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Enter Stage Gabbing

Conservative military spending promises may be too little, too late

By Steven Martinovich

The Professor(February 27, 2006) As Stephen Harper is learning, the difference between campaign promises and governing are measured in billions of dollars, particularly when it comes to the issue of Canada's military. During the campaign the Conservatives announced a dazzling array of promises including new ships, thousands of new soldiers, rapid reaction battalions, an Arctic force and an underwater surveillance system, among other items.

For those of watching the slow decline of the Canadian Armed Forces with sadness, they were promises that were greeted with enthusiasm. The problem, however, is that the money the Conservatives have promised to add to the defence budget -- an extra $5.3 billion over five years -- doesn't come close to fulfilling their agenda.

One analyst predicted that the 13,000 new soldiers would cost $377 million annually before training and equipment. Three armed icebreakers may cost as much as $2 billion. A proposed deep water Arctic port would run in the tens of millions, if not higher. Some question whether Canada is even capable of building the replacement ships, cost unknown, the navy needs after the slow death of our shipbuilding industry. All told, the Conservative's promises add up to far more than the money promised.

Despite that, the Conservative government is on the right track. Analysts have reported for years that the military is literally at the breaking point as the number of soldiers in the ranks has fallen and their equipment is increasingly obsolete.

The list -- and the cost -- of what needs replacing is staggering considering that the systems touch on so many aspects of basic military operations. The military needs new transport aircraft, armour, fighter jets, armoured personal carriers, artillery, small arms and ships. That's merely the list of desperately needed equipment.

For a military that gained fame during two world wars for being able to do what was considered impossible, it's a sad state of affairs. We possess a remarkably well-trained military that has been hamstrung by its own government. Not only can we not project force across the world in legitimate attempts to protect our interests, it's debatable whether we can even adequately defend our own borders or respond to terrorist attacks.

The federal government should be congratulated for realizing that the military needs new equipment. It is unconscionable that we ask Canadians to use equipment that endangers their lives even in peace time.

The Conservative vision for the military may ultimately be too grand. The cost of refitting the armed forces to be a fully capable three service body is so great that no government would be willing to bare the cost.

In 2003, Andrew Richter concluded that it was no longer possible for Canada to modernize its entire military -- one he argued now only had "marginal combat capability" -- due to the high cost of new equipment. Rather than maintain a military that is rapidly rusting out and incapable of carrying out defence and foreign policy goals, the government should prioritize among the three services so that at least one is able to operate alongside our allies.

It is time for Canadians to have an honest and open debate about the future of their military, whether we are to reconstitute it as a viable force, a single service or simply eliminate it. All are expensive options. Rebuilding the military will cost us tens of billions of dollars over the coming years as we acquire new weapons systems and train new combat soldiers.

More expensive, however, will be the second option. Without a military -- or one limited to the oxymoron-laden non-combat peacekeeping mission -- we will no longer be able to accomplish our foreign policy goals or influence nations not impressed by our "soft power" approach. Our allies will have no need to consult us on important issues because we likely won't have the capacity to serve beside them when needed. We will not be able project force across the world when legitimately needed and it's doubtful that we could even protect ourselves.

Some would dismiss the either/or situation presented here as unnecessarily harsh but the time for subtlety is past. It is time for Canadians to decide: Are we a mature nation that is capable of surviving in a dangerous world and having influence in it or we will fall prey to the notion of false economy and rely on others for our defence. The Conservative government's commitment to increased military spending is a good start, but only a start.

Thanks for reading,

Steven Martinovich


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