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FIRST READING: Canada's perennial status as a NATO freeloader is getting awkward

March 9 2022

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On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continued his tour of Europe to “work closely with allies to strengthen NATO.” But even as Canada places 500 troops in Latvia and pledges CF-18s for Romania, there is an elephant in the room whenever Trudeau talks to NATO members about collective security: He happens to represent a country that has spent more than a generation phoning in its NATO commitments.

NATO members are generally expected to spend about two per cent of their GDP on defence. Canada spends about 1.39 per cent – one of the lowest in the alliance. Even if you try to tweak the numbers by adding in the RCMP and the coast guard (which are technically considered “military forces” by NATO), we’re still looking at a defence budget of around 1.4 per cent of GDP. Tack on a round of planned Liberal defence spending increases, and we’re still at just 1.5 per cent.

This used to be common among the non-American members of NATO, but with countries across the alliance now ramping up their military budgets as a direct response to Russia, Canada’s cobwebbed armed forces is increasingly an outlier among its Western allies. And even while he jets to European capitals on a tour that was specifically booked to discuss NATO issues, Trudeau has remained noncommittal on plans to boost Canadian defence spending.

This dissonance came up Monday during Trudeau’s press conference with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Specifically, Johnson was asked whether it was “acceptable” that Canada spent so little while the U.K. was spending 2.4 per cent. Here was Johnson’s rather diplomatic response:

And it’s not just raw spending. The Canadian Armed Forces is unable to perform many of the basic tasks that would be expected from a G7 nation – particularly a G7 nation that is home to the world’s largest coastline. Some examples …

  • The Royal Canadian Navy has no amphibious capability. The fleet doesn’t have a single landing craft or assault ship.

  • The army has no self-propelled artillery. To throw shells at an enemy, Canada does it the same way we’ve been doing it since the First World War: We tow one of our 60-or-so guns to the battlefield and set it up.

  • The navy can’t really resupply itself at sea. Canada’s last resupply ship kept catching fire, so until a replacement is completed, navy ships need to be refuelled and restocked using a former container ship that is not rated for combat.

  • We’re not doing great on drones. Armed Bayraktar drones have proved to be an exceedingly cheap way for Ukraine to target incoming Russian columns. But even for a Canadian military that loves to cheap out on air support, we’re still years away from getting an armed drone.

  • Even the official prime ministerial transport is an outdated embarrassment. The RCAF operates the Airbus CC-150 that is currently flying Trudeau around Europe, and as the National Post’s Colby Cosh noted in a recent column, the interior is notable for being strewn with extension cords.

A column by the CBC’s Murray Brewster noted that Trudeau’s European tour is almost exclusively occurring in countries that are either spending at the NATO benchmark, or are on track to meet it — a fact that is leading to Canada becoming “increasingly isolated” in the alliance.

Last year, when Canada was left out of a new Pacific defence pact between Australia and the United States, military analysts chalked it up to a Canadian defence policy unconcerned “with the health of the military.”

While Canada doesn’t face the immediate threat from Russia that exists in Europe, John Ivison noted in the National Post that Moscow openly claims Arctic territory that Ottawa considers to be a sovereign part of Canada. What’s more, Ivison notes that it’s not necessarily a funding problem, considering the amount of Canadian defence money that “lapses” each year without getting spent.

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