Conservatives vow to meet NATO spending target after Ottawa ‘underfunded’ national defence for 26 years

In June, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged another $500 million to war-torn Ukraine for a total of $8.5 billion in military, financial and humanitarian aid since February 2022.

Conservatives vow to meet NATO spending target after Ottawa ‘underfunded’ national defence for 26 years
Facebook/ Canadian Army
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Unlike the Liberal-NDP coalition, the Conservatives affirmed their commitment Saturday to align defence spending with current NATO spending targets.

"The Conservative Party of Canada supports Canada's membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the principle of collective security. A Conservative Government will work towards spending at least the NATO recommended 2% of our GDP on National Defence," read Motion A-15.

The resolution also pledged to establish a pathway forward for Canada to join the trilateral security agreement of AUKUS between Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.

With 87% support from party delegates, the motion unsurprisingly passed despite garnering less support in Alberta (84%) and Newfoundland and Labrador (83%).

"Over 110,000 Canadians died in the world wars leading up to 1945. We have largely avoided that bloodshed through two Euro-Atlantic alliances in NATO and NORAD," said Conservative MP Michael Chong, whose Electoral District Association of Wellington-Halton Hills sponsored Motion A-15.

"This motion simply affirms our commitment to the peace and security of that alliance," he said.

The non-binding motion follows a leaked Pentagon assessment in April that claimed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would "never" meet the 2% GDP spending target.

Canada's current defence policy calls for spending increases of more than 70% on National Defence from 2017 to 2026 — falling short of the 2% baseline.

Obtained and first reported by The Washington Post, the document acknowledged Canada suffered from "widespread" military deficiencies that harmed relations with Western allies.

"I continue to say and will always say that Canada is a reliable partner to NATO, a reliable partner around the world," Trudeau told reporters in response to the leaks. He said his government would commit to providing the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) with its necessary tools.

However, NATO said Canada spends an estimated 1.29% of its GDP on defence and has fallen below 1.4% for the past 26 years.

Amid the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said a growing number of NATO members view the 2% benchmark "as the floor, not the ceiling."

The assessment claims these shortfalls prevent the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) from "[mounting] a major operation while maintaining its NATO battle group leadership [in Latvia] and aid to Ukraine." 

Yet, on July 5, the prime minister renewed Canada's mission to train Ukrainians and allied soldiers as part of Operation Reassurance and Unifer. Beforehand, only 1,000 CAF members served in Latvia.

As part of Operation Unifier, Defence Minister Anita Anada sent approximately 1000 soldiers to train Ukrainian military personnel in Poland last October, with more arriving in February and March.

For $2.6 billion, Canada and Latvia bolstered their NATO brigade, to which Trudeau pledged 1,200 additional military personnel in the region.

Trudeau said the reinforcements would strengthen Canadian land, maritime and air capabilities and bolster special operations in Central and Eastern Europe.

"Canada and all countries must be clear that Russia's unprovoked war on an independent country, on a free and democratic Ukraine, is a threat to freedom, international law, human rights and the whole set of shared democratic values that generations of soldiers have fought to defend," he told reporters in Riga, Latvia. 

Since 2015, CAF has trained more than 36,000 Ukrainian military and security personnel.

Cabinet extended its mandate in the region indefinitely following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, providing $1.4 billion of that funding for the expanded mandate in Budget 2022.

However, roughly 660 Canadian soldiers stationed in Latvia have had to purchase military equipment, including helmets, rain gear, tactical vests and ammunition, to maintain current ballistic protection standards this year.

The Department of National Defence said procuring new military equipment for its troops is underway. They have yet to comment further on the timeline to address the issue.

Another defence report revealed that 35% of active troops reported insufficient equipment to complete missions, exposing 'serious gaps' in the readiness of the Canadian military. Auditors said this is a chief concern. 

"The CAF will be challenged to meet its commitments to NATO without [correcting] its strained human resource levels," it read.

In an open letter, the Canada-based Conference of Defense Associations Institute called on Parliament to "radically accelerate the timelines for procurement and redress the poor state of our nation's current defence capacity, capabilities and state of readiness."

"Years of restraint, cost cutting, downsizing and deferred investment have meant that Canada's defence capabilities have atrophied," said 60 signatories that include former Canadian defence ministers, military commanders, and security and intelligence officials.

It said Canadian military leaders "perceive that politicians do not care about supporting them and that senior politicians publicly misrepresent defence spending for political gain."

The leaked Pentagon assessment said CAF lacks half the required pilots and calls procurement decisions "politically motivated, constrained by limited staffing and not properly codified in budget items."

The document concurred that CAF suffers from many problems concerning the military's readiness, personnel retention, "political apathy," and procurement.

Amid growing domestic concerns, NATO ally Germany expressed uncertainty about Canada maintaining its commitments to Ukraine while meeting its NATO pledges.

"We will be there until Ukraine wins the war," assured Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland on April 12.

"Ukrainians right now are fighting for the fundamentals of democracy, the U.N. Charter — the values and principles that underpin our country and so many others. That's why we stand with Ukraine," added Trudeau the following day.

Parliament controversially sent Ukraine $406 million in air defence equipment in January despite Canada's military operating without similar capabilities since 2012.

Plans for a new air defence system for CAF remain in limbo. The proposed purchase of an air defence system in its 2018 defence capability plan remains under review, with costs projected between $500 million and $1 billion.

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