June 2012 Commentary

Decisions on Defence Are Needed Now

by J. L. Granatstein

What does the government want the Canadian Forces to do now that the combat roles in Afghanistan and Libya have ended? There are CF teams scouting for forward bases in the Caribbean, Singapore, Germany, Kuwait, and Africa, though what equipment and supplies such bases might store remains completely unclear. There are said to be pledges to Israel that its defence is a priority for Canada. And there is increasing evidence of Canadian military interest in Latin and South America and in the Pacific. But what, if anything, does this all mean?

First, it must be stated that the Canadian Forces need not engage in a combat role anywhere. We have alliance commitments in NATO and to the United States, but those aside, any future combat is likely to be a war of choice. In other words, the government can decide if participation serves Canada’s national interests, and it can decide if the commitment should be frigate or three, a fighter squadron or two, or an infantry battle group.

What we do know is that Canada will be extremely unlikely to engage in combat on its own. We have fought our wars as part of alliances or coalitions, and we have relied for the last half century and more on American air and logistical support. This will probably continue, but the reality now is that the United States is financially strapped, and the US armed forces will be taking a huge hit. Can the CF continue to depend on the Americans for assistance as in the past? Moreover, our NATO allies, not least Britain and France, are also cutting their troop strength and cancelling or delaying big equipment purchases. And Canada too is slowing down its equipment renewal and slashing its defence budget. The talk now is all about Smart Defence—sharing—but this will be difficult to control and allocate. Better to own what you will need.

Nonetheless, we live in a world where the CF and its friends are in reduced circumstances. What are the implications of this state of affairs in terms of future expeditionary missions? Or for the Canada First Defence Strategy with its emphasis on defending Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic?  Doing more with less can only go so far.

The Harper government and the military leadership of the Canadian Forces have been silent on what they expect the CF to do in the next five or ten years. Canada has no national security strategy, for one thing, and the nation’s defence policy seems to be wholly reactive—Libya? Send a frigate and CF-18s—rather than trying to plan for likely contingencies and to shape a military to meet them.

As budgets decline, as new equipment  procurement inevitably stalls, it is time to re-think what Canada does and how we do it. Do we want Canada to continue to have three small services of roughly equivalent weight as at present? Or do we believe the future calls for the RCAF to be preeminent, featuring F35s, drones, and C-17s? Do we foresee an army that can deploy a division overseas and sustain it or one that must strain to support a battle group? Do we want the Royal Canadian Navy to be larger and to have its weight on the North Atlantic, as at present, or do we want to shift to the Pacific? Do we want ships designed to go anywhere or only to protect the Canadian coasts?

We simply have no idea what the government is thinking, if it is thinking anything other than that the CF’s equipment needs seem to cost the earth. (Nor, incidentally, do we have any idea what the Official Opposition believes about defence other than that the F35 will cost too much and is the wrong aircraft and the Americans are nasty.)  After more than a decade fighting a war in Afghanistan, surely the time has come for the government to make some fundamental decisions about the future of the CF. Ideally this should be done in the form of a White Paper produced by the Defence and Foreign Affairs departments, but in Mr Harper’s Ottawa the centre rules. That likely means that the Prime Minister’s Office would shape the policy for departmental drafters to polish. That may not be ideal, but it would be better than doing nothing, better than the drift that now seems to be Canadian defence policy. It is long past time to plan for the future.

J.L. Granatstein is a Senior Research Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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