Wednesday, 19 March 2014


With the end of Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan the questions about military spending are already beginning. It is traditional in most countries to cut military spending, and the size of the armed forces, at the end of a war. Equally traditional are the complaints that come later about what a bad idea this is. Unfortunately, even with all our historical experience to guide us, it is apparent that this is what Canada is doing.                     

Canada has approximately 68,000 full-time soldiers and another 26,000 reservists, the biggest military we’ve had in 20 years. This is considered by some to be a large force. There are those who believe that large armies are no longer a national requirement. Many people seem to accept the belief that the world’s few remaining wars are not fought by powerful national armies but mainly by irregular guerrilla forces. More over it is accepted that even large countries no longer need to provide the full range of military capabilities but rather can count on the generosity of their allies.

The question is, how large should Canada’s military be? The corollary would be, is it really that big now? Big compared to what?

Depending on your definition of a country there are 196 recognized countries.  In the context of size alone Canada has a regular military strength that put us at about 55th from the top of the list. By other measures we are 57th from the top. In that context it doesn’t seem like a lot, but there is more then one way of measuring military strength

Another way of measuring the size of Canada’s current military is the Global Militarization Index. The Global Militarization Index tries to describe the relative weight and importance of the military apparatus of a state in relation to its society as a whole. There are a number of indicators used to represent the degree of militarization of a country, They include a comparison of military expenditure with gross domestic product, a comparison of military expenditure with health expenditure, a contrast between the total number of military forces with the number of physicians, and the overall population and the ratio of the number of heavy weapons available and the overall population. On that scale Canada is rated as 88th out of 138 countries measured.

Canada is a rich country and that is also reflected in our military spending. Based on our gross domestic product , which is the value of all goods and services produced by the state and estimated from purchasing power parity calculations, Canada has the 13th richest economy in the world

The respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute calculates that Canada has the 14th largest defence budget in the world. For what it is worth, the CIA reckons that our military spending ranks Canada as 83rd out of 132 countries listed. That would appear to more in line with some of the other statistics quoted here.

The World Bank reports that Canada spent an average of 1.2% of our GDP on our military in the years between 2009 and 2012. This ranks us as about 122nd out of all countries. Despite NATO recommendations that nations spend 2% of GDP on their militaries on average defence spending of our European NATO Allies was 1.62 percent of GDP.

The vast majority of the worlds military spending is done by those nations in the top ten of spending. There is a huge gap between those nations and all the rest with the top ten accounting for something like 65% of all military spending.  Having said that, it is also true that these figures indicates that Canada spends more on its military then three quarters of all the other countries on the planet.

With due regard to the malleability of statistics, these figures show that, on the whole, Canada does not spend a great deal on defence compared with other nations. It should also be noted that this is not necessarily a bad thing.

What is a bad thing is the notion, common to most of those who comment on this subject, is that war is something Canada can control. It is the belief that that all our military endeavors will be discretionary. 

Our military, the whole DND/CF complex, exist as a kind of insurance policy. An insurance policy is used to manage risk. Our military is expected to deal with everything from flooding rivers to armed attacks on our country. The risk of flooding rivers is very high, which is mitigated by the ability to accurately forecast the damage such an event would cause. Conversely the chance of an armed attack on Canada is very low, but it is almost impossible to forecast the costs of such an attack.

Our collective experience since World War II has led us to a grave misunderstanding of the nature of war. The reality is that history and human experience teach us that we to not always get to decide when lethal force, or the threat of it, is necessary to safeguard those interest which we believe to be vital. By the very nature of conflict, other voices get a vote.

Very few people predicted the attacks of 9/11. Even a month ago not many people were raising concerns about instability in the Ukraine. These events were in many ways beyond our control but they are forcing us to respond. Canada needs an independent military force compatible with our place in the world and our ability to reasonably pay for it. It is an insurance policy, not for the things we want to do, but rather insurance against the chance that we will need to use it, even if we don’t want to.

Canada’s military policy doesn’t add up

The Number of Countries in the World

List of countries by number of military and paramilitary personnel

A list of active military personal by country

List of countries by Global Militarization Index

List of countries by GDP (PPP)

List of countries by military expenditures

Country Comparison:: Military expenditures

Military expenditure (% of GDP)

Country Comparison > Military expenditures - percent of GDP

NATO in the Land of Pretend

Command Authority By Tom Clancy with Mark Greaney

Crimean crisis forcing Harper to rethink defence