Why military spending should be a key election issue

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A sign reading "no drones" on a fencepost. Image: Martin Sanchez/Unsplash

Canada's plans to spend billions on military hardware should be an election issue, but as of week three in the campaign, militarism and massive defence spending are mostly absent from the discussion.

In fact, the day before the election call, the Trudeau Liberals took another big step into militarism. Canada's Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd James Austin III issued a joint statement agreeing to "modernize" NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

The August 14 joint statement read:

"We understand that, to meet our security and defense objectives, both countries must be secure within our shared North American continent. The stronger and safer we are at home, the more we are capable of engaging and acting together in the wider world, in support of a strong, rules-based international order."

Ironically, the statement was issued just hours before chaotic events began unfolding in Kabul, with the U.S. and Canada withdrawing troops and personnel. According to legal scholar and author Marjorie Cohn, the October 2001 U.S.-led NATO invasion of Afghanistan ("Operation Enduring Freedom") was illegal at the time, and has been illegal ever since -- a violation of the United Nations Charter and the Geneva Conventions.

So much for the "rules-based international order."

Drones

Marjorie Cohn further argues that former U.S. president Obama's use of drones to kill people in seven countries was also illegal. But on August 27 and 29, President Joe Biden launched drone strikes on Kabul to deter "terrorists," thereby killing at least ten innocent people.

Illegal or otherwise, Canada's Liberal government is forging ahead with its own drone procurement plans.

By Autumn of 2021, Canada is expecting to receive bids for the $5 billion it is planning to spend on the purchase of armed drones. According to Just Peace Advocates, Canadian government officials have briefed industry partners on systems requirements, which include long-range surveillance and the ability to engage targets remotely. Two drone-makers -- L3 Technologies and General Atomics Aeronautical System -- are currently preparing their bids.

More than 30 civil society groups, including the Canadian BDS Coalition and Just Peace Advocates, came together in mid-August to urge the Canadian government to stop the drone procurement process and to impose "a two-way military embargo with Israel." The coalition is targeting the research, development and manufacturing arm of the Israeli military -- a company called Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) which manufactures and sells drones.

Their press release stated:

"The Israeli military, using IAI products developed explicitly for its use, routinely commits war crimes against the people of Palestine and exports war machines that have been 'tested' on Palestinians and Arabs, especially in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria."

They are also calling on the Canadian government to cancel the $36-million contract for one armed Arctic surveillance drone with a second Israeli arms company, called Elbit Systems.

On August 22, another group, World Beyond War released a drone fact sheet stating that armed drones "violate human rights and international law, pollute the environment, and perpetuate a state of never-ending war and surveillance."

In late July, drone whistleblower Daniel Hale was sentenced to 45 months in U.S. federal prison for violating the Espionage Act. Hale had leaked details of the U.S. drone warfare program to The Intercept in 2014. The "Drone Papers" revealed the targeted assassination program secretly being run by the Obama White House, while also providing a detailed analysis showing that 90 per cent of the people killed by the drones were not the intended targets, but innocent victims.

Proponents for armed drones, and the drone-makers themselves, like to argue that their weapons have "surgical precision" in their strikes, but Hale -- a former military intelligence analyst -- proved them wrong. For that, he was relentlessly pursued and is now jailed.

New fighter jets

The Canadian government is also moving forward with its plan to purchase 88 new warplanes. The competitors are Lockheed Martin's F-35 stealth fighter, Saab's Gripen, and Boeing's Super Hornet. The government will make its decision in 2022.

Officially, the cost of buying the fighter jets is about $19 billion, but a report from the No New Fighter Jets Coalition estimates that the full life-cycle cost of the planes will be $77 billion.

Groups such as the No New Fighter Jets Coalition, World Beyond War, The Voice of Women for Peace, and Homes Not Bombs have been working relentlessly to raise awareness of this issue with public fasting, a parliamentary petition, and on-site protests.

Then in mid-July, more than 100 well-known Canadians and Americans -- including Neil Young and David Suzuki -- signed a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, entitled "No New Fighter Jets for Canada." The letter was published in many media outlets across the country.

Pointing out that purchasing new jets "will entrench fossil-fuel militarism" for several decades -- something that is at odds with Canada's commitment to decarbonize -- the letter also stated:

"As a former deputy minister of national defence Charles Nixon noted, there are no credible threats requiring the acquisition of new 'Gen-5' fighter jets. The expensive weapons are largely useless in responding to natural disasters, providing international humanitarian relief or in peacekeeping operations." In fact, the letter continues, spending $77 billion on warplanes "only makes sense based on a vision of Canadian foreign policy that includes fighting in future U.S. and NATO wars."

That "vision" brings us back to the August 14 joint statement from the Canadian and U.S. defence ministers, which received almost no media coverage.

The "vision"

Sajjan and his American counterpart outlined "priority areas for new investments." Their statement said:

"Canada and the United States share a desire to coordinate in fielding new capabilities to complement and eventually replace the North Warning System with more advanced technological solutions as soon as possible, including next-generation over-the-horizon radar systems that can dramatically improve early warning and persistent surveillance of North American airspace and approaches. Ensuring effective awareness ultimately requires a system-of-systems approach including a network of Canadian and U.S. sensors from the sea floor to outer space."

Defence analyst Keith Jones has stated that this joint statement is meant to pave the way "for Canada's participation in the U.S. ballistic missile shield, whose underlying purpose is to enable the U.S. to wage a 'winnable' nuclear war."

That may be why there has been so much silence around the joint statement. If nobody knows about it, or what it means, nobody will protest.

Participation in the U.S. ballistic missile shield has been a hot-button issue in Canada ever since December 2001, when then-U.S. president George W. Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Since then, the U.S. has spent tens of billions of dollars attempting to build a missile shield, and for almost two decades it has been pressuring Canada to join in. The two biggest defence contractors involved in the missile shield are Boeing and Raytheon.

During the reign of Stephen Harper, a Canadian parliamentary panel gave its full support for the government to join in the development of a missile shield for North America. The Canadian Senate Committee on National Security and Defence announced in June 2014 that the panel was "unanimous in recommending that the government of Canada enter into an agreement with the United States to participate as a partner in ballistic missile defense."  

Harper made no commitment to the missile shield during the 2015 election, saying only that "we keep evaluating our options," but his loss appeared to end discussions on the contentious technology, which critics have long claimed does not work and is a complete waste of taxpayer dollars.

Now, however, with anti-Russia and China rhetoric so paramount, with militarism and military spending so rampant, and with Canada's war hawks (especially Sajjan and Chrystia Freeland) eager to please the U.S., it looks like the missile shield is quietly back on the Canadian federal agenda. This time it's the Liberals who are pushing for it.

Unless Canadians really do want to spend billions on military hardware, we need to make these issues central to the election.

Canadian freelance writer Joyce Nelson is the author of seven books. She can be reached via www.joycenelson.ca

Image: Martin Sanchez/Unsplash

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