OTTAWA — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan offered a grim assessment Wednesday of the state of the military, saying years of underfunding has hollowed out the armed forces and left it struggling to do even basic tasks.
The comments to defence industry representations and experts came as the Liberal government prepares to unveil its new defence policy, which Sajjan promised would begin to fix some of the problems.
"It will be a plan to get out of the hole we are starting in and it will be a plan to build an even stronger military," Sajjan said in a speech to the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan speaks to the Conference of Defence Associations Institute in Ottawa on May 3, 2017. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
"It will be a plan to allocate realistic funding to those 'bread and butter' projects that will keep our military running efficiently and effectively for years to come."
It was the underfunding of those "bread and butter projects," known in defence circles as the "Key 18," that were the main focus of Sajjan's address and which senior defence officials say pose the biggest problem.
Those include upgrades and life extensions to two military helicopter fleets, air defences for infantry units, and engineering and logistical vehicles for the army, among others.
Sajjan said governments have also consistently underfunded support for military personnel.
"We are now in the troubling position where status quo spending on defence will not even maintain a status quo of capabilities," the minister said.
"Current funding has us digging ourselves into a hole. A hole that gets deeper every year. As a percentage of GDP, we are spending less on defence today than we were in 2005."
Yet Sajjan was light on details when it came to how the Liberals intend to get out of that hole.
The minister said the government is being more rigorous in determining the costs of different military procurement projects and the purchasing policy as a whole, which experts have previously identified as a big problem.
That includes enlisting the help of six accounting firms to review how the government and military came up with its costs and ensuring sustainable defence funding.
But Sajjan offered mixed signals when it came to whether the government will actually invest billions of additional dollars to pay for not only the Key 18, but also other important, but less critical, capabilities.
During his speech, the minister said that "before it can build anything new, Canada's defence policy must first get us out of the hole that we're starting in."
But he also told audience members during a question-and-answer session after the speech that the military will require "significant investment."
At the same time, Sajjan went back to the government's previous defence of existing military spending levels when asked about meeting NATO's two per cent defence spending arget, noting Canada is deploying troops to Latvia.
Canada currently spends about one per cent of GDP on defence.