Canada needs to 'stand-up to our responsibilities' on defence spending, says Liberal-appointed senator

The Senate defence committee is recommending the Trudeau government forget about buying an interim fleet of Super Hornet jet fighters and focus all of its energy on replacing the air force's entire fleet of CF-18s.

Senate defence committee recommends sweeping military buildup that would exceed previous government's plans

Senate defence committee chair Senator Daniel Lang, left, past chair Colin Kenny, centre, and co-chair Mobina Jaffer, right, released their report Monday calling on the Liberals to build up Canada's military, without the Boeing Super Hornet. (Canadian Press)

The Senate's defence committee is recommending the Trudeau government forget about buying an interim fleet of Boeing Super Hornet jet fighters and focus all of its energy on replacing the air force's entire fleet of CF-18s.

And the committee's report, released Monday, strongly suggests the replacement warplane should be the controversial F-35 stealth fighter, which the governing Liberals specifically rejected in the last election campaign.

Aside from putting itself at odds with current government policy, the report is recommending a sweeping military buildup that far outstrips what the previous Conservative government recommended during its decade in office.

Significantly, the report is receiving bipartisan approval, with senators appointed under Liberal administrations giving it their blessing.

"I am comfortable supporting this report," said Senator Mobina Jaffer, the committee's co-chair, when asked if she has reservations about going against her own party on the issue of fighter jets.

"Things have changed," she added. "If we don't really deal with the issues of underfunding in the defence, and if we don't look at issues head on, we will really become a weaker partner; weaker than what we are. And the time has come now when we really have to stand up to our responsibilities."

The report lays down a political marker ahead of the planned release of the Liberal government's new defence policy review and this month's NATO leader's summit, where U.S. President Donald Trump is expected arm-twist allies into approving bigger defence budgets.

A previous analysis by the same committee released a few weeks ago, noted that Canada is currently at an historic low in defence spending — at roughly .88 per cent of gross domestic product. It recommended the federal government lay out a plan to increase that spending to two per cent of GDP over an 11-year period.

Free ride over

Conservative Senator Daniel Lang said the report doesn't have a price tag attached to it, nor does it suggest how much bigger the military would have to get in order to accommodate the wish-list of equipment and capabilities.  

But he suggested it should be used as a measure for the defence policy and warned that where the Liberal government falls short, he and other senators are prepared to make the report "part of the public conversation."

A U.S. naval air crew walks the flight line in front of a squadron of Super Hornet fighters at Naval Air Station Oceana , Virginia on Jan. 26, 2017. Canada has opened negotiations for the sole-source purchase of 18 of the advanced jet fighters. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

Lang denied a suggestion that the Senate committee was setting down a benchmark no Canadian government, Liberal or Conservative, was prepared to meet.

"It is ambitious, but I think it's, as Senator Jaffer has said, the world has changed," Lang stated. "The day of the free ride is over."

Defence analyst Dave Perry, of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said that in order for the Senate's plan to be remotely realized, there would have to be an ambitious increase in defence spending and a less cumbersome procurement system.

"You certainly couldn't do any of this stuff in the current funding envelope and the way the government of Canada does [its procurement] business now," he said.

Report non-binding

The report is not binding on the federal government and previous administrations have made a habit of ignoring what Senate committees say.

But in the current political context, with a new U.S. administration ready to push allies hard on defence policy, the Senate committee has handed opposition parties in Ottawa, and perhaps critics in Washington, fresh ammunition.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan sidestepped the report, saying the upcoming defence policy review took its own thorough look at what is needed to equip the military.

"We looked at all the capabilities that are required, that our Canadian Armed Forces need not only here, but also what we need to do around the world," Sajjan said. "I look forward to announcing and answering all those questions when the defence policy is launched."

Staggering equipment buy

The report makes reference to better recruiting, improving diversity and the participation of women, but the central recommendation involves buying a staggering amount of military hardware.

Some of it would replace existing, aging stocks of equipment, while others would involve new, significant investments for things such as attack helicopters and drones.

Some of the other recommendations include:

  • Doubling the size of the planned fighter jet purchase to 120 aircraft.
  • Buying 21 additional CH-147 D battlefield transport helicopters, over and above the existing fleet of 15.
  • Buying 12 diesel-electric submarines to replace the four already in the navy's inventory.
  • Building 18 frigate replacements, up from the 15 the former Conservative government proposed.
  • Arming coast guard ships and turning the service into a constabulary with broader enforcement powers.

Arctic patrol ships are 'dogs'

Interestingly, the report also recommends a review and possible cancellation of the Conservative-era  Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship program, which is already well underway in Halifax.

The committee argues the light icebreakers are too small and too slow to be effective in the country's Far North.

"They're dogs," said Senator Colin Kenny, the former Liberal chair of the committee who now sits as an independent.

"Seventeen knots is the best speed they can make, which is slower than a B.C. ferry and some fishing boats they might want to interdict," Kenny said. "There's every likelihood they're going to need a coast guard escort in order to get around in the Arctic."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.