Year-in-Review: Jets, front lines and Operation Honour among the Top 5 defence stories of 2016
by Amanda Connolly (feat. David Perry)
January 3, 2017
The Liberal government’s honeymoon period officially ended in 2016, with multiple issues on the defence beat giving critics the chance to draw blood.
From planning to buying new jets to withdrawing the jets from combat, from several long-anticipated checkmarks on other procurement files to overhauling the government’s policy and undertaking a fundamental cultural change within the military itself, 2016 was a busy year on the defence file.
None of these issues wrapped up nicely with a bow and ribbon in time for the holidays, so expect to see a continued push and pull between the government and critics as these evolve into their next iterations.
Fighter jets a-coming (kind of)
After more than a decade of handwringing, 2016 finally saw the Canadian government finally make a decision — of sorts — about buying new jets.
While the federal government punted the final call on a permanent replacement for Canada’s CF-18 fighter jets until after the next election, the Liberals did announce their controversial choice to buy 18 Super Hornets from Boeing. Citing a capability gap that meant Canada could not meet its NORAD and NATO commitments at the same time, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the government would negotiate a deal with Boeing but would not say how much he expected the interim acquisition would cost.
“The way this decision came about, with discussion of a sole source to Boeing in the spring and an unheard of capability gap was a surprise, as does the way forward of an interim and then competition in 5 years,” said David Perry, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Critics slammed the Liberals for the decision and suggested it was a policy change that led to the capability gap and that the former government had balanced the obligations together.
Speaking to reporters in November, the commander of the Air Force appeared to echo that point.
“The government has made a policy whereby I need to be able to service both our NORAD commitment and our NATO commitment concurrently. That demands a certain number of aircraft that our present CF-18 fleet is unable to meet on its day-to-day serviceability,” said Lt.-Gen. Michael Hood.
“Previously, the fleet that I had and the numbers that were required, we were comfortable as an armed forces meeting those with our extant fleet. That policy has changed…thus, the requirement to increase the number of fighters available.”
Expect this issue to stay in the headlines over the course of 2017 as negotiations with Boeing move forward and work begins to shape the scope of the five-year competition that will replace the full fleet by the late 2020s.
“It is likely to fester over the coming years as more revelations emerge such as cost and ineptitude of the government on this file,” said Richard Shimooka, research fellow at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.
On the front lines
This past year saw a major change to Canada’s role on the front lines of the mission against ISIS, drawing back the CF-18s from the bombing mission and instead tripling the number of Canadian troops on the ground in a train, advise and assist role.
“This has fallen off the radar, but our contribution was changed but increased significantly,” said Perry.
As the training aspect of that ramped down, there were growing reports of Canadian troops engaging in firefights with ISIS, which prompted the military to explain that while they may fire first, they only do so in self-defence of Canada or partners like the Kurds.
With the Battle for Mosul underway, it will be months before a final victory is locked down. Expect to see this fight intensify early this year, and also stay tuned in March as the mission comes up for renewal/re-evaluation.
One of the key questions likely to arise will be what role the coalition can or should play in Syria as Russia and Iran continue their efforts to restore dictator Bashar al-Assad’s grip on the country.
On the Eastern front, Canada is set to deploy to Latvia for three years to lead one of four battalions aimed at deterring Russian aggression in the Baltic.
That deployment will come early this year, and already Russia is working to try and sway the narrative around the deployment and stressing the need for greater collaboration against ISIS instead.
As well, look for an announcement of Canada’s upcoming peace support operations. This was expected to come before the end of 2016 but now looks like it will be sometime this month.
“On their face, Canada’s contribution to these missions are not exactly remarkable or unique,” said Shimooka. “However the policymaking process that got to the decision reflected growing allied dissatisfaction towards Canada’s comparatively small contribution to international security.
Defence Policy Review
Consultations for the Defence Policy Review crisscrossed the country in 2016, with meetings between government officials and pre-selected experts in seven Canadian cities.
Industry also got the chance to make their views known at a meeting in Ottawa, and the results of the policy review were scheduled to be in to the government by the end of December.
“While we don’t know the outcome yet, this is the most significant overall effort underway at [the Department of National Defence,]” said Perry.
A public report is expected early this year that will outline the way ahead for the government as it develops its longer term vision for Canadian defence.
Ever since the release of the damning report by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps in 2015 slamming what she called an “endemic” culture of sexual harassment, the military has been scrambling to get on top of the problem.
Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance launched Operation Honour in August 2015 as the military’s mission for eradicating sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces.
While there was some progress this year, including the Royal Canadian Navy overhauling its Code of Conduct to create clearer definitions of inappropriate conduct, there have also been setbacks.
The release of a Statistics Canada survey of sexual harassment in the military found that 960 members, or about two per cent of the military, had been assaulted since Operation Honour began, and drove home just how deep the problem goes.
As well, one in four female members, or 27 per cent, said they had experienced sexual assault or harassment at least once in their careers, compared to 3.8 per cent of male members.
“Considering the scale of abuse in the Forces, this had the potential to be a major scandal,” said Shimooka. “However the CDS has seemed to manage this file effectively by addressing the problems and preventing it from becoming an even bigger story than it is.”
There are three class action lawsuits currently in the works on behalf of women who say they experienced systemic discrimination and harassment.
Watch for these to be certified and move forward over the coming year.
Beyond the decision to purchase an interim fleet of Super Hornets, the government also put checks beside progress points on two other high-profile procurement files.
First, the government announced the long-awaited request for proposal for the warship design of the Canadian Surface Combatants in October, a move Perry said was “great news and big progress.”
It plans to select a winning bid by this summer from the 12 pre-qualified firms invited to submit their plans.
However, it’s still not known exactly how many ships will be built: initially the plan was for 15 but that was revised to “up to” 15 last year, and officials in October did not clarify.
Second, the government announced it plans to buy 16 Airbus C295W aircraft that will be modified to fit its Fixed Wing Search and Rescue Program needs.
Shimooka noted that the program was the first to be conducted under the Conservative’s 2014 defence procurement strategy, which required companies to submit a value proposition and was envisioned as a way to use defence procurement as a way to create jobs and economic growth in Canada.
“[It’s] likely a case where cost and industrial benefits won over capability,” Shimooka suggested.
With delivery of the aircraft expected in about three years, expect to see continued focus on this during 2017.