The Senate versus Gen. Jon Vance


by David Bercuson

Last week, the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence issued the first part of what is projected to be a three-part study of the current state of Canadian security and defence readiness. This committee has long been a virtually bipartisan group — long before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s alleged withdrawal of official Liberal ties to Liberal-appointed senators — and has produced reports stretching back at least 20 years to the effect that Canada is a defence freeloader. And when measured by all sorts of standards, it has usually proven correct.

The most recent report stressed the continued underfunding of the Canadian military and the need to move to a defence budget of two per cent of GDP beginning in the spring of 2018. It underlined the already well-known problems of Canada’s limping procurement system. It stressed the risks to Canada’s critical infrastructure, the need for an all-party consensus on military issues, and for a quadrennial review of Canada’s national security strategy and foreign policy.

Supporters of a “sufficient” military profile for Canada will find little to argue with in most of these recommendations although there is not a chance in Hades that Canada will ever spend two per cent of its GDP on defence. That is, unless the federal government were to include the entire Canadian Coast Guard (a civilian organization), the RCMP, the Canada Border Services Agency, and probably every beat cop and provincial police officer in the defence budget, and then some.

One of the standing committee’s more obvious ruminations was that Canada’s military leaders (read Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance and presumably his more immediate predecessors) stop acting as cheerleaders and apologists for the federal government and take the advice of the auditor general, the Defence Acquisitions Guide and other experts to meet Canada’s real military needs.

Vance is no shrinking violet. He is a tough soldier with, among other qualifications, some real successes as commander of the Canadian contingent in Afghanistan, in service alongside U.S. forces, and a man who clearly understands the ever-widening spectrum of modern warfare.

According to Vance, the Canadian military has enough money right now. It doesn’t need any more because it does not have the capacity or the infrastructure to absorb anything more.

So who is right?

They both are.

The most important defence question Canada has faced from its very beginning is: how much defence is enough? Its corollary is: what is it we are trying to defend against?

To speak in defence of the standing committee, Canada has naval forces that are much too small to secure our three coastlines, let alone contribute to any buildup across the seas in defence of our allies, trade partners or national interests. Our Air Force cannot even begin to make more than a token effort to secure our skies. Our entire Army, trigger-pullers and support troops, will fit into any Canadian football stadium with much room to spare. That is the reality.

But it is only one reality. The other reality is that Vance is correct. We have a small set of teeth (the fighting part) and a huge tail (the support part) and pouring money into the military as it is today will probably only make the problem worse.

Towards the end of the last government, then-Lt.-Gen Andrew Leslie, former commander of the Canadian Army, was tasked to do a thorough review of this problem. He and an impressive team of military thinkers took the better part of a year to come up with a strong set of recommendations to give the Canadian Armed Forces a lot more muscle for, effectively, no more dollars. Where is that report? No doubt gathering dust on some shelf at National Defence headquarters.

The CDS’s job is clear — to command the CAF and to give his (sometime soon “her”) best advice on defence matters to the prime minister. The standing committee’s job is to evaluate the government’s defence policy. Both parties are doing their job; both parties are right. Without the determination of the prime minister to decide how much defence we need, nothing is going to change no matter what both parties think.

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