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Soldiers sweep the roadside for mines near Kandahar City. ((Yves Chartrand/CBC))

We are involved in a war in Afghanistan, and it's not cheap. But by most accounts, we have a well-equipped military in the war zone, after defence spending almost doubled in 10 years.

The days of an under-equipped Canadian military seem over, but they came with a price: the annual budget for the military in 2008 is slightly more than $18 billion, up from slightly more than $9.92 billion in 1997-98 (with the actual expenditure turning out to be $10.12 billion). The cost of the mission in Afghanistan up to 2011 has been released, and it was revealed that it could cost taxpayers up to $18.1 billion by 2010-11.

Equipping the Afghanistan mission has moved along fairly smoothly (including purchasing high-tech unmanned aerial vehicles and tanks), but in other areas of the military, there have been some big blips, particularly when it comes to procuring helicopters as well as new Arctic patrol vessels and search and rescue ships, all of which are outstanding.

Late in the summer, for example, the Conservatives announced that the $340-million plan to purchase patrol vessels for the coast guard was put on hold "because the bid prices exceeded the anticipated cost," according to Public Works. As well, a $2.9-billion plan to build two supply ships was also put on hold.

When the election campaign turns to defence, much of the focus has been on what our role is in Afghanistan (where we have been since 2002) and what's going to happen after 2011, when our military operations there are supposed to cease.

But military spending itself is an important and obvious issue when looking at how governments spend and budget, especially so when one considers the dozens of communities that rely on this type of spending, either because a base is in the community or a local industry helps supply the Defence Department.

The recent problems in the world economy may make some military supporters wonder if the money earmarked for the Armed Forces is safe, whether the budget is an easy target for cuts, as it once was. That is up in the air in these uncertain times.

An upward trend

Military spending in Canada is clearly on an upward trend.

"Since Sept. 11, 2001, Canada's military spending has increased by 27 per cent, and after the next two years of planned increases, will be 37 per cent higher than 2000-01," according to a 2007 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The group said: "Canada is the 13th highest military spender in the world this year, up from 16th. Within the 26-member NATO alliance, Canada has moved from 7th to 6th highest military spender, dollar for dollar."

With that in mind, we take a look at where the parties stand on defence spending and plans for the future.

Conservatives

The Conservatives have painted themselves as friends of the military and the numbers appear to support that.

They have promised a budget boost of $12 billion over 20 years beginning in 2011-12 and have produced a document titled Canada First that addresses everything from military equipment needs and Arctic sovereignty to border defence. They have also promised to boost capital spending by between $45 billion and $50 billion.

Among the big-ticket items: $250 billion over the 20-year period on personnel, with the military's numbers increasing to 70,000 regular members and 30,000 reserve members (currently, there are 62,000 regular members and 25,000 reservists.); $140 billion on training and maintenance of equipment and $40 billion on military buildings and infrastructure. As part of that, CFB Trenton in Ontario will get a $500-million facelift.

As explained on the Defence Department website: "The Canada First Defence Strategy … is an unprecedented commitment to the Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence by the government of Canada.

"This consistent long-term funding plan is based on the automatic annual increase in defence spending, which will rise from the current 1.5 per cent to two per cent, beginning in 2011-12. This automatic increase will result in an annual increase of $12 billion in 20 years, bringing the annual defence budget from its current $18 billion to $30 billion in 2027-2028."

Liberals

The Liberals say they won't cut the funding allocated for the Canadian Forces over the next four years and claim in their election platform that much of the money "was originally committed in the Liberal budget of 2005."

It's not spelled out in the platform what the party's stance is regarding military funding beyond the next four years.

The Liberals do have a clear stance on what needs to be done for soldiers returning from dangerous missions and say they would establish a $60-million fund to help military members cope with post-traumatic stress disorder "and other ailments."

They also promise to establish a health ombudsman within the Canadian Forces and in Veterans Affairs.

As for the big expenditures, the Liberals are committed to "finally act on the purchase of much needed replacements for the fixed-wing search and rescue (SAR) planes to replace the current aging fleet. The previous Liberal government set aside money to make this purchase in 2005," according to the platform.

Greens

The Green party has vowed to slash military spending but has provided no details.

At the same time, Leader Elizabeth May did recently demand an explanation from Defence Minister Peter MacKay, against whom she is running in Nova Scotia's Central Nova riding, of why the department stopped purchasing knives from a Nova Scotia company and turned to China instead.

"We must not cut corners on the quality of equipment required by our troops. Ideally, our military should choose Canadian-made goods," May said in a Green news release.

In the same release, she took issue with the government after reports surfaced that some navy ships could be built outside of Canada, saying such a move threatened thousands of Atlantic jobs. The St. John's Telegram newspaper reported recently that a government minister in Newfoundland and Labrador had been told by a federal minister that building navy ships offshore was a possibility.

NDP

In its election platform, the New Democratic Party envisions three roles for the military: assisting people in natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods, at home and abroad; providing support for peacekeeping and "peace-making" efforts; and defending Canada from attack.

The NDP said it would "equip the Canadian military to resume leadership in United Nations peacekeeping operations, with major new missions reviewed and approved by the House of Commons" and "reform defence procurement so Canada gets good equipment for good value. We will require tendering of all major contracts and maximize Canadian content."

As well, the NDP said in its platform that it would "support military families, veterans and ordinary Canadians by making fair pay, good health care, fair benefits, veterans' services, emergency readiness and good equipment top priorities for military spending."

There is no mention of what would be done with the promised increases to the military budget. But the party wants the Afghan mission ended before 2011 (and the job of stabilizing that country turned over to the UN), which it says should provide a peace dividend of $2.9 billion over the next three years.

There are no details on future funding.

Bloc Québécois

The Bloc is largely silent on improvements to DND. It wants the Afghan mission to end as soon as possible and has said in the past it wants Quebec to have its own army and intelligence service.