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Canada: Immune to Defense Prestige?

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David Axe has a good post on Canada’s defense posture. Noting that the Canadian military has been remarkably effective in Afghanistan, he takes a look at how Canada is spending its defense dollars now. The upshot is that the budget looks well balanced for a power of Canada’s size and reach, almost remarkably so. Canada is purchasing ships and equipment that emphasize its expeditionary and logistical capacity, while ignoring expensive, big-ticket prestige items such as large surface warships and advanced fighter aircraft.

This made me think back to this old post, which discussed a bit how Canada narrowly avoided buying three Queen Elizabeth class battleships in the 1910s. This is interesting to me because Canada is one of a very few countries of its size to have avoided the dreadnought bug; even Australia, New Zealand, and Malaya ponied up dough to add a ship to the Royal Navy inventory. Although Canada had the third largest navy in the world in 1945, it owned no battleships, aircraft carriers, or even heavy cruisers. After the war Canada acquired a couple of light aircraft carriers from Britain, but that’s about it in terms of “prestige” naval vessels. As our resident Canadian detailed in a thus far unpublished paper, Canada also decided not to pursue the construction of nuclear powered attack submarines during the Cold War.

Canada is a wealthy country of significant size, and its defense establishment today shouldn’t look all that different than the UK, France, or Italy. Yet, its procurement strategy does seem different. Unlike Korea, it’s not buying large, expensive, high-tech surface warships. Unlike the UK or France, it’s not trying to build or maintain a large deck carrier fleet. Unlike Italy or Spain or Australia, it doesn’t appear to be interested in platforms from which F-35Bs could be launched. The way I look at this, Canada seems almost singularly uninterested in prestige weapons, and that disinterest seems to have held over pretty much the whole of the 21st century.

So, here’s my question; if this disinterest is genuine, what’s the source? Does it stem from Canada’s structural position, with tight alliances to both the US and UK, both of which are happy to invest in such items? Along the same lines, does the Canadian military establishment have a cultural preference for what might be called a “support” role, envisioning itself as operating in conjunction with either the US or UK, and therefore not needing the big ticket items? Although I suspect that both of those are true to some degree, I also have to wonder why Canadian civilians and the Canadian public seems immune to the “prestige” argument for big weapons systems. It’s not just the US, the UK, and France that fall for such arguments; lots of countries around the world view defense acquisitions as contributions to national prestige in addition to their more mundane uses. What about Canadian political culture makes these arguments fall flat, if indeed they do?

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