Liberals’ vision for Canadian Forces unlikely to be swayed by public consultations
by John Ivison (feat. David Perry)
March 7, 2016
OTTAWA — Within days, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan will launch public consultations on the new review that will mandate the future size of the Canadian Forces, what kind of equipment they will use and the theatres in which they will operate.
The goal is to have the feedback process wrapped up by June 30 and the whole defence review signed, sealed and delivered by the end of the year, just in time for the 2017 budget.
The degree of haste suggests there won’t be much weight placed in those consultations because the Liberals already have a pretty good idea what they want – as the election platform detailed, a “leaner, more agile” military that can defend Canada and North America; can provide support during natural disasters; can offer humanitarian support missions and peacekeeping operations; and (last and, apparently, least) has a degree of combat capability.
In tandem with the defence review, Sajjan’s department will issue a new statement of requirement for the CF-18 fighter jet replacement. Insiders suggest the campaign commitment not to buy Lockheed Martin’s F-35 remains written in stone, even if it’s not clear how you conduct an open and transparent tender process while barring one competitor.
There are two or three European fighter jet options available to the air force but government officials concede it will be problematic to buy a plane not operated by Canada’s NORAD ally, the U.S. So, it looks as if we will have a lengthy, expensive competition that will end up choosing Boeing’s Super Hornet.
In their campaign platform, the Liberals said they would buy a cheaper option than the F-35 and re-direct the savings to the navy, since there is not enough money left in the capital spending pot to fund all the ships on order under the Canadian Surface Combatant program.
But the only way significant savings are likely to manifest themselves is if the Forces buy a far smaller fleet than the 65 jets planned in the original F-35 contract.
That might be exactly what the Liberals envisage.
The party’s election platform suggested Canada will no longer participate in the kind of air-to-ground campaigns we witnessed in Iraq. If we are no longer in the business of sending our jets overseas, and their sole focus is on continental defence, we can afford a far smaller fleet.
The platform also committed to implement the recommendations of the 2011 Report on Transformation, a controversial effort led by none other than the current Liberal whip, and former lieutenant-general, Andrew Leslie.
While the platform is explicit in endorsing Leslie’s roadmap to a more “modern, efficient and effective military” – less tail, more teeth – mention of the report was conspicuous by its absence in Sajjan’s mandate letter.
Leslie appears to have known that his recommendations to reduce headquarters overheads, including the $2.7 billion spent annually on consultants and contractors, would face resistance. “Very few of the recommendations to get where we think we have to go will be easy, popular or risk free,” he wrote.
He concluded with a quote from Machiavelli: “The innovators have for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions.”
But he did not perhaps anticipate the virulence with which the advocates for the status quo would fight back against his call to fundamentally restructure the Canadian Forces.
It seems the uniforms, whose livelihoods may have been impacted by the recommendation the Forces adopt a single, streamlined command structure, are still fighting.
People familiar with the current review say that many of Leslie’s suggestions for addressing the bloating bureaucracy (the tail grew by 40 per cent from 2004 to 2010; operational or deployable jobs by 10 per cent) are not likely to see the light of day.
Yet “leaner and more agile” – even smaller – may not necessarily be a bad thing. Rick Hillier, the former chief of the defence staff, has advocated reducing the size of the military as the only way to ensure it remains strong and stable. He has said the number of full-time members could fall to about 50,000 from the current 66,000.
An internal Department of National Defence review conducted by the Conservative government also recommended cutting one infantry company from each of Canada’s nine battalions.
The Conservatives failed to act on that recommendation, having criticized the Liberals for ushering in a military “decade of darkness” under Jean Chrétien.