Canada’s defense minister says he won’t put “fake numbers” on Canada’s military spending just because Donald Trump and Canada’s NATO allies tell him to.
In a sit-down interview with VICE News, Harjit Singh Sajjan admitted that the Canadian Armed Forces are running on a “deficit” and that he’ll be looking to boost military spending, but wouldn’t come out and say that he’ll meet the targets set out by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.
“Yes, there needs to be more investment, I’ve always said that,” Sajjan told VICE News in a sit-down interview. “We need predictable funding for the military.”
Sajjan sat down with VICE News at the Halifax Security Forum last month, where the topic was top-of-mind for many of the military brass assembled at the summit, one of the first international meetings since Trump’s upset election.
“But when it comes to how much we spend on defense, I’m not going to come out and put a fake number to it. I’m going through a credible process in order to come out and put a right number to the investment.”
Members of the NATO military alliance are strongly encouraged to spend two-percent of their GDP on defense spending in order to have a well-stocked and well-trained military capable of responding to global threats, though there’s never been much punishment for laggards. And Canada is one of the worst laggards of all.
“It’s not about just what you spend, it’s what you do.”
Ottawa spends just 0.99 percent of its GDP on defense — ahead of only Slovenia, Spain, Belgium, and Luxembourg, in the 28-member alliance — and has not budged in years.
Embarrassment within military circles aside, Canada’s failure to even reach the halfway mark has rarely been a real issue. That is, until Donald Trump’s campaign for president, where the iconoclast made indirect threats to the NATO countries not paying their “fair share,” suggesting that he could pull out of the alliance if all countries don’t meet the two-percent target.
But pushed on the two-percent figure, and Sajjan was more cagey.
“There’s a couple of things to that. One is, it’s not about just what you spend, it’s what you do. In terms of Canada, what we do is quite substantial in the world. In the NATO context it’s extremely substantial,” Sajjan said.
Sajjan touted his government’s defense review, which is aiming to assess what the Canadian military is going to need in the decades to come — whether it acquires armed drones, whether it procures the F-35 stealth fighter, what is to become of Canada’s submarine fleet — but remained evasive on specifics.
But the numbers in his government’s first budget don’t match Sajjan’s promise. The Liberal government has actually decreased funding for the Canadian Armed Forces in the short term, punting $3.7 billion in near-term defense spending to beyond 2020.
“You can’t forget the bills. They have an obligation to make payments. Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing. You can’t say forget that.”
Pressed, Sajjan would only ask that the public — and those who want Canada to double its NATO contribution — to be patient.
While Canada’s contribution to NATO is significant, especially in Eastern Europe, there are obviously concerns about the Canadian military being up to the job in some scenarios. Both its air force and its navy have had to rely heavily on retrofitting ships and planes well past their service date, and have needed to lease or buy interim capabilities just to function.
Trump’s comments, from a July interview with the New York Times, were mostly levied at Eastern European partners who were relying on the United States for supplies and training.
“You can’t forget the bills. They have an obligation to make payments. Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing. You can’t say forget that,” Trump said.
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself. All I’ll say is that there needs to be more investment in the Canadian Armed Forces,” he said. “We have been running on a deficit.”
New York Times reporter David Sanger followed up: can NATO members count on America if they were attacked by Russia?
“Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes,” Trump.
Trump doubled-down on the comments in the first presidential debate, insisting that “we should be asking” the countries to pay their “fair share,” especially if “we’re defending them.”
But Trump went on to say that NATO “could be obsolete,” if they don’t focus on terrorism — something the president-elect feels should be a priority for the alliance.