Government Spending

Century-old artillery shells on display at Memorial Museum Passchedaele 1917.

I wrestled with several topics for today’s post. I have a number of topical ones that are not quite ready – and I was feeling lethargic Tuesday, so they still aren’t ready. Looking online, I didn’t see anything funny enough to share here, at least not today.

Instead a look back, a repeat of a post that was published six years ago today.

When we toured the First World War battlefields in the Ypres area of Belgium last summer, the enormity of the human toll was apparent. The numbers are staggering.

Daily casualty figures were measured in hundreds or thousands as more than a half a million men died in combat on Flanders fields in four years of war. The Second World War battlefields of Normandy (which we visited the following week) were relatively peaceful by comparison, with only perhaps 200,000 dying in combat.

In Canada’s decade-long, just concluded, war in Afghanistan the death toll was fewer still – only 158, in combat, although admittedly the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder will be felt by Canadian veterans for years or decades to come. We have come a long way since 1914, and warfare has become increasing sophisticated, reducing the number of human casualties as our military has increasingly relied on technology.

The cost of that technology on the other hand has risen immensely. Canada’s as yet unpurchased new fighter jets could cost more than 45 billion dollars for 65 planes. According to my math that is about $700,000,000 each – a lot of money. Of course these are very sophisticated instruments of death, which somehow I suppose justifies he high price tag. But I discovered yesterday, to my great surprise, that it is not just warplanes that have gotten expensive.

There was a newspaper article about an investigation into the loss of some artillery shells when the Canadian army withdrew from its forces from Afghanistan. The headline said half a million dollars’ worth was unaccounted for.

I have seen the remains of the approximately one billion shells both sides rained down on Flanders fields a century ago (300,000 of which failed to explode and remain a hazard to this day). I know costs have risen considerably in that time, but $500,000 is still a lot of money. I wondered how you misplace that much ammunition, and whether the Afghan insurgents had somehow managed to get hold of it.

Once I had read the article I was less concerned. Do you know how many shells are missing? Three. That’s right, at first it was thought just to be a clerical error. Easy to misplace three shells after all.

I won’t get into the question of the wisdom of any war, but can someone tell me how you justify spending $177,224 on one 155 millimetre high artillery shell? That is six inches for those of you in the US and UK. At yesterday’s exchange rate it works out to $220,999.21 in Canadian dollars. I am not a graduate of the Royal Military College, but my grandfather was an artilleryman, so curiosity about his life has caused me to read a bit about how artillery works. I do know that artillery shells are designed to be fired from cannon and explode on impact. What sort of high tech wizardry can make something cost so much? Yes, I know it the shells have a GPS system – but so does my cell phone and it cost only a couple of hundred dollars. Did anyone along the way ask if it is worth it? How many of these shells get fired in battle?

Perhaps I am wrong to think these weapons are overpriced. The primary cost of war remains the human lives lost. We have managed to reduce those somewhat in the last century, though you can make the case that even one life lost is too many. It is strange that we don’t seem to have a problem with nations solving disputes with each other in ways that are not allowed to citizens of those states. If my neighbor and I have a dispute we are forbidden by law to solve it by violence.

With a perhaps not so simple artillery shell costing a couple of hundred thousand dollars, is it not time for someone to stop and say “this is insane?”


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