July 2013 Commentary

Problems for the New Defence Minister

by J. L. Granatstein

Prime Minister Harper has shuffled his Cabinet, desperately putting the best possible face on the ministry as it prepares for the 2015 election. It might be an uphill struggle, so savagely has the government been battered in recent months. New faces, new possibilities, new Tory hopes. But what about defence where Rob Nicholson, one with no previous military experience or evident interest, is now the minister?

When Harper came to power at the beginning of 2006, the Canadian Forces was a high priority. The war in Afghanistan, new equipment, more troops, and much more money--the Tories promised action, and they largely delivered. But only for a few years. As casualties mounted in Kandahar, as the costs of equipment soared, and as the 2008 economic crash reverberated, the military slipped off the priority list. Yes, there is still much more funding for the troops than in 2005, but the balloon of optimism has deflated completely.

Consider the Canada First Defence Strategy, announced with much  fanfare in 2008. Aimed at protecting sovereignty in the Arctic--where there are no current or foreseeable threats to Canadian interests--the CFDS was really a shopping list for equipment, some of which no one needed. For example, the Navy doesn't really want Arctic patrol ships than cannot sail through even minor ice. The promised useable harbour in the Arctic archipelago would be helpful, however, along with a Coast Guard icebreaker to keep it open to traffic, but no progress has been made in creating the harbour or building the ship. And the purchase of  new search and rescue aircraft, of great use in the north as elsewhere in Canada, remains bogged down in the great procurement swamp that has resulted from the massive intrusion of Public Works into the Department of National Defence's territory.

Not that DND managed procurement very well. The F-35 mess has been exhaustively covered by the media. Only marginally less so has been the developing ship procurement fiasco which many confidently expect to be even more costly than that of the fighter debacle. In a country without naval shipyards, Ottawa chose to try to create an industry, massively increasing costs and greatly increasing the risks that nothing of use will emerge for years, even decades. Britain's Royal Navy is buying supply ships from South Korea at a cost about one-seventh of the Canadian estimates for roughly similar vessels. The Royal Canadian Navy's requirement to replace its ageing frigates and destroyer escorts is caught up in mind-boggling process and bureaucratic procedure. It will be years before steel is cut, and optimists believe it will be 2025 before a ship hits the water. Pessimists predict that 2030 is a better guesstimate.

And it's not only the big ticket items like fighters and ships. Consider trucks--the army uses them, Canadian companies build them, and it ought to be a relatively simple matter to get purchases done. Not in Canada unfortunately where political considerations overrule costs every time. Could it really be that the Finance department enjoys saving money by putting off defence purchases to never-never land?

The services developed their fighting edge in Afghanistan, in the Arabian Sea, and over Libya, but that combat capability is eroding quickly because of obsolescent equipment, budget cutbacks, and the difficulty of retaining experienced middle rank officers and warrants. The booming Alberta oil patch sucks up skilled workers (and that hurts the BC and Nova Scotia shipyards as well as the CF), and the promised boost in military numbers keeps being put off. The army reserve is once again unhappy with the regulars, and the troops' overall dissatisfaction is not assuaged by new shoulder flashes featuring the "Royal" designations and new/old rank badges.

Unfortunately, this government that started well on defence has completely lost its way. The Prime Minister looks out of touch, the outgoing Defence minister was  distracted by minor scandals and personal issues, and the new minister knows nothing of the military. Put bluntly, there is no vision in the government on defence questions--there is none in sight on the Opposition front benches either--and the reality is that no progress will be made until a direction is set with a White Paper. Unfortunately this government chooses not to listen to advice from inside or outside the government. It apparently believes that it is better to allow the 20-somethings in the Prime Minister's Office to make policy, even a non-policy of drift. Rob Nicholson will need very good luck to rescue the sinking ship(s) at DND.

J.L. Granatstein is a Senior Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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