries that are worried about Washington’s retreat from being the world’s policeman.

The Liberals produced a defence policy review two years ago that was a useful document about increasing spending, slightly expanding the regular, special and reserve forces, acquiring new surface warships and airplanes, and much else. But the Trudeau government pushed all of these plans into a second term in office or even later than that. So practically speaking, as well done as the paper was, it has meant almost nothing so far.

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For this election, the Liberals have affirmed their support for Canada’s alliances (NORAD and NATO) and have stated that they remain such big supporters of UN peacekeeping and will spend another $50 million a year on that. Again, that may sound good to the many Canadians who back peacekeeping, but in four years in power, all the Trudeau government could muster for the UN was a few hundred blue berets who flew a small clutch of medevac helicopters in Mali for 13 months.

The Liberals also promised to increase spending on training to better position soldiers to deal with environmental disasters caused by climate change, though the army, in particular, already helps Canadians whenever there is serious flooding or forest fires. Though there were no details, the Liberals also promised to create a new agency to be called Defence Procurement Canada to try to correct decades of military acquisition fiascos.

Perhaps to show how quickly military hardware can be acquired, or to impress voters in several closely contested ridings in and near London, Ont., the Trudeau government announced in August that it would spend $3 billion on new armoured cars for the army.

READ MORE: Liberals announce $3B armoured vehicle deal ahead of election

The NDP — which, depending on the results on Monday, could join the Liberals in a coalition government — made plain what it thinks of defence by putting the topic on the last page of its 103-page election manifesto. Still, the NDP did say that it supports the existing shipbuilding programme and that it would buy new aircraft for the RCAF.

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The Conservatives have had more to say on defence than the other parties, but not much more. They want to accelerate the purchase of big-ticket items such as warships and warplanes that the Liberals have committed to while depoliticizing the procurement process, though no information was given about how this might be achieved.

They advocated last week for Canada to seek membership in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and would try to do this by getting diplomatic help from Japan and India to join the Indo-Pacific’s intelligence body, which also includes Australia and the U.S.

The Tories have also pledged to meet a longstanding U.S. request for Canada to join a continental ballistic missile defence shield that is to be built to counter serious new strategic threats posed by Russia and China, a new civilian replenishment ship for the Royal Canadian Navy so that it can have one of these refuelling tankers based on both coasts, which would provide some jobs for a shipyard in Quebec City, where there are hopes to win a few seats, and a fleet of new submarines to meet emerging maritime threats — particularly in the Pacific.

Another Tory promise has been to help the UN create a peace force to act as a buffer between Ukrainian and Russian forces. But this idea will go nowhere if, as is almost certain, Russia uses its UN veto to prevent this from happening.

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Canadians may not be paying attention to any of this now, but they will be if some of the purchases being contemplated by the Conservatives finally come before Parliament. It is a given that voters will get extreme sticker shock about the missile shield and new subs unless the many tens of billions of dollars that they will cost, and the many good reasons for having them, are thoroughly explained to the public.

The truth be told, the Liberals’ and Conservatives’ defence platforms really come in different shades of grey. That Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer have not talked about these similarities and differences is further proof that defence is a low priority for them and their parties, even as global security has become a much bigger preoccupation for many other governments.

It is this attitude about national defence that results in the RCAF Snowbirds being more than half a century old, without even the beginning of a discussion about how to replace them.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas