With a week and a half left before election day, several leading military experts say squabbling over military equipment purchases has overshadowed more pressing defence, security and foreign policy issues.
The Conservative government’s planned purchase of 65 new multi-billion-dollar F-35 Lightning II fighter jets has essentially sidetracked discussion about Canada’s changing role in Afghanistan, said Ottawa-based military watchdog Scott Taylor, editor and publisher of Esprit de Corps magazine.
Likewise, there is a great need for public debate on Canada’s role in the NATO-led mission in Libya, he said.
“We’ve jumped into this thing with both feet,” Taylor said. “The fact that our air force jumped in and that the government committed them, I do think a lot of it has to do with trying to sell Canadians on the need for modern fighter jets.”
When it comes to debates related to the military, campaigning politicians have spent a lot of time pointing fingers over money earmarked for new equipment, which may prove counterproductive.
“When it comes to defence and security affairs, people have a tendency to get involved in the details and the nitty gritty of things, like buying airplanes and ships,” said retired air force brigadier-general and Sidney resident Don Macnamara.
Campaign priorities should focus on Canadian security, prosperity and our country’s contribution to global stability, said Macnamara, a former professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
The acquisition of military hardware typically becomes a hotly contested issue when the writ is dropped, said retired army lieutenant-colonel Alex Morrison, now a Royal Roads University associate professor.
And that can set the military back. A case in point was when the Liberals cancelled the Conservatives’ 2004 purchase of new helicopters to replace the aging Sea King models.
Promises made by the Liberals to scrap, and by the NDP to delay the purchase of the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35) planes will have expensive repercussions, said Morrison, who also works as director of RRU’s School of Peace and Conflict Management. “If the government wants Canada to have a well-equipped military, then it’s got to have a regular replacement policy.”
By now it should come as no surprise that military and foreign policy issues aren’t garnering much air time this election, said retired admiral John Anderson, former Chief of the Defence Staff and Canadian ambassador to NATO.
When the matter of moving CFB Esquimalt’s naval fleet command to Halifax was raised, it was just as quickly extinguished by the Conservatives, he noted.
“What wasn’t talked about was what was going to be focused here in Esquimalt,” said the North Saanich resident, who began his naval career at CFB Esquimalt.
“I think there’s more to the story and it’s unfortunate it got wrapped up in the middle of an election campaign.”
Elections should also serve as the perfect opportunity to determine, among other things, which party leader can best champion our national interests globally, Anderson said.
“It’s unfortunate, when we’re thinking about who ought to lead our country, there’s not a lot of looking in the mirror as to how a leader will function on the international stage.”
We asked candidates from the Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca riding, where CFB Esquimalt is located, what their top defence priorities are.
Those of New Democrat Randall Garrison include supporting veterans and ensuring the military can defend Canada and provide emergency and humanitarian disaster assistance.
The NDP are encouraging a review of the fighter jet acquisition. “We’ll see if that’s the right plane, because that’s very expensive,” he said.
Green Party candidate Shaunna Salsman said, “We are asking these soldiers to put their lives on their line and we should probably fund them and equip them. I’d like to support them with proper equipment and ensure their families are properly supported as well.”
If elected, Conservative candidate Troy DeSouza said he would work to bring more shipbuilding and Coast Guard jobs to Esquimalt.
“A re-elected Conservative government will continue to consistently support all of our men and women in uniform – army, navy, coast guard and air force – so they can all continue to do their jobs safely,” he said.
Canadian Action Party leader and candidate Christopher Porter said the military is best used in peacekeeping missions and the defence of our national interests, such as the Arctic.
“We believe that the troops and the defence should do exactly that, defend our country,” he said.
Liberal candidate Lillian Szpak’s priorities include supporting military families, promoting an open bidding process for equipment contracts and ensuring the navy is well-equipped.
“We want to make sure our ships are on the leading edge and they have the weaponry on them,” she said.
Independent candidate Louis Lesosky could not be reached for comment.