Op-ed

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Defence policy review: will it confirm old assumptions and existing resourcing, and evaporate, or not?

by Ferry de Kerckhove

The Hill Times
May 23, 2016

The Defence Policy Review (DPR) provides a unique opportunity to question some of the existing assumptions underlying the thinking about what Canada needs in terms of capabilities. The problem, right from the start, is that, beyond the very general mandate letters, the review is not underpinned by clear indications of what the government intends to do in the world and what these intentions—if any already well-grounded and thought through—will require in terms of defence capabilities. How can one say what Canada needs in terms of force structure without a broader national security perspective? What capabilities are needed for a G-7 power or are the ambitions of the government different—which is its legitimate right but it needs to define them before we embark on a strategic risk matrix. Otherwise, despite the government’s specific rejection of the concept, DPR could simply become an update of CFDS (the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy) which was basically a procurement strategy. Alternatively, it could risk turning into an exercise in a void, financially hampered, with little innovative thinking despite what seems to be a remarkable preparatory process.

Of course, one could argue that defence, in a way, is always the same—defence of Canada, defence of North America and contributing to international security, the latter referring to expeditionary missions, as required by evolving situations in the international arena, where most critical “unknowns” reside. Yet, new or more acute challenges have emerged for the first two as well … including the possibility of a Trump presidency and his insistence on a greater contribution by allies to defence expenditures.

In a sense, Trump brings home the issue of Canada as a “free-rider” when it comes to defence. Indeed, the famed CFDS was underfunded right from the beginning. Any projection of the defence budget vs. minimal capabilities requirements shows a gaping hole which the yearly three per cent increase for the defence budget recommitted by the Liberal government starting next year will not fill.

From a strict defence perspective, there are at least five issues that the DPR must answer: 

  1. Procurement as a fixation: there is no issue with the substance of the requirements—replacing our F-18, building surface combatants, Arctic offshore patrol ships, and supply ships. In fact we should already be looking at the future renewal of our submarine fleet given their essential role in controlling our maritime space (hopefully the propulsion system of the next generation will be air independent to allow Arctic patrol). The issue is the process—in simple terms, any slippage affects both the funding of capabilities through inflation and the capacity to respond to threats. The decision to postpone to 2022 $3.7-billion in “large-scale capital projects” spending is a clear case in point. Equally importantly, the more procurement eats up the defence budget, the more other sectors will suffer, such as training, maintenance, infrastructure, information technology.
  2. Personnel: How sacrosanct is the 68,000 regular uniformed personnel and 28,500 reserves level? Hugh Segal maintains that a country of Canada’s standing should have 100,000 and 50,000, respectively. Again, what might be desirable hits the wall of realism.
  3. Pre-emption of attacks in the two “new” domains of war: how much does Canada need to invest in cyber defence and defence against space attacks? Joining the U.S. in ballistic missile defence is an issue that needs to be settled once and for all. It is a matter as much of sovereignty as of defence. Thanks for Kim Jong-un’s help!
  4. Arctic: Russia in “encouraging” us to implement essential investments in the Arctic such as completing/ renovating deep water port facilities, enhancing airport facilities and building the right berth for our Polar Class icebreaker (in Churchill, Man.).
  5. Technology: the “art” of warfare is in constant flux inasmuch as it is determined by the unending changes in the nature of conflict, in addition to “conventional” enemies—terrorists, freedom-fighters/separatists, militias, hybrid warfare, semi-states, pirates, criminal networks, all with a range of different capabilities, some calling for sophisticated counter-measures, including drones. The issue is adaptability of our capabilities which mostly translates into investing in technology.

But let’s be candid. A DPR, which would cover these issues, would answer at best half of the questions a national security strategy would need answers to. Each has a strong foreign policy underpinning which is unlikely to be covered by the DPR’s strategic assessment.

A few examples: What means the renewed emphasis on multilateral PKO would require in this day and age? The Middle East and more broadly the Muslim world has fawned conflicts and provoked outside interventions, for good or ill, mostly the latter, which have lasted longer than any previous conventional war. Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan was expeditionary, in the dictionary sense of the word but, in fact, it mobilized most of our active forces. General (ret.) Mike Day rightly suggest the distinction no longer holds. What does it imply for our so-called third leg of the triad of our defence obligations and for our Special Operations Forces? Northern Africa is already plagued by an Arc of Instability. What if Canada decides to be involved? We call ourselves a Pacific nation. Do we have the means to underpin this definition and what would be the requirements? Clearly an occasional ship visit will not do the trick. Does our yet-to-be-fully-defined policy towards China require a defence component?

Good luck to our political masters!

Ferry de Kerckhove is a former Canadian diplomat with postings in Iran, NATO, Moscow, and as head of mission in Pakistan, Indonesia, and Egypt. He is a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Image: Master Corporal Jonathan Barrette, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

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