No pandemic pivot in Canada’s defence budget

Defence budget increases continue apace

In today’s blog, we will examine what this week’s federal budget — the first in two years — has to say about defence spending in the midst of a global pandemic.

To put the budget numbers in context, recall that, in June 2017, the Justin Trudeau government announced a new defence policy, Strong, Secure Engaged (SSE), which included a whopping 70% increase in spending over 10 years.  Compare the FY 2016-17 SSE defence budget of $19 billion and the FY 2021-22 SSE budget of $25 billion, 315 million.

For the full picture, the actual annual spending must be considered, not just the forecasted amounts. The chart below (from the Departmental Plan tabled in Parliament earlier this year) sets out the actual spending up to and including FY 2019-20 and the initial figures only for the current fiscal year and following.

Against that backdrop, let us consider the defence budget for FY 2021-22, as presented by the Liberal government on 19 April 2021.

Funding to redress crisis of sexual misconduct in the military

New DND spending announcements (not included in Chart 2, but which will be reflected in Supplementary Estimates to be tabled later this year) include $236.2 million over five years to address the ongoing crisis of sexual assault and violence in the ranks. The amount for FY 2021-22 is $34 million.

In policy terms, the government recommits yet again to creating “new external oversight mechanisms” for people who report sexual assault in the military.

Yet, the follow-up announcement of 23 April — to immediately create an in-house Chief Professional Conduct and Culture — falls far short of what is needed. Military law expert and retired Colonel Michel Drapeau comments:

It is opposite to independent, external oversight. There is no oversight here.

More funds for continental defence and NATO modernization

Another new funding pledge is $252 million over five years for the modernization of continental defence. Of that overall sum, $163.4 million is being set aside to revitalize NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defence Command, while the balance of $88.8 million is for continental and Arctic defence capabilities. For this fiscal year, the figure is $45 million.

Specifically, on NORAD modernization, the budget document on page 289 states:

This investment would lay the groundwork for NORAD’s future, including through research and development of cutting-edge technologies that can detect and defend against threats to the continent.

More money to support NATO and Middle East Training Ops

The budget pledges $847.1 million over five years to maintain Canada’s rotating deployments of frigates and fighter jets to NATO, and more cash to cover increased contributions to the military alliance’s overall budget, with $167 million in new money allocated for this fiscal year.

$527 million of new funding in 2021-22 is allocated to  “extend Canada’s Middle East strategy” for another year, to be split among DND, Global Affairs, CSIS, and CSE, with the largest share probably going to DND for its military capacity-building efforts under Operation IMPACT.

DND not exceeding forecasted SSE increases

But these budgetary additions still do not bring DND annual spending over — or even up to — the projected amount for fiscal 2021-22 of $25 billion, 315 million, as set out in the Strong Secure Engaged defence policy announced in 2017, and shown in our first chart above.

There will of course be supplementary estimates adding additional costs to cover newly approved procurements, new missions, and other contingencies, including the ongoing military support (Operation Laser) to Canada’s COVID response.  The CBC reported an overall cost as of August 2020 of $463 million for Operation LASER.

But again, it is unlikely even these increments would bring the total spending for the FY 2021-22 beyond what was forecast in SSE (namely $25 billion 315 million), bearing in mind that the 2021-22 FY budget, all in, represents a $1 billion increase over the previous fiscal year, in accordance with the 2017 SSE ongoing increases.

Bill Robinson, former CCPA defence analyst, comments:

So the very modest good news is — that these additional expenditures, including those announced in the 12 April 2021 budget for the current fiscal year (2020-21), and those yet to be financially accounted for, including Operation Laser, and other contingencies, will likely still not bring DND spending beyond the SSE budgeted amount of $25 billion, 315 million.

NORAD modernization will focus on niche area of domain awareness

A truly positive note in the budget is the small amount allocated to NORAD modernization ($163 million over 5 years), given this was a topic of discussion in the first bilateral (telephone) meeting between Trudeau and Biden in February of this year and given that estimates of the actual cost range from $11 to 15 billion, with Canada expected to pick up at least 40% of the total cost.

This huge expenditure was not included in the 2017 SSE budget even though the new defence policy committed Canada to NORAD modernization, and that, in turn,  led experts to conclude that the government would likely expect DND to find the money within existing resources.

The small amount allocated in this week’s budget seems to largely confirm that assumption. And another piece of very good news: the focus of the new spending is on Canada’s niche area of “all domain situational awareness”, including through upgrades to the North Warning System using artificial intelligence and machine learning. This is fully in keeping with the and Rideau Institute calls in February 2021 for the Government of Canada:

to focus Canada’s role in NORAD modernization firmly on enhanced domain awareness within the region

RI President Peggy Mason comments:

This focus on surveillance and reconnaissance means that the Liberal government continues to show no inclination to join the latest iteration of the American strategic ballistic missile defence boondoggle and that is a very good thing indeed.

She continues:

However, the budget language of “technologies that can detect and defend” leaves open the possibility, if not the funding capability, to take this up later.  So continued vigilance is warranted.

And now for the bad news

But the bad news is that this gargantuan and growing defence budget is essentially “business as usual” in defence spending, with planned increases set out in the pre-pandemic defence policy of 2017 still going ahead in 2021-22 and beyond, from $25,315 billion now to over $32.5 billion in FY 2026-27.

This stands in direct contradiction to the clarion call, within Canada, at the United Nations, and around the world, for a collective rethinking of security”, a pandemic pivot, a global human security reset, call it what you will.

Let us recall wise words to which we have referred in the past on this subject.

Dr Michael Ryan, head of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme:

When this global health emergency is done, we need to sit down and see what kind of society we want to have in future…. Are we to be defended from foreign armies, [or] are we to be defended from viruses; where are we putting our investment in society… our civilization and way of life…?

UN Secretary-General António Guterres:

today we face our own 1945 moment, and like the post-war generation that sought to build a new world order, we too must summon the “collective will” to address the “world of challenges to come”. The Secretary-General added that the COVID-19 crisis is a “wake-up call” and a “dress rehearsal” for those challenges.

Daryl G. Kimball, head of the prestigious Arms Control Association:

If we are to survive well into this century, there must be a profound shift in the way we deal with global security challenges and how we align our scientific, economic, diplomatic, and political resources to address the health, climate, and nuclear dangers that threaten us all.

To which we add the following:

Nowhere is the pandemic pivot more urgent than in realigning spending in accordance with the real existential threats facing Canada and the world — namely, climate catastrophe, the destruction of nature (and its attendant increased pandemic and other health risks) and nuclear Armageddon.

And this, in turn, must be part of a broader security reset to focus much more on safeguarding human security and much less on a competitive, zero sum game of state-centric military approaches that increasingly deliver less, not more, security.

A tangible example of this rethinking, redirection and reallocation would be for Canada to immediately earmark the increased funding for NATO’s military budget for NATO’s Arms Control, Disarmament and WMD Non-proliferation Centre (ACDC)  for the purpose of engaging NATO in the long-overdue work of reducing nuclear risks.

And these funds should be matched by funding to Global Affairs to pursue complementary diplomatic efforts in support of this Canadian NATO initiative.

Whither Canada?

We call on the Government of Canada to earmark its increased contribution to NATO’s military budget specifically for work by NATO’s Arms Control, Disarmament and WMD Non-proliferation Centre (ACDC) to reduce nuclear risks.

We further call on the GOC to dedicate matching funds to Global Affairs Canada to pursue complementary diplomatic efforts in support of this Canadian NATO initiative.

Budget 2021 and Canada’s Climate Policy

For a sobering analysis of how the new budget fails to measure up on climate policy, see Earth Day 2021: Canada’s latest budget falls dangerously short on climate action by Rideau Institute Board member Bruce Campbell (The Conversation, 22 April 2021).

Militarism and the Climate Crisis

And to bring the military into the environmental discussion, see: Militarism and the Climate Crisis: The Imperative for Action (R. Brian Larkin,, 22 April 2021). The UK is the focus of this article but there are many uncomfortable Canadian parallels.

Photo credit: DND with credit to Caporal Myki Poirier-Joyal  (Op LASER)


Tags: 2017 Strong Secure Engaged (SSE) defence policy, A Recovery Plan for Jobs Growth and Resilience, all domain situational awareness, American strategic ballistic missile defense and Congress, Bruce Campbell, Chief Professional Conduct and Culture, continental defence and NORAD modernization, Defence Budget 2021-22, Disarmament and WMD Non-proliferation Centre (ACDC), Federal Budget 2021, human security reset, Main estimates, militarism and the climate crisis, NATO Arms Control, North Warning System (NWS), Operation IMPACT, Operation Laser, Operation Reassurance, rethinking security, sexual misconduct in the military, supplementary estimates