If you were really serious about stimulus spending, wouldn’t throwing some cash at Canada’s third-biggest employer be a great place to start?

And yet when Canadians think about projects to shore up the weakening economy, they're unlikely to think first of increasing the Armed Forces budget.  

The country's 62,000 military personnel, including 9,000 sailors, 19,500 soldiers, 14,500 air force personnel and  administrative and support personnel in communities large and small throughout the country contribute immeasurably to the Canadian economy.

That doesn’t include the 4,000 rangers, who provide surveillance and patrol services in Canada's most remote areas, and 25,000 reservists.

Not that the military has much to complain about. After years of trying to make do with less, the military budget for 2008 was $18.2 billion, with planned spending for 2009 estimated to be more than $19.1 billion.

Canada has become the15th-highest military spender in the world this year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. 

And there’s more to come.

"The Canadian Forces protect Canada, assert Canada’s sovereignty, and assume a leadership role in the world," says the Canadian Forces website.

"To achieve this, the Government of Canada will expand the regular force to 75,000 personnel and add 10,000 reservists, and acquire leading-edge military technology and equipment."

Funding the war in Afghanistan could cost a total of $18.1 billion, or $1,500 per Canadian household, by 2011, according to the Fiscal Impact of the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan tabled by parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page in October, 2008.

 Military expenditures

  • Canada's defence budget for 2008: $18.2 billion.
  • Planned spending for 2009 estimated at more than $19.1 billion
  • Promised budget boost: $12 billion over 20 years beginning in 2011-12.

 

Page concluded Canada spent between $7.7 billion and $10.5 billion on costs related to its mission in the past six years, and may spend $13.9 billion to $18.1 billion by the end of the 2010-11 budget year. Still, he found a lack of government consistency and transparency made the figures difficult to estimate. 

The Conservative government pegged the cost of the war at far less: about $8 billion, not including related, long-term costs.

When it comes to the war, the military pretty much gets what it wants.

"It’s almost like trying to feed a smorgasbord to a man who’s starving," says Scott Taylor, editor of Esprit de Corp, a military magazine published in Ottawa. "They just can’t process it fast enough. Because of the mission, it’s been pretty tough to deny them equipment."

What the military wants, however, is not necessarily something that it shares with the public.

"The Department of National Defence does not compile a 'wish list,' nor does it speculate on federal budget allocations to the department," public affairs officer Capt. John Dacombe told CBC news in an email.

'It’s that old spin-doctor thing: Taliban creates one hundred jobs in Edmonton.'—Scott Taylor, Esprit de Corp

Occasionally, though, there is an indication from the military of an immediate need.

Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, chief of the land staff, recently hoped the army’s fleet of light armoured vehicles (LAVs) might be repaired and upgraded at factories in London, Ont., and Edmonton. He suggested it might be a way to boost the economy.

"There are about 55 or 60 LAVs that have been destroyed," says Taylor. "No one was counting on that kind of loss of equipment.  The purchase price is about $4 million a unit. They’ve got a plant in Edmonton to repair the LAVS destroyed in Afghanistan. They have a budget for repair and overhaul, but none to buy new ones. So we will now spend four times the price of a new one to rebuild a destroyed one. It’s that old spin-doctor thing: Taliban creates one hundred jobs in Edmonton."

In January, Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced $274 million for the purchase of 1,300 vehicles for the military. The new fleet of trucks will be used to support operations in Canada such as transportation of supplies or military interventions in the event of emergencies.

The economic benefit to Canada will be limited: Illinois-based Navistar Defence won the contract.

"From a defence perspective, that makes a lot of sense, buying the best equipment for the best value. From a Canadian taxpayer's perspective, [we] would love to see that money being used to stimulate jobs in this country," says Taylor.

"If you’re on a full-time, war-mobilization footing, obviously it can stimulate the domestic economy, but in this case we’re buying small packets of stuff. We don’t have a big war industry. That’s why we’re buying stuff south of the border. It doesn’t make any sense to make an assembly line here for helicopters for a one-time build."

Unlike any other war Canada has waged, this one comes with an expiry date. The government says the troops come home in 2011 — but the Afghan bills won’t stop coming in.

Kevin Page tried to put a number of some of the long-term cost of the war in his report. He estimated the total number of Afghanistan veterans seeking disability and health-care claims could top 7,000.

Quick facts  

  • Canada has a fleet of more than 333 aircraft  located in all regions.
  • There are 33 surface ships and four submarines in Canada's navy.
  • More than 2,900 members of the Armed Forces are deployed overseas.
  •  Of NATO's 26 member countries, Canada is sixth in total military spending ($13 billion)

"We don’t even have an inkling of how much mental care these guys are going to require," says Taylor. "We didn’t keep sending guys back and back and back in World War Two. This is a different kind of warfare. You stay in combat 72 hours, and then you’re pulled out. It’s like playing a game of Russian roulette every single day."

Taylor also believes there will be material costs the military hasn’t fully appreciated.

"At the end of the day when this thing is over, the long-term sustainability is something they’re going to look at very seriously," says Taylor. "Some of the stuff we’re buying is very expensive to maintain and operate.

"The Chinook helicopters — we have a fleet of 16 of them. We’ll have to rationalize what are we doing with all this. And the tanks we bought. At some point, when the party is over, we have to take stock of what did we just buy.

"More focus needs to be put on achieving a long-term cohesive defence strategy.  But what’s happening is the longer term stuff is being put on hold so they can address immediate priorities. That’s great, but at the end of the day all of this money will be spent and it’s mission-specific, so we come out of there no further ahead. Yet all this money and all these lives would have been lost."

The military says it does have a long-term plan, for Canada at least.

"The Canada First Defense Strategy addresses the next 20 years and provides a detailed roadmap for the modernization of the Canadian Forces," according to the Armed Forces website.

It calls for the replacement of fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft, and a  replacement for the destroyer and frigate fleets commencing in 2017. As well, the maritime patrol aircraft will be replaced by 10 to12 new patrol aircraft. And new fighters will be brought into service to replace the current CF-18 aircraft as it ends its service life in 2017.

There is even a price tag for the updates: between $45 billion and $50 billion.