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Harjit Sajjan’s $62-billion defence policy long shot

History shows long-term military spending often gets squeezed by hard-up governments—but sometimes it does get done

The thing to keep in mind about military spending is that the dollar figures tend to be so enormous that it’s awfully tempting for a government scrabbling for cash—and when aren’t they?—to play around with the figures.

That usually means squeezing defence spending now, to pay for more pressing priorities or keep a deficit down, while still projecting robust military outlays later, to maintain a stance of unstinting support for those men and women in uniform so beloved by political speechwriters.

So when Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan tabled a new defence policy today—a document the Liberal government is calling Strong, Secure, Engaged—he faced inevitable skepticism about his long-term vision. Sajjan said yearly defence spending will swell by more than 70 per cent, from $18.9 billion in 2016-17 to $32.7 billion in 2026-27. He promised $62.3 billion in new spending over 20 years.

READ MORE: Harjit Sajjan’s full speech

How can he possibly bind the governments of a decade or two from now to anything? Consider what happened only earlier this spring, when Finance Minister Bill Morneau tabled his 2017 budget, and surprised military analysts by “reallocating” a hefty $8.4 billion in planned defence capital spending, money that had been slated to be spent between 2015-16 and 2035-36, out into the unknowable future.

If Sajjan’s more distant projections can only be seen as best guesses and broad guidelines, though, the short-term plans implied by his new policy are more likely to come to pass. Details for the next five years were, strangely, not spelled out in his 113-page policy document. But a senior defence official said it calls for an additional $615 million to be spent in 2017-18; $581 million in 2018-19; $1.1 billion in 2019-20; $2 billion in 2020-21; and $2.3 billion in 2021-23.

No need to commit those figures to memory. It might be helpful, however, to note that the increases for this year and next—the remaining years before the 2019 federal election—can be counted in the mere hundreds of millions. It’s only after the next election that the federal government will need to start finding multiple billions to fund this plan.

There’s a lot in Sajjan’s policy, but the biggest-ticket items are ships and jets. He calls for 15 so-called Canadian Surface Combatants, to replace aging frigates and destroyers, at a cost of up to $60 billion. As already planned, Canada’s CF-18 fighter jet fleet will be replaced, at a cost of up to $18 billion, and the Liberals have boosted the number of new jets needed to 88 from the 65 the former Conservative government thought would be enough. Another $23.2 billion over 20 years is earmarked for army equipment, like new light and heavy trucks.

Sajjan announced the new policy in front of military personnel in Ottawa’s venerable brick-and-timber Cartier Square Drill Hall, home of the Governor General’s Foot Guards since 1879, and he emphasized the rank-and-file’s concerns. (Having to apologize for inflating his own pre-politics accomplishments as a reserve officer in Afghanistan may have left him eager to build back some credibility with the troops.) His new policy includes, among other measures aimed at boosting morale, tax-free pay for those serving abroad, a new health strategy, and a recruiting policy that will aim at having 25 per cent women in uniform by 2026.

(The policy lands at a time when Canadians are widely supportive of additional defence spending. Fifty-eight per cent of the country believes we should increase the size of the military, according to a poll conducted by Abacus Data on behalf of Maclean’s and other Rogers Media properties.)

READ MORE: The Liberals’ defence policy: So much, and too little

There was also plenty of futuristic talk from Sajjan and his officials about countering threats from space, bolstering cyber security, and even buying drones (officials referred to them delicately as “remotely piloted systems”) both for surveillance and combat missions.

Defence analysts will be poring over these and other details for months. After all, the last attempt at a military roadmap this extensive was the Stephen Harper government’s Canada First Defence Policy, a sweeping plan for which there never seemed to be quite enough money. This time, Sajjan vowed, will be different. “For the first time, National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces will have a 20-year funding commitment,” he said. “This is laid out in black and white today.”

Actually, the most important part is laid out in green, the colour used on page 98 of the policy, in “Figure 2: Actual and Forecasted Defence Budget (Cash basis),” to illustrate the big bulge in spending now needed, especially between about 2020 and 2028, to pay for those ships, and jets, and all the rest.

Will future governments find the money? History suggests that contracted procurements do tend to happen. A high-water mark historically in Canadian capital spending for military equipment came during the Conservative government of prime minister Brian Mulroney in the second half of the 1980s. But Mulroney was implementing commitments made a few years earlier, in the late stages of the Liberal government of prime minister Pierre Trudeau, to buy CF-18s, Leopard tanks, and naval frigates.

The fact that the first Trudeau government set the stage for such a major re-equipping phase in the Canadians Forces isn’t very widely known. If Sajjan is right, and today’s policy leads to all the new spending he is promising, this second Trudeau government might just repeat history.