How much of an army do we really need?
by Richard Cohen
June 20, 2016
The federal government, as part of its ongoing Defence Policy Review (DPR), recently announced public consultation on the future of Canada’s armed forces. So what does Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan have in mind — a political exercise, or something more in-depth?
For all its faults, the Conservatives’ 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS) was developed inside a clear fiscal framework … which was later discarded. In contrast, the DPR is wide open and (allegedly) not constrained by financial considerations. But as everyone knows, the size and shape of the Armed Forces will be determined by what the government decides to spend on defence. Money drives defence policy.
Given the big budget deficit, it’s hard to imagine the Liberals significantly boosting defence spending. Their aim is a ‘leaner and more agile’ military — almost certainly a code word for ‘smaller.’ And as any seasoned politician or bureaucrat knows, the $4 billion in equipment spending that was deferred for five years in the March budget is unlikely to return to Defence. Even if it does, by that time ‘defence inflation’ will have gobbled up a good part of its value.
Ideally, the government would announce that, unlike its predecessors, it will begin to work toward the agreed NATO goal of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence. Canada, as one of the lowest-ranking military spenders in NATO, hovers around 1 per cent. But barring a major international crisis, or an unexpected change of heart, such an increase in defence spending isn’t likely to happen.
So the DPR will have to be developed within realistic financial limits. This means focusing only on military capabilities that are absolutely essential to our national interests — while relegating the rest to the ‘nice to have but can’t afford’ category.
So where to start? Nearly everyone agrees on the three basic roles of Canada’s Armed Forces: defence of Canada, defence of North America with the U.S. and contributing to international operations.
The first two roles are not optional; the third may have to be. The only way Canada can continue to contribute to international operations is if the capabilities it funds for its primary and secondary military roles — defence of Canada and of the continent — can be adapted to overseas conflicts.
Let’s break down those three roles according to what they require. Defending Canadian territory starts with a robust surveillance capability for all three coasts and for our vast land area, including the Arctic. For this we need satellites, land-based sensors and radars, underwater devices and unmanned air and underwater vehicles — backed up by the Canadian Rangers, who spread very thinly across the North. We need ice-capable ships, transport aircraft, heavy-lift helicopters and quick-response army units to react to incursions or incidents. An effective anti-submarine capability and submarines capable of travelling under ice complete the picture. Tasks like air search-and-rescue and routine domestic disaster response could be transferred to non-military organizations.
Continental defence overlaps with national defence. The focal point for continental defence is NORAD, and it requires advanced interceptor aircraft, an integrated Canada-U.S. ballistic missile defence system, joint maritime surveillance and a new and more effective North Warning System across the Arctic.
State-of-the-art jets, ships, submarines and UAVs are essential for both these roles and also could make a useful contribution to international combat operations. But they are expensive to buy, operate and maintain.
So what do we have to give up?
The Army relies on people. People are expensive and account for half of our defence budget. Reducing the Army’s strength — which is more than double that of the other two services — would free up funds for higher-priority capabilities. The government and Canadians would have to accept that our ground forces cannot play a significant role in allied combat operations.
Our mechanized forces, based around a small number of (expensive to maintain) Leopard 2 tanks, cannot contribute much to major combat operations. Canada’s Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) and the new military trucks would be useful in small-scale overseas operations, including support for the UN — but in smaller numbers. So tanks and other combat vehicles, and the ground units that operate them, probably will have to be reduced or eliminated.
The DRP must ensure that, at minimum, we have world-class defence capabilities on the home front. Some ships and aircraft can be ‘double-hatted’ for international operations. But limiting our ambitions to contribute to major land battles overseas makes sense — and would release money needed to effectively defend Canada closer to home.
Richard Cohen is a former Canadian and British Army officer, professor of European Security Studies at the George C. Marshall Center in Germany, and a former senior defence adviser to then-Defence Minister Peter MacKay.