Campaign 2004

FIGHTING THE PHONY WAR

The politicians shoot off their mouths on defence while vital equipment crumbles

Mary Janigan June 21 2004
Campaign 2004

FIGHTING THE PHONY WAR

The politicians shoot off their mouths on defence while vital equipment crumbles

Mary Janigan June 21 2004

FIGHTING THE PHONY WAR

ON THE ISSUES

The politicians shoot off their mouths on defence while vital equipment crumbles

Mary Janigan

IT IS ALMOST impossible to reconcile this campaign’s resolutely patriotic and pricey defence proposals with the grim reality of the current force. The Liberals, the Tories and even the NDP dangle the prospect of high-tech new equipment. They airily toss about huge cash figures. And no one deals with the unpleasant fact that even if the equipment contracts were signed tomorrow, nothing would arrive for years. Meanwhile, everything from helicopter fleets to transport aircraft to trucks is literally disintegrating. “They are not addressing the real problem in a coherent way,” argues Douglas Bland, chairman of Queen’s University’s defence management studies program. “What they should be doing is: recognize the collapse and talk about how they are going to get along until the new soldiers and equipment arrive.”

Don’t hold your breath. Instead, the campaign has generated fogs of phony war. Each party, especially the Liberals, has unveiled the same plans on multiple occasions. This has created so much confusion that experts cannot even price the competing defence platforms—because so many items are already included in current spending projections. The bottom line is that both the Liberals and Conservatives have virtually similar shopping lists— no matter what they say. The NDP would get helicopters but cancel “offensive, expensive and unnecessary weapons systems”—whatever those are—and put the savings into higher pay, training and more equipment.

There are more differences in how

the parties would use that equipment— but not half as much as they pretend. The NDP talks about peacekeeping. The Liberals would add 5,000 troops—and keep the peace in multilateral operations. The Tories would bring troop strength from 60,000 to 80,000 for operations such as domestic disasters, peacekeeping and multilateral combat missions. But peacekeeping almost always entails combat these days. Another largely phony war.

Party spinners deepen the confusion. The Tories don’t want to look too extreme: they are portraying themselves as upright Liberals. The Liberals fear this. So when the Tories proclaimed that they would buy two hybrid carriers and “reconsider” plans to replace tanks with lighter wheeled vehicles, the Grits scoffed: aircraft carriers and tanks are so yesterday. “If you look at the way we are attacking the Tories,” says a senior Liberal, only half-jokingly, “you would think we were against defence.”

But, Bland says, the Tory carriers are essentially the same as the support ships that the Liberals announced in mid-April— for perhaps the third time. And even experts are divided about the wisdom of the Grits’ decision to buy armoured wheeled vehicles to replace tracked tanks.

Such sophistry is a shame: defence is about the protection of our safety and sovereignty, not about backing U.S. adventurism abroad. Most voters want stronger forces. In an April survey, Pollara Inc. found 54 per cent would spend more on defence-compared to 38 per cent for more foreign aid. It makes for an odd election: everyone prattles about peacekeeping and snipes at rivals. And no one admits the simple truth: we can barely manage to send troops anywhere until at least 2010. No matter what they promise.

Mary Janigan is a political and policy writer. mary.janigan@macleans.rogers.com

Everyone prattles about peacekeeping and no one admits the truth: we can barely send troops anywhere until at least 2010