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Examining the arguments for and against increased defence spending in Canada

By Zal Dholoo, June 17 2023—

In the wake of the 2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine, militaries around the world have awoken from their post-Cold War hibernation and have restarted the seemingly eternal quest for modernization. This article will present arguments both for and against investing further in the Canadian Armed Forces. 


The Canadian military is part of Canada’s young but storied history, it was an aspirational institution and a source of national pride for Canadians. The Canadian military, at its peak after World War II, consisted of the fourth largest blue water navy in the world, a large and battle-tested land army, along with a formidable air force. In the postwar world, Canada led the way in creating international treaties (such as the 1997 Ottawa Treaty which banned the use of landmines), participated in various peacekeeping missions worldwide, and alongside the American military established the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD).  Today the Canadian Armed Forces’ roles are threefold: to be a credible deterrent, to contribute to alliances with a capable force, and to protect and monitor Canadian sovereignty.

Canada’s military is not only a source of national pride, but its ability to be a credible deterrent is primary to the safety and sovereignty of Canada. In order to help guarantee Canada’s sovereignty, Canada has committed itself to military alliances which comes with the implicit and explicit expectation that the Canadian military is able to be a credible threat. As such, Canada must be able to contribute forces to these alliances. Apart from being an active part of military alliances, Canada has a storied past of contributing a disproportionately large amount of humanitarian aid, in order to continue to do this, Canada needs a significant air and sealift capability, which the Royal Canadian Navy currently does not have

The Canadian Armed Forces require these capabilities not just currently but into the future. In order to do this Canada must maintain a defence industrial base. This means that there are many companies which have the ability to produce defence equipment which operate in Canada. Funding the Canadian Armed Forces is an investment in the Canadian defence industrial base, which gives Canada an important ability to manufacture and sustain heavy equipment. This ensures that the immensely expensive defence contracts the government signs ultimately go into the pockets of Canadians. Apart from creating jobs, a stable defence industrial base is important in exporting Canadian designs. Though the next generation of warships for the Royal Canadian Navy seem to operate by some sort of twisted version of Shrödinger’s uncertainty principle — whereby every act of observation seems to invariably increase the cost — systems already developed for these ships will be sold to the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwanese) Navy. Situations like these are few and far between, but a constant investment in the defence industrial base ensures a level of competitiveness which companies cannot reach without government funding. Investment in a defence capability can create a lasting and competitive industrial base vital for a high readiness of the Canadian Armed Forces, while also creating economic output. 

Altogether, the Canadian Armed Forces is a storied institution which is required to carry out three main tasks: to protect and monitor sovereignty, to contribute to alliances Canada is part of, and to be a credible threat. In order to do this and ensure that government spending results in economic benefits for Canadians, a defence industrial base is required. In turn, funding should be stable, and should be allocated as early as possible, and as consistently as possible. This along with a capability gap that the Canadian Armed Forces seeks to close, means that the only way forward for the Canadian Armed Forces is to increase the defence budget.


There are two reasons why Canada should not increase defence spending: firstly defence spending is a uniquely useless form of spending, and leading from this, money spent on the military is often better spent elsewhere. 

Canada’s distance from its potential adversaries while having the largest defence spender in the world to its south, give Canada a valuable ability to spend less on defence. This ability is valuable since every dollar spent on defence is a dollar that could be spent on infrastructure, social programs, or otherwise enriching the experience of every Canadian. Further, defence expenditure is uniquely wasteful, as the tools of war have no utility outside of the battlefield. When buying a piece of military equipment, you are essentially purchasing a chasm to throw money into, having to pay for not only the purchase but also the support, logistics, maintenance and training for that equipment. 

The argument can be made that certain capabilities such as air or sealift capabilities are “dual use,” meaning able to be used for both civilian and military roles. However, in the case where a military capability can be used for non-military use, it is often far cheaper to just use a commercial capability. For example: when moving cargo by sea or by air, the military will often charter, or outright lease certain commercial ships and aircraft. In fact, the Royal Canadian Navy currently leases a modified container ship, the MV Asterix. Military equipment is built to a standard of redundancy which is unnecessary and detrimental to commercial operations, hence why they are more expensive to operate and build. 

In the era of globalization and mutually assured destruction, the military is no longer the primary guarantor of sovereignty. Militaries are built to deter, they are built for a war that will never be fought. Deterrence through military superiority is a flawed concept. Ultimately, pitting two economies on their ability to produce weapons, encouraging both sides to essentially waste money, time and resources in hopes that the other side will give up first. Truly, the weapons of war have no purpose other than to wage war, they are wasted as deterrents. Rather than using weapons of war to create an unstable peace, we must invest in institutions to create lasting peace. Forums for discussion and a legitimate willingness to negotiate are the only ways to truly avoid war. 

Canadian funds are better placed in organizations which already do good in the world. There is a panoply of nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations which work to improve the standard of living across the globe. Canadian humanitarian aid does not require the Canadian Armed Forces. If the Government of Canada wanted to help people who experience food insecurity, it could increase funding to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), if it was looking to have a hand in ensuring that every child has access to basic preventative healthcare they could offer grants for Doctors without Borders, or if the Canadian government is feeling particularly uninspired they could simply pledge more money as ‘non-earmarked’ funds (money that the United Nations can allocate as is required). Funding does not have to be massive, after all the annual budget of the FAO in 2021 was 500 million USD, which amounts to about half of a Harry DeWolf Class Patrol Vessel, of which the Royal Canadian Navy and Coast Guard are buying 8. This is to say that helping make a difference globally does not necessarily mean spending on the Canadian Armed Forces. Adjacently, going above and beyond in humanitarian aid does not necessarily mean spending big either, spending on international institutions comes at a fraction of the cost of increasing the defence budget, and will have a greater impact on the world. 

Taken together, an increase in the defence budget means an investment exclusively in military capability. However, if the goal of the spending is to create a positive impact abroad, there are a variety of intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations that create an asymmetric impact for the funding they receive and would benefit from increased funding from the Government of Canada. It is a sobering thought that the entirety of the United Nations, with its vast ocean of agencies, establishing and maintaining international law in a myriad of regimes, with 193 member states, operated on a budget of just 65 billion USD in 2021, while in 2022 the Canadian healthcare budget alone was around 5 times as much, at 331 billion CAD


There are some weaknesses in the argumentation, mainly that these arguments argue from a bird’s eye view, tend to be hyperopic and as a result ignore certain aspects entirely. For example, there are certain capabilities that are shared between the Canadian Armed Forces and the civilian branches of the Canadian government, most notably search and rescue. These capabilities are of paramount importance but are not factored into this argument for brevity’s sake.

This article is a part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.

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