In The Media

A letter to the New Minister of National Defence on the Defence Policy Review

by George Petrolekas, Fellow, Canadian Global Affairs Institute and
David Perry, Senior Analyst, Canadian Global Affairs Institute

During the campaign your party pledged a number of significant changes to National Defence. 

The most important of these was to lead an “open and transparent process to review existing defence capabilities.”  This review will be critical to producing the “leaner, more agile, better-equipped military” that your government committed to in the Speech from the Throne.

There has not been a fulsome, cohesive and transparent defence review in Canada since the 1994 Defence White Paper over 20 years ago.  Defence initiatives since then were conducted by the government in solitude during periods of budgetary surplus and economic growth.  Current economic conditions are significantly different given the falling dollar, lagging growth and pressures on the government’s balance sheet.  These factors warrant an effort to build consensus around future defence policy.

As a precursor to the defence review, it is incumbent on the government to provide the intellectual, strategic and economic foundation of how Canada sees the world, what role it wishes to play in it, and how defence fits into that wider government of Canada effort.  

Defence is the government’s most direct and flexible policy tool. That adaptability and flexibility is all premised on a foundation of core combat capability.  This type of force posture can be directed to any role the government envisions  whether that be in conflict zones, peacemaking operations, capacity building or humanitarian assistance. Adjusting the mission focus will not make combat capabilities unnecessary.

You have a unique opportunity to create a national consensus around defence.  All three major parties agree that the defence budget published in 2015 should be the defence funding base.  All three are supportive of the need for a defence review and pledged their support for the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. 

A cross partisan consensus should aspire to achieve national consensus, particularly if defence can once again engage the Canadian public. 

In the early years of operations in Afghanistan, DND built arguably the best public affairs team in the Government of Canada.  That organization was able to engage with national and local media and speak directly to Canadians, explaining the intricacies of our military activity and the complexities of the international security environment.  Rebuilding this capacity can make your defence discussion truly national and create the opportunity for greater apolitical awareness of our National Defence across the country.

Greater consensus can help make sense of global complexities. The world is increasingly shifting away from a United States led uni-polar world order towards greater multi-polarity.  There has been less American engagement of late, and the record of western military intervention is mixed.  Russia is no longer the partner it recently was, and its new assertiveness gives us reason to reassess how we defend North America. China’s economic and military power continues to grow.  While economic growth has recently decelerated, China’s military expansion and enhancement continues while regional actions have become more provocative. 

In North Africa and the Middle East the recent promise of an Arab Spring has morphed into a patchwork of regional instability led in principal by the Islamic State and its franchises using terrorism locally and abroad from a territorial base in failed states. These changes have all occurred since the last time defence policy was formally communicated in 2008.

Notwithstanding present challenges, older issues remain.  Fears of nuclear proliferation endure, and some conflicts remain deep-seated and seemingly intractable. States exist which have never subscribed to the notions of an international order and remain a constant threat in part due to their unpredictability. In some regions, hope for an international order founded on multi-lateral institutions has given way to an older, deeper and perhaps a more complex environment driven by a resurgent Westphalian system where sovereign interests take primacy over common goals.

Our geography is also changing based on the creeping effects of climate change, particularly in our Arctic. Human security and humanitarian issues brought about by events such as hurricanes, droughts, famine, population displacements, earthquakes, and narco-trafficking present no less demanding threats to security.

In truth, though, there are more possible demands for the Government of Canada and the Canadian military in the world today than we could ever afford to address.  You must therefore consider what it is that we want to do independently and what we can only achieve with allies, and then which ones and whether within established frameworks such as NATO or through other coalitions.

There are missions we must perform within our own borders which will drive minimum capacity decisions, determined in some instances by our national geography.   Internationally, with whom we ally will affect decisions on interoperability and potential threats will influence the technologies we adopt.

In doing so a joint perspective should be the guiding principle for Canada’s defence policy and procurement.  Too often our acquisitions have been service driven without achieving wider leverage.  

Think outside the box and consult widely and often outside the department.  Your government has indicated it welcomes the best advice available, and the greatest innovations will come from without, not within.  Many of our allies have used exactly this type of outside perspective on their defence reviews.

As Minister, continue to travel and consult in depth with our key allies.  Go see how they build ships, procure equipment, develop strategy and manage crises. Briefings can never supplant first-hand observations and discussions.

As your review starts, you will be constrained by the legacies of previous governments.

Many procurements are already in contract, like the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship, or soon will be, like the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue Aircraft.   Marginal changes are possible, but as you discovered with the interim naval oiler project, whole scale adjustments in the short term are difficult unless you are willing to accept considerable delays. 

You also inherited a military funded for 68,000 regular troops and 27,000 reservists.  Shrinking the military to liberate funds for capital spending should be investigated, so long as key personnel skills are retained and any capability reductions carefully considered.  In doing so, there is scope and opportunity to rebalance the services, components and capabilities.  Beyond this, the appropriate numbers and employment concepts for the regular and reserve forces, civil servants and contractors should be examined holistically, rather than as the separately structured, funded and employed human resources they have been in the past.  The nation’s fiscal condition requires that administrative overhead be addressed and infrastructure reviewed and reduced.   

Your government’s fiscal latitude will have much to do with your expectations and equipping of the Forces.  While defence policy should not be solely driven by fiscal wherewithal, it must nevertheless be connected to financial reality.

Unfortunately, in Canada this has often not been the case. 

Proposed investments dictated by the existing strategy, crafted in 2008, outstrip the supply of available funding by tens of billions of dollars.  As you update the strategy to account for new priorities and potential threats, the funding pressures are likely to intensify. 

However you address this problem, the strategy must be in alignment with the budget.  The previous government’s Canada First Defence Strategy had many initiatives to commend it, but its aspirations could never be financed or realized.  Avoid that trap.  As a government you will be criticized for being unable to deliver your promises, and your armed forces will feel as if they have been misled.

For any palpable capability improvements to be realized, a sclerotic procurement process will have to be improved. Concurrent with the defence review, you should work with your Cabinet colleagues to bring coherence to defence procurement.

You inherit an unwieldy process, made more cumbersome through the progressive incremental addition of secretariats, layers of review, and byzantine financial approvals.   Project management and procurement are specialized professional skills that must be treated as such by the Canadian Armed Forces and the Public Service of Canada. 

At present, even the simplest of procurements can require more than a decade of often repetitive bureaucratic effort.  Across defence, these efforts are complicated because the financial wherewithal was never synchronized to the capital aspirations.  Ask what skills, processes and organizational constructs permit allies to bring major capital projects to fruition efficiently.

The most significant, complex and pressing example you face is with shipbuilding - which is not simply a defence procurement but also a matter of industrial policy, employment and regional benefits.

Critical decisions must be made in the next year on projects which will recapitalize the navy’s combat fleets.  You must specify how many and what type of ships will be built, who will design them and integrate their combat systems.

Your government may put those decisions on hold to make sure they fit within your vision of the armed forces (adding time and costs), allowing the projects to proceed as planned with marginal adjustments (meaning your naval priorities won’t significantly change) or to recalibrate shipbuilding projects entirely to fit a new naval vision (incurring political costs).

Second in complexity but not in urgency is the replacement of the CF18.  This acquisition is complex as the new fighter is heavily affected by both future warfare trends over the next 50 years, and also American and Canadian bi-national issues. Take the time to examine the options carefully, and get this decision right.

While procurement is in need of urgent attention, it is not the only government-wide administrative procedure in dire need of update where public resources are misspent through inefficiency.  

Routine administration unduly consumes the time and attention of the most senior members of National Defence as, for example, they must authorize low level official travel and hospitality requests at inordinately high levels. The optics of fiscal accountability have completely overtaken the efficiency of management.

Generals once entrusted to lead soldiers in Afghan combat now need Ministerial approval to offer a visiting counterpart a glass of wine.  The Deputy Minister, accountable for $19 billion a year in spending and well over $100 billion in defence investments, must authorize the juice and muffins if his subordinates hold a conference. 

If changes to inefficient bureaucracy is what your government meant by a leaner military, it would be a welcome initiative. The focus should shift to a new way of thinking where simplicity and efficiency of administration is the aim - government wide. 

You will receive ample advice about specific equipment purchases, the correct balance between services and regular and reserve forces, and the type of role the military should play in the future.  The more you can de-politicize the process and make it transparent and inclusive, the greater the opportunity to make clear the fiscal limitations you face and the costs and benefits of your choices.

No other government review will be as far reaching or have greater impact than the review you are about to conduct given the size and breadth of National Defence.   Similarly, in no other policy area will the impacts be as long lasting.  If history is any guide, the equipment choices alone shaped by this effort could impact defence for up to seventy years in future.   Given how many future governments this will influence, it must indeed be a national effort.


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