Canada is seeking to increase military spending, including the possible purchase of F-35 fighter jets. CNS photo/U.S. Air Force, Senior Airman Joseph Barron, Handout via Reuters

‘War spending’ traps us in new Cold War

  • March 16, 2022

The world doesn’t just feel like a more dangerous place since Russian troops entered Ukraine, it is a reality.

Russia’s nuclear forces have been on high alert and the U.S. military is watching Russia’s nukes closely. We’re at 2.5 million refugees and counting. Bombs and shells have landed within 50 kms of Poland — a NATO ally.

“It’s terrifying,” Pax Christi Toronto member Greg Gillis told The Catholic Register. “I’m terrified for my students, for the children I’m teaching, for my children.”

But Gillis’ fears aren’t just about what Russia might do. He also worries about what Canada and the West are doing in response. He fears more defence spending, more weapons and a cycle of escalating defence budgets that will trap Canada in a new Cold War for at least a generation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hasn’t committed to increasing Canada’s defence budget above already planned levels, but since the Ukraine-Russia war began he has acknowledged the “context is changing rapidly around the world.” Gillis believes Canada’s military spending was already headed in the wrong direction. In January he launched a petition calling on Canada to reject plans to purchase new fighter jets.

The petition has 332 signatures, but only one or two since the bombs started falling in Ukraine.

Defence spending in Canada isn’t going to end the war in Ukraine and it isn’t going to make Canadians any safer, Gillis said.

“We need to be honest here and call it war spending, not defence spending,” he said.

Canada’s defence budget is on a sharp upward trajectory. Since a 2017 Department of Defence white paper — “Strong, Secure, Engaged” — defining Canada’s spending priorities, this country has committed to increasing military spending by 70 per cent over 10 years. Most of that money is going into bolstering air and naval capabilities. That means some sort of fighter jet, most likely the F-35, and a new fleet of 15 warships that could cost up to $219 billion over the expected lifetime of the big boats.

Though the initial purchase price for the F-35 is pegged at $19 billion, maintaining those jets over 20 years brings the price tag up to about $100 billion.

That kind of money isn’t just money. It represents lost opportunities to make sure all Canadians are properly housed, to tackle climate change, to invest in the next generation, said Gillis.

Pax Christi International has called out Russian aggression that has “flagrantly violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in open contradiction of the treaties it has itself signed and the Charter of the United Nations.” But Pax Christi is equally emphatic that more weapons won’t solve the problem.

“Diplomacy is the only way out if we want to preserve peace,” said a statement from Pax Christi’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

There are certainly Catholic voices who would question Gillis’ opposition to fighter jets.

“It is naive to ask for not building or buying jets when another potential enemy has them in large amount,” said Jesuit Fr. Eduardo Soto Para in an email. “When countries are led by violent and authoritarian people, asking for not having jets could harm the right of self defence of peaceful countries.”

Soto Para has a PhD in peace studies from the Mauro Centre for Peace and Justice at St. Paul’s College, the University of Manitoba.

While University of Manitoba defence expert James Fergusson disagrees with Gillis on defence spending, his own view lines up pretty well with Pax Christi’s on how to end the war in Ukraine. Fergusson values voices like Gillis’s.

“You know where I stand on all these things. I’m a defence guy. I’m a military guy,” said Fergusson. “But these people are important voices and checks on governments to ensure that they don’t get entirely captured by the armed forces, by the military. Because they can be.”

While Fergusson wants new jets, new warships and even spending on early warning systems in Canada’s Arctic, he doesn’t think that’s how the war in Ukraine gets resolved. Fergusson views Russia’s adventure in Ukraine as “a limited war for limited objectives.”

“What the Russians have said is that all we want from Ukraine, basically, is two things. One, declare yourself neutral — that you will never join NATO. And two, demilitarize. What they mean by demilitarize is stop acquiring Western military equipment, stop getting military advisors and trainers.”

Whether or not those demands are reasonable, they can be the basis for diplomatic negotiations. But Fergusson is certain that the one thing Putin’s war should not do is drive irrational, hysterical spending decisions on defence.

“If you have a narrative that we have now dominating about Putin and Russian objectives, it creates this hysteria and panic that we’ve got to invest more money, we’ve got to do something now, now, now! Which we can’t do, because even if they gave us all the money in the world, nothing is going to happen for another 10 years.”

What’s the right amount to spend on defence? There’s no easy answer, according to Fergusson.

“There are people who say we’re spending too much. There are people who point out in Canada we’re not spending enough. At the end of the day, what the government decides is what we spend. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

In 2006 Canada and all the other NATO countries pegged their spending aspirations at an annual two per cent of gross domestic product. By 2024-2025 the Department of National Defence expects to hit 1.48 per cent, up from 1.31 per cent in 2018-2019.

“Canada hasn’t spent two per cent of GDP on defence for probably four or five decades,” said Fergusson.

The increases in Canada’s defence budget right now are being driven by the obsolescence of Canada’s 40-year-old jets and even older warships. There have to be objective measures setting a defence budget, Fergusson said.

Rather than percentages of GDP picked out of the air, or panic buying in response to scary headlines, Fergusson believes defence spending should be driven by facts. The government should understand the level of threat Western democracies face, the technological demands of an effective defence and what’s necessary to mount a common defence with our allies.

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