Lift all boil water advisories on reserves. Build social housing for a million people in Canada. Launch a generation-defining roll-out of renewable energy projects.

We could cover the cost of all this, incredibly, by halting a single, unnecessary government purchase. Yet no elected official is even talking about it.

The government’s planned purchase of 15 new warships is set to become the largest procurement in Canadian history. They will cost an astonishing $84.5 billion, a number that has climbed to five times the initial estimate. 

And that figure is only the starting price. According to a new report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer, when you factor in operating and maintaining the vessels, the cost is expected to reach a mind-bending $300 billion.

How has the cost spiralled? For one thing, the government has handed control of the project to a corporation, Irving Shipbuilding. This means that, in place of the federal government, the Halifax-based company is now overseeing the ship’s design and choosing which firms develop and build them.

There’s a condition of this handover to Irving: the public is not even allowed to know the sum they’re being paid to do the work. The Hill Times reported that the federal government is “refusing to say how many millions Irving Shipbuilding Industries has been paid as the sole prime contractor.”

If public funds are going to be poured into the corporate sector, shouldn’t they at least subsidize companies producing solar panels, schoolbooks, or anything socially useful?

A CH-148 Cyclone conducting an in-flight refuelling above HMCS Halifax. The planned Canadian Surface Combatants would carry a Cyclone or a larger Chinook helicopter. Photo : Braden Trudeau / Combat Camera

Far from that, these new warships – known as Canadian Surface Combatants – represent a major increase in aggressive naval capacities. A former U.S. Navy vice-admiral, doing PR for the purchase in the Ottawa Citizen, boasted that the warships will be “as capable as any surface combatant owned by any nation.” According to a military equipment publication, the ships will offer “an entirely new form of maritime power projection.”

The ships will be heavily armed by US weapons makers. Raytheon is providing $650 million in Tomahawk cruise missiles capable of striking targets as far away as 1,700 kilometres. Lockheed Martin is providing radar systems for $2.3 billion. And the only reason some of these associated contracts have become public is because they’ve required US government approval.

Against whom will these lethal warships be deployed? 

Let’s not forget that Canadian warships have previously participated in wars of aggression. During the 2011 war on Libya, Canadian frigates enforced a naval blockade. NATO’s destabilization of the country led to an upsurge in anti-Blackness, including slave markets, and violence in that country quickly spilled southward to Mali and across much of Africa’s Sahel region. And throughout the 20th century, Canada has an unsavoury and little-known history of gunboat diplomacy against less powerful countries in the Global South.

In recent months, Canadian naval vessels have been part of US and NATO-led missions across the world’s seas. They have run provocative maneuvers in the South China Sea against China and entered the Black Sea bordering Russia. They’ve patrolled the African coast and traversed the Caribbean. These countries aren’t enemies of ours — but they are targets of the US empire.

Indeed, the new warships will strengthen Canada’s ties to US military aims. According to the Pentagon, the purchase of radars from Lockheed will “significantly improve” Canada’s ability to integrate into warfare alongside the United States. They’ll be able to shoot at targets sensed and relayed by U.S. Navy assets.

Viewed in this light, Canada’s new warships are a quarter trillion-dollar commitment to undermining an independent foreign policy.

Despite its foreign-policy implications, its massive subsidy to arms makers, and its enormous sticker price, no politician is protesting the purchase of these warships. That needs to change. Even within the Canadian military there is concern over this extravagant, wasteful expenditure. A meaningful progressive challenge could still help halt it.

We should all be questioning the priorities of a government plowing more than a quarter-trillion dollars into militarizing the oceans, amidst a global pandemic and climate crisis.

Update: October 28. To take into account the new numbers from the Parliamentary Budgetary Officer, the headline has been changed from $286 billion to $300 billion.

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