By James McCarten in Washington
A trove of leaked Pentagon secrets included Prime Minister Justin Trudeau privately telling NATO that Canada would never meet the military alliance’s targets for defence spending, the Washington Post reported Wednesday.
One document in particular, unsigned and undated, includes that blunt assessment among other “widespread” military deficiencies in Canada that are causing friction with security partners and allies, the newspaper says.
The Post report, published online Wednesday, describes it as a Pentagon assessment and does not include any direct quotes from Trudeau himself, nor many from the document beyond single words.
NATO, for instance, is “concerned” that Canada hasn’t added to its battle group in Latvia. Turkey was “disappointed” by Canada’s “refusal” to help transport aid after an earthquake earlier this year. Haiti is “frustrated” by Canada’s reluctance to mount a security mission.
“Widespread defence shortfalls hinder Canadian capabilities,” the Post quotes the document as saying, “while straining partner relationships and alliance contributions.”
It all points toward a U.S. perception of the Canadian Armed Forces as underfunded and ill-equipped, making it hard for Canada to maintain ties among allies and impairing its international reputation.
Defence Minister Anita Anand rejected any suggestion that allies are expressing concerns about Canada’s contributions, as she prepared to meet with around 50 counterparts this week at the Ukraine Defence Contact Group in Germany.
She said spending was a topic of discussion Wednesday when she met with David Cohen, the U.S. ambassador to Canada.
“We spoke about our defence spending, generally speaking, and we discussed the upward trajectory of our defence spending and in fact how Canada continues to make foundational investments for the Canadian Armed Forces,” she said in an interview.
Anand pointed out that the Liberal government has committed to nearly $40 billion on Norad modernization and North American defence, along with $8 billion in military spending announced in the 2022 budget.
As for Latvia, Canada has launched an urgent, competitive procurement process to equip troops there with anti-tank, anti-drone and anti-air defence systems, Anand said.
Planning with the other 10 countries involved in the Canadian-led battle group is still ongoing.
Criticism of defence spending has been a political mainstay in Ottawa, as it is elsewhere around the world. NATO wants its members to spend at least two per cent of their GDP on defence — a target Canada consistently fails to reach.
“Canada has always been one that has depended too heavily upon other nations to provide that collective security. And we definitely have benefited from it,” Conservative defence critic James Bezan said Wednesday.
“It’s time for us to step up and make sure that we pull our weight, especially in these dangerous times that we find ourselves in.”
Asked about the Post story Wednesday, Trudeau did not acknowledge the report directly or explain precisely what he said to alliance officials.
“I continue to say, and will always say, that Canada is a reliable partner to NATO, a reliable partner around the world,” he said.
The Post report says the Forces warned back in February that a major military operation would be impossible, given its ongoing support for Ukraine and its support role leading a NATO battle group in Russia-adjacent Latvia.
The story doesn’t linger on what that operation might be, but the U.S. has been keen to see someone lead a multinational support mission in gang-ravaged Haiti, and officials have even name-checked Canada as a worthy option.
No such commitment materialized last month after President Joe Biden’s Ottawa visit. But that meeting with Trudeau did address other military shortcomings identified in the document, most notably with a promised $14-billion investment in the continental defence system known as Norad.
Canada has faced criticism domestically and around the world for a perceived reluctance to meet NATO’s spending expectations.
“It’s embarrassing,” Bezan said.
“Here he is telling Americans behind the scenes that there’s no chance that we’ll do it. That is undermining our bilateral relationship, and not just on the security front.”
NATO established the two per cent threshold in 2006 to ensure ongoing military readiness and provide “an indicator of a country’s political will to contribute to NATO’s common defence efforts,” the alliance says on its website.
Canada was among the allies who signed on in 2014 to aspire towards that target.
The U.S. has shouldered an outsized share of the burden; total spending of all other allies is only about half of American expenditures on defence — “a constant, with variations, throughout the history of the alliance.”
But Anand said she believes Canadians care about results, and the target is “only one way of measuring our contributions.”
“There aren’t many other countries that can say that they have trained 36,000 Ukrainian soldiers,” she said, while also responding to natural disasters at home and increasing their presence in the Indo-Pacific.
Since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Canada has provided more than $1.3 billion in military aid, including armoured vehicles, cannons, ammunition and eight Leopard II tanks.
Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 19, 2023.
— With files from Stephanie Taylor and Sarah Ritchie in Ottawa