Subs, jets, sleeping bags with functioning zippers: Where Canada could put $16B in additional defense spending

Maybe to equip the Canadian Rangers with a rifle that isn’t 114 years old?

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Earlier this month, Defense Minister Anita Anand said she would be presenting “aggressive” options to significantly boost military spending in Canada’s next budget. This could include a plan to boost Canada’s defense spending from 1.4 per cent of GDP, to two per cent – ​​roughly an extra $16 billion.

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But where to put all this extra military cash? The National Post contacted a cross-section of military types – everyone from retired officers to infantry – to get their takes. Here’s how those military personnel, who are anonymous because they are not authorized to discuss military budgets, said Canada should spend the extra money.

Recruitment and retention

This is one of the least sexy items on this list, but virtually every source contacted for this story mentioned the Canadian Armed Forces’ severe problem at attracting talent and keeping it. For years, the number of Canadians showing up at recruiting centers have been on a steady downswing.

Setting aside the military’s problems with sexual misconduct, the low pay is one of the reasons: An entry-level private earns a per-diem of just $100, sometimes for work that spans the entire 24 hours. And they’re taking orders from someone who may only earn about $250 per day. For members posted to a particularly expensive jurisdiction, such as CFB Esquimalt in Victoria, any hope of finding a reasonable place to live and raise a family is basically out the window.

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This becomes particularly noticeable when it comes to the trades. A uniformed electrician can wind up earning less than half of what they would make in civilian life. Ottawa is talking a big game about boosting its cyber-warfare capabilities; how many hackers are going to take an army job earning a fraction of what the private sector is paying programmers?

Of course, militaries throughout history have expected their service members to assume risks and perform tasks well out of proportion to the pay they were receiving. But, as outlined below, this was an easier pitch for Canada to make when recruits could at least be assured of joining an organization where the equipment worked.

Uniforms and equipment that aren’t threadbare embarrassments

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A shocking amount of that $16 billion could easily be spent fixing all the stuff that’s been broken by four decades of serial neglect. Said one source, “I’m tired of walking around in threadbare combat uniforms.” Another spoke of being assigned kit that had “five or six” names crossed off — as well as a sleeping bag whose zipper was broken. It’s why it some Canadian Armed Forces members supplement their kit with privately purchased boots, socks and even tactical vests. While Ottawa was at it, they could also look at renovating Canada’s outdated military bases, most of which are coasting along with aging buildings left over from the Cold War, the Second World War and, in some cases, the Boer War.

Prince William speaks with Canadian Rangers and Junior Rangers carrying Lee-Enfield rifles in Whitehorse, in 2016.
Prince William speaks with Canadian Rangers and Junior Rangers carrying Lee-Enfield rifles in Whitehorse, in 2016. Photo by Mark Large – Pool/Getty Images

A procurement system that isn’t a disaster

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This one doesn’t actually cost any money, but without it there’s a very good chance that the $16 billion could easily get swallowed up by an impenetrable thicket of red tape. As one soldier explained “it quite literally takes decades to make a decision, which by the time it is done the equipment in question can be out of date.” Many Canadians may remember the 40-year odyssey to replace the Sea King helicopters. Or the endless and wildly expensive saga to equip the Canadian Rangers with a rifle that isn’t 114 years old. The trouble is that whenever the military wants to buy something, it’s constrained by a Byzantine process wracked by political interference. So, like a lot of things in the federal government that don’t work, the Department of Defense needs some pretty serious restructuring in addition to extra cash.

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New guns

Speaking of procurement problems, one of the most notorious examples is the never-ending process to replace the Browning Hi-Power; the 80-year-old Canadian Armed Forces sidearm that jams. So one of the easiest ways for Ottawa to look like it was “doing the military differently” would be to immediately order a few shipping containers of new pistols (probably Glocks, given that it’s what the Brits used to replace their Hi-Powers).

New fighter jets

Another way for Ottawa to look like it was taking defense spending seriously? Buy some new fighter jets.

Again; Canada has been trying to do this for years, but the process has been gummed up in procurement hell. Canada was originally planning to sole-source the F-35, until Prime Minister Justin Trudeau canceled the program upon his election in 2015. His government then waited a couple more years before kicking off a fighter jet acquisition program that continues to this day (and may poetically end with Canada buying the F-35 anyway).

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Compare that to Germany, where Chancellor Olaf Scholz simply noticed that their Cold War-era Tornado fighter jets were getting old, so he ordered a bunch of F-35s.

A Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.
A Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. Photo by Lockheed Martin

Drones and missiles

As the conflict in Ukraine has shown, shoulder-mounted missiles such as the Javelin are an incredibly cost-effective way to destroy a tank. Your average tank (even a no-frills Russian one) costs a few million dollars apiece. The Javelin which destroys it will run only about $80,000. Or, better yet, send in a bunch of armed drones such as the Turkish-made Bayraktar, which is also allowing Ukraine to wipe out Russian armor on the cheap.

Despite this, Canada has basically no capability on either drones or portable guided missiles. It’s why, when Ukraine asked us for equipment to destroy incoming Russian columns, the best we were able to supply was a bunch of 1960s-era rocket launchers.

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A way for soldiers to shoot down planes

The Canadian Armed Forces currently has no way of shooting down aircraft from the ground. Keeping planes away from your soldiers has been a pretty basic military strategy ever since the Second World War, but Canada’s current plan is simply to assume that if our soldiers get deployed somewhere, some better-equipped country will take care of the air-defence.

“Ground-based air defense” needn’t be all that expensive: There are plenty of “off the shelf” options for any military looking to pick up some portable anti-aircraft missiles (such as the Barak MX) And in fact, the Canadian Armed Forces is already mired in one of its interminable procurement nightmares to find something suitable by 2030. All Ottawa would need to do is speed it up a bit.

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Nuclear-powered subs

Nuclear-powered submarines are very, very expensive. But if you’re looking to defend the Northwest Passage from Russia, you’re going to need vessels that can still navigate the waterway even when it’s choked with ice. And as things stand, the Royal Canadian Navy doesn’t have a single warship with heavy icebreaking capabilities, meaning that most of the time the only way we can patrol the Arctic is by sending up a plane from CFB Trenton.

This was part of why the Royal Navy was recently offering to send some of its own nuclear submarines to watch the Arctic on our behalf. Also, it’s worth noting that the Australians are on track to buy some nuclear subs, despite a defense budget that’s roughly comparable to what Canada’s would be after the proposed spending increase.

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