July 4, 2017
The new Defence Policy issued by the government on June 7 is in many ways a clearer and more robust statement of Canadian defence priorities than we have seen in many years. Putting people first, the policy begins by summarizing the many “people” issues that the CAF has to respond to, quickly, if it is to maintain a close connection to the people of Canada. It is entirely appropriate to address issues such as the place of women in our armed forces, the re-entrance of veterans to our society, treatment of post-conflict injuries both mental and physical. And the fact that this section is placed number one in the report is a sure sign that the government realizes that resolving these matters is key to a healthy CAF, well connected to Canadian society. So kudos on that.
The rest of the report is, more or less, a shopping list. We’ll have more planes, more ships, more soldiers and they will follow our three main objectives of guarding Canada and Canadians, working alongside the United States to guard North America and participating with allies or other international partners in keeping the world safe. But what does all that mean? And here the report lets us down.
Of course the CAF’s first mandate is to protect Canada. But from whom? Who threatens us? The Russians from over the pole? The coasts from attacks by foreign navies? Of course not. Our military is too small to protect the second largest political landmass in the world, mostly from threats that do not hold up when seriously evaluated.
The Review ought to have said we will protect as much as we can as long as we can in the event of a real threat but that we are highly dependent on the United States which sees Canada as it’s first line of defence. That is a real way of putting it. We will protect our sovereignty by showing that we are willing to put in as much of the people and resources that we can, instead of shirking down the hallways, as we have done for years.
And in this matter, the government continues to be coy about ballistic missile defence. It is long past time when Canada should declare that it is joining the United States in providing BMD for North America.
Another area where the Policy comes up short, is on plans for implementation. Of course, no one could or should have expected full operational reports on how we switch from fewer than 70 aging CF-18s to 88 new fighter jets, but a little more detail on the challenges we face in selecting this new aircraft might have been nice, and an abridgement by the government of the “five year” competition for that aircraft would have been appreciated. The competition for the new aircraft should take no more than two years since many competitions have taken place already around the world (and the outcome in almost every instance is the same). Ok, Mr. Trudeau, you made plain your views on the F-35. You also told Parliament that it doesn’t work (as the Japanese and Israelis were receiving the first two of their fighters). It’s time to throw that promise into the garbage along with some of the others you made prior to the last election. Now. Rather than close to the next time we vote.
The document is maddeningly silent on other issues, though it does contain broad hints for the future. Are we going to develop an offensive Cyber capability? The document hints that we will, but does not say. Are we going to acquire armed drones for use in future conflicts? Drones, yes, but armed drones? Parse the words and finally, there is more than a hint that the army will be far more engaged in special operations with more troops joining the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, more helicopters, etc. Which makes perfect sense given the unlikeliness of joining a campaign like Afghanistan any time in the future. More special operations makes perfect sense, so why not say so?
Finally there is the magic of numbers. More money is promised, but much of it is so far down the road that many of those reading this column will never see it.
So, the new policy is a good start, but only a start. We will all see how seriously the government takes it when time comes for the next budget review.
David Bercuson is Research Director of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.