COVID-19 may well be the End of the Canadian Armed Forces as we have Known them…and of our Effective Sovereignty

Further to this post,

Will COVID-19 Kill the Canadian Military? Its Budget, that is

excerpts from a piece by Eugene Lang, a Liberal who knows his defence stuff and Canadian politics, at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI). “SSE” is “Strong, Secure, Engaged“, the Justin Trudeau government’s 2017 paper pledging fairly large but never really very credible defence spending increases well down the line; it was in no sense a serious defence policy analysis demonstrating which defence capabilities were needed to achieve which military effects in pursuit of specific Canada’s national interests (we have not had one of those for yonks):

RIP SSE: What the COVID-19 Pandemic Means for Defence Funding

The lesson from this history is simple. Cutting defence spending in times of austerity is a bipartisan affair in Canada. This is owing less to politics than arithmetic. DND’s budget –which typically ranges from 1/5 to 1/4 of total federal departmental discretionary spending –is too big to be excluded from any serious spending restraint initiative. This is well understood by Liberals, Conservatives and the Finance Department.

The COVID-19 Recession and its Impact

No one knows how deep or how long the COVID-19-induced recession will be. But every serious analyst agrees it will produce the sharpest drop in output since the Great Depression. The International Monetary Fund, for example, projects a 6.2 per cent annualized decline in GDP for Canada,1nearly double that of the 2009 recession. And already the government’s fiscal response is without precedent and will lead to the largest deficit in postwar Canadian history (at least 10 per cent of GDP, or over $200 billion).

This does not mean that Ottawa will snap into austerity mode next year. The economy will likely be too weak for that kind of action and cutting government spending is not in the Trudeau government’s DNA to begin with…

One big difference between now and the past is that there will be enormous pressure on Ottawa after the recession to boost spending in a wide range of areas which have been exposed in the pandemic. These include public health funding, medical research, pandemic prevention and mitigation, the social safety net, and industries particularly hard hit during the recession. There are also Liberal election campaign commitments from 2019 to honour –almost none of which had been implemented pre-pandemic –of which national defence is conspicuously absent.

…this could produce a perfect storm for Strong, Secure, Engaged (SSE). This was always a big risk associated with a defence policy that had its funding ramped up gradually over many years. As the Harper government amply demonstrated, it is relatively easy to reduce or eliminate the rate of planned increases to defence funding –the government took almost no flak for doing so in 2010. Making matters worse, DND has failed to come anywhere near meeting the spending trajectory profiled in SSE, as David Perry has analyzed thoroughly. Which means flattening DND’s budget ramp is even more tempting for any government in austerity or even re-prioritization mode.

Would a change in government matter here? Unlikely. While the Conservatives are more committed to national defence and the Canadian Armed Forces than the Liberals, they would likely see deficit reduction as their top priority, and it is virtually impossible to have meaningful expenditure restraint that doesn’t involve national defence [what the Harper government did from 2010 on].


Over the past generation, recessions and the fiscal consolidation that has followed them have had a seriously negative impact on DND’s budget. The COVID-19 recession could be the most severe Canada has faced in at least 40 years. It has already resulted in the largest peacetime deficit in Canadian history. And, because of the pandemic, government priorities have changed radically overnight. The future for SSE and its associated funding does not look bright. National Defence probably has a year or two before the crunch hits. Now is therefore the time for strategic thinking and serious priority setting among the political, public service and miitary leadership to ensure that the 2020s don’t become another decade of darkness.

Eugene Lang is Adjunct Professor, School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University, and Fellow, Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He was chief of staff to two ministers of National Defence in the Chrétien and Martin governments and served as an official in the Department of Finance.

The 2020s most certainly will be “another decade of darkness”. It is not improbable that the Canadian military, if the Liberals win the next election, will effectively end up as a constabulary/militia force with domestic response to natural disasters of various sorts as its primary function along with very token commitments to UN peacekeeping missions. Bye bye to serious numbers of new RCAF fighters, to serious numbers of new RCN frigates, and to the needed large funding to renew NORAD’s North Warning System [see this post: “So Will the Canadian Government Put Some Big Bucks into Modernizing NORAD’s North Warning System?“]. And bye bye to any meaningful military participation in NATO.

Canada will then finally be defenceless against help from the US ( the following quote is from the last sentence of this earlier CGAI paper’s Executive Summary: “Throughout its 60-year existence, NORAD has been Canada’s “defence against help.”). Any American administration will have no hesitation in demanding the use of Canadian territory and waters for its own defence purposes if our efforts fall well below what the US thinks necessary. US Air Force bases at Cold Lake, Yellowknife, Goose Bay and a US Navy one at St. John’s anyone?

Take a look at this as an example of an increasingly prevalent Canadian progressive view; and Justin Trudeau’s “base” is progressive to the max:

Spending $19 billion on fighter jets won’t fight COVID-19 or climate change

Instead of buying a new weapons system, the federal government should disarm and invest in a Green New Deal

There it is. Plus earlier from Mr Lang:

Is the “business Liberal” extinct?

By the way the photo at the top of the post is of the Avro CF-100 Canuck interceptor, the first jet fighter developed in Canada–to defend against Soviet bombers…and US help.

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

8 thoughts on “COVID-19 may well be the End of the Canadian Armed Forces as we have Known them…and of our Effective Sovereignty”

  1. A response to this post at

    “Great piece Mark. It’s pretty well certain that the CAF is going to be in a world of hurt once this is all said and done.

    I’m predicting the Navy scraps it’s submarines and we don’t end up with anywhere close to those 15 frigates.

    I can see the Air Force buying a token fighter force of JAS Gripen for NORAD duties and other programs get turfed. Armed RPAs never materialize and CP140s don’t get replaced.

    The Army will park the Tanks and other kit like AD, etc will never appear either.

    Anyway you slice it, the CAF as a fighting force is going to go the way of the Irish Defence Force or the NZDF. It’s what the present Government wants and it’s ultimately what Canadians want.

    This could be a very good opportunity to make some personnel cuts to the Force, that won’t happen though. The Government will raid the O&M and Procurement Budgets and use the CAF as a form of CADPAT Welfare.”,35774.msg1611061.html#msg1611061

    Mark Collins


  2. Plus from a relevant analysis of how European NATO members should plan for the future, with the US much in mind:


    The tendency since the end of the Cold War, and indeed for much of it, has been to place political compromise before defence and deterrent effect. The 2019 NATO Military Strategy was reflective of such a tradition. However, NATO and its nations will soon face hard choices and it is those choices the NATO Reflection Group should address.

    NATO is ultimately strategic insurance against war in an unstable world in which strategy, technology, capability and affordability are combining for allies and adversaries alike. NATO must thus be a high-end, warfighting military deterrent. It is NOT a military EU.

    Above all, Europeans must realise that in the coming decade a hard-pressed US will only be able to ‘guarantee’ Europe’s future defence if Europeans do far more for their own defence. COVID-19 or no! For once, the future of NATO really is at stake. If we fail to modernise our Alliance one day power really could do to some of us, what malicious and malevolent power can, indeed, do if not deterred.

    Julian Lindley-French”

    Mark Collins


  3. This, from a former member of the RCAF, is too true:

    Mark Collins


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