The stupidity of the 2%

Irving ships leave a sinking feeling

Editor’s note: Matt Stickland is a retired Officer of the Royal Canadian Navy.


There have been a lot of crazy policies coming out of the United States in recent months. Like, tearing families apart, losing trade wars and throwing hissy fits in the direction of the NFL.

For this foreign policy nerd Trump’s most egregious error came at a breakfast in Brussels when he demanded that NATO allies pay four per cent of their GDP on military spending.

While Canadian politicians have stayed away from the four per cent Trump put forward, some Conservative  politicians have said that we should be spending at least two per cent, as is NATO policy.

It seems like a good idea in theory, but in practice it’s dumb.

Understanding why increasing spending on the Canadian Forces is a bonehead move requires a bit of context on the role our military plays in politics. According to a study published in 2018 by Earnscliffe Strategy Group, most Canadians have only a vague understanding of the military, and the role it plays in Canada.

This is probably because when the military does make headlines it’s almost always bad news.

Like how the army can’t buy decent boots.

Or when the air force scavenges spare parts from a museum.

Or when the navy has to ban alcohol because sailors got too drunk.

Or when we finally get the helicopters we bought, 10 years after promised, and then learn we can’t land them on our ships.

Or for being sexist.

Or racist.

The best example of how spending money doesn’t lead to a better military is when the government buys Irving ships for the Navy at $700 million per ship, even though other countries can make the same ship for $70 million. The inflated price was sold as acceptable because Irving is headquartered in our very own Halifax, which should mean jobs for Canadians.

But Irving isn’t employing Canadians in the numbers they were supposed to. They’re bringing in a lot foreign workers  and not giving their Canadian workers sick days.

This is all without addressing the fact that we can’t even use the ships as warships because they have the same, or less, capability than a drone.

Canadian politicians have always been able to put military capability on the back burner. The assumption was that Canada can count on the U.S. to honour our alliance. That used to be true. Until Trump.

Before Trump there was no question whether our southern allies would come to Canada’s aid. Would Trump’s now-great-again-America come to Canada’s aid today if Russia annexed part of the North? The uncertainty coming out of the White House means that we can’t count on our most trusted ally to have our back, no matter what. Since we can’t count on them, we need to defend ourselves.

With the headlines making the Canadian Forces seem like a perpetual tire-fire and with a renewed need for a better equipped military, it seems like to Canada should fix these problems by opening the coffers.

The glaring hole in this plan is that spending money doesn’t guarantee that the military will be able to complete its missions. We could hit a two per cent of GDP on military spending target if we gave the Irvings a couple more shipbuilding contracts. We could hit it if we increased veterans’ pensions and benefits. But spending too much on ships with no real weapons, or making sure our veterans are well cared for doesn’t mean that the military is better equipped to fight a war. We could hit any spending target if we bought trillions of sleeping bags and backpacks, which – although wouldn’t increase capability – it needs.

If we spend ship loads of money on sleeping bags, pensions or ship building it’s no guarantee that the military can complete the tasks given to it.

The reason we’re spending $3.2 billion on the DeWolf class of ships is to defend our arctic sovereignty. The amount of ice that DeWolfs can sail in is so low they’ve been called “slush-breakers” by detractors. With a single small cannon and a couple machine guns the ship can’t defend itself against most military threats, it can’t make a dent in a warship, submarine or plane.

If Canada is serious about national defense it needs to ignore any spending target. Instead Canada needs to define what it wants its military to do and buy whatever equipment is needed to do that. We need to stop trying to shoehorn ‘made in Canada’ solutions into military spending to court voters.

Typically, these ships cost no more than $70 million dollars each, and that price tag includes designing the ship. We paid Irving $288 million for just the design. If we had bought the ships that Irving is making from a country like Poland, we’d have saved billions.

If injecting money into the Canadian economy is the goal, the savings could have paid for five basic income pilot projects like the one cancelled by Doug Ford.

It could have been around $3,000 for every Nova Scotian. But no, instead we’re paying Irving $3.2 billion to line their pockets and hire foreign workers so they can give us manned drones behind schedule and over budget.



  1. Phil McCracken on September 27, 2018 at 1:49 pm

    Decrease the navy. Make it four ships on either coast. So many things go wrong there. Waste of money. How does having a ship floating around the Med help Canada.

  2. John McKenna on September 29, 2018 at 8:28 am

    Totally legitimate criticism. I would argue that the 2% goal is still one that should be attained because its honouring a collective agreement we committed too. The goal recognizes differing economies capacity for defence spending by making the target a relative one. Furthermore, our capability delta that you rightly point out is not improved by a lack of achieving that goal. It adds to the problem you highlight. This said, our military procurement process has long been recognized as in great need of overhaul. It has many structural issues that lead to these failures and cost inflations. This, a lack of a shipbuilding strategy, and lack of controls in labour law supporting these projects are just a few of the sources of the problems you highlight. These are fixable problems. Legislators just don’t seem interested in fixing it. During the War in Afghanistan, this process was simply bypassed because its flaws are well recognized and in the situation, soldiers on the ground couldn’t wait for a flawed process to spit out bad equipment sometime after the war was over. It’s not an issue with the 2% goal. As for support equipment, sleeping bags and backpacks do increase capability. I get where you were going with this statement. This equipment doesn’t allow you to directly apply force to influence a battle. But it does support that goal in a vital, though not obvious way. I’m a serving member, I can say this from first hand experience. But you don’t need to be in the infantry to understand that entering battle with all your equipment an in a rested state has a significant impact on you chances of success in a fight. As you stated, most people don’t understand their military. They don’t understand its value in preserving their freedoms, nor do they understand the complexity of the profession of arms. A competent Army, Navy or Air Force cannot be built in a rush to meet a threat. It takes ongoing support and a lifetime of learning and training to develop skills as you move up the chain in the military command structure. You cannot generate and experienced warship captain, battle group commander or fighter pilot in a year. These skills take many years to develop. You enter a conflict with what you have and Canada has a history of entering conflict unprepared, undertrained and poorly equipped. It has been through the luck of having bigger friends on the winning side holding back the enemy while we got our stuff together that’s put us on the winning side. It has given us the ability to look at our military accomplishments with pride while turning a blind eye to the hard work and unnecessary losses we took getting there. Its set a false impression in the minds of Canadians that we can just build what we need overnight and as the need arises. We think its acceptable to fail to meet our commitments to our allies because the “Americans will defend us”. This is true, but it is the equivalent of saying “I don’t need to pay for all my power because I just plug my home into my neighbors outlet to save money”. It might be true, but it is also ethically wrong. Thank you for your article and the insight you brought to this very real issue.

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Matt Stickland

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