HALIFAX — Canada’s top soldier says the military’s ability to keep funding a “persistent presence” of warships in the western Pacific is facing challenges on the current budget.
Gen. Wayne Eyre was speaking during the Halifax International Security Forum Saturday during a panel discussion focused on China’s emergence as a military superpower.
The chief of defence staff said Canada currently has three frigates operating in the region on joint naval exercises with Japan and the United States.
He noted, however, that those ships are reaching the end of their 30-year lifespan.
Eyre said while Canada is committed to keeping ships operating in the area, sustaining the frigates is “going to be a challenge … as we balance resources around the world.”
He added the Halifax-class frigates are in what he called desperate need of maintenance.
“If we take a look at the trajectory of our maintenance funding over the next few years, we’re going to have a very, very hard time given the current path,” Eyre said.
He also said he’s concerned about keeping the country’s maritime patrol aircraft flying, saying “serviceability” is below 50 per cent and they are in urgent need of replacement.
The comments from Eyre are just the latest concerns being expressed about what impact looming budget restraint at the Ministry of National Defence may have on the military. Deputy minister Bill Matthews told MPs on the House of Commons defence committee in September that the department is identifying “proposals for spending reductions” totaling more than $900 million over four years, while trying to minimize the impact on military readiness.
Defence Minister Bill Blair seemed to acknowledge the staff’s worries on Friday when he appeared before the forum in the forum’s opening panel discussion on the Ukraine war.
He told the roughly 300 delegates attending the forum that it is difficult for Canada to provide long-term ammunition commitments to Ukraine when it’s own stockpiles are so low.
“The Canadian Armed Forces is in desperate need of reconstitution and resources and equipment and we’re committed to doing that, and I’m asking them very often to make sacrifices and give up part of their own reserves and stockpiles to share with Ukraine,” he said.
Outside experts have said finding almost $1 billion in savings will affect the Armed Forces’ capabilities, although Blair has insisted his department’s spending isn’t being cut.
The most recent federal budget projected $39.7 billion for the department in 2026-27, up from $26.5 billion in the current fiscal year. Most of the budget for the next several years is tied up in long-term spending commitments, such as the purchase of 88 F-35 fighter jets.,
In the same budget, the government announced plans to find more than $15 billion in savings over five years by cutting consulting, professional services and travel by 15 per cent and departmental spending by three per cent.
The defence budget is about 1.3 per cent of Canada’s GDP. The Liberal government has never laid out a plan to get to two per cent despite pressure to do so from some of its fellow NATO members and past commitments to reach the target.
On Saturday, Blair told reporters in Halifax his department is seeking “additional funding,” adding the ministry must also work on spending the money already in hand.
“We’re right in the middle of some very important fiscal discussions with Finance Department,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2023.
Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press