Canadian Defence Review: Substance or paper?



by Steven Saideman

Open Canada
April 8, 2016

On the way home Wednesday, I got a call and was asked by a journalist whether the new defence review, which was launched earlier that day, is going to be political or not. 

The answer to that is easy: political. Why? Because politics is about the public allocation of stuff. So, anything the government does is political. The real question is whether the review will be meaningful or not. Will it shape the future defence procurement, plans, personnel, training, doctrine and operations or not?  Will Canada's military be any different after this exercise?

The quick answer: damned if I know. But I do have some questions and comments about the process (I got cranky very fast on
twitter, so this is my longer explanation).

First, kudos for having a 
very interesting pre-launch conference call. I was on it with a bunch of other people (only those asking questions were identified). The folks on the line asked some really good questions. I will not name names, but I will borrow some of their questions/concerns.

what is a white paper and why aren’t we using the term for this review? This seems to be a British thing and perhaps a Canadian thing, but not an American thing. That is, how binding is this review? Is it just a think piece or is it supposed to be a roadmap for everything Canada does in the defence sector over the next five to 10 years? I think the latter, but the desire not to call it a white paper might suggest that this is not so binding.

how does one do a defence review without a larger framework for Canada's place in the world? That is, what about a national security/grand strategy for Canada? The military is only one part of Canada's involvement with the planet (and the homefront), and its role is highly contingent on Canadian diplomacy. So, how does one do a defence review that is building on the foundation of a larger understanding of Canada in the world? Not sure, but if you read the consultation document (I skimmed it quickly), there are a lot of built in assumptions about Canada's place in the world — NATO, NORAD, cyber, peacekeeping. Asia is largely omitted as far as I could skim (Asia is mentioned once, Pacific is mentioned once or twice). Something to think about.

what are the fiscal constraints? A defence review has to have some concept of what are the constraints and the big one in Canada is money. In other countries, the big constraints are the local adversaries. Instead, Canada's geography largely means opportunity to do what we want to do—there are no nearby threats but one big friend. Anyhow, I am not so bothered by this because we can pretty safely assume that Canada is not going to spend much more than it is currently spending and maybe not much less (hard to spend less).

Fifth, my big twitter rant was about the process of the 
consultation: roundtables in six places — Vancouver, Edmonton, Montreal, Halifax, Toronto, and Yellowknife. Whuck? The idea, as I understand it, is to have a series of meetings where defence stakeholders (experts, lobbyists, etc.) will be allowed to not just speechify (or else they could just record stuff and ship the recordings) but to discuss in wide-ranging conversations about the threats Canada is facing and the choices Canada should be making. These roundtables make a heap of sense to me — as getting a group of people together to talk about this stuff will help to identify those areas that seem to have consensus, those areas where there are stark tradeoffs about which smart, informed people will disagree, and those areas where there are big questions and uncertainties. That is, conversations by a group of sharp people is preferred over individual submissions by many individuals.

But I am left wondering who will populate the roundtable in Yellowknife (sorry).  Is Yellowknife a hidden centre of expertise on defence stuff? Edmonton might make sense since it is near a major army base, so it has retired military folks and some sharp people at the universities nearby — except Calgary is the place which has one of the 
leading centres of defence studies and yet it is not on the list. Sure, its director, David Bercuson, is cranky and leans right, but any defence review should have some cranky, right-leaning people. You don't have to do what they suggest, but such folks help to question assumptions and raise key critical issues.

What about Ottawa? Sure, I can make this about me, but I am pretty sure that this commentary will make sure that I am not consulted. But there are sharp people in this town who study this stuff — academics, lobbyists, think tanks (the few that exist), retired military folks, etc. The pushback I have already gotten is this: they already know what folks in town think because we are all here. Really? Have there been roundtables in Ottawa lately with a good mix of folks addressing these big questions? Have these roundtables been attended by those who will be writing up the defence review? Perhaps the folks who are already super-wired will get their opinions through, but how about others? And how about the conversations that might ensue at an Ottawa roundtable?

I guess the good news is that it will not be hard to figure out who to invite to the Edmonton and Yellowknife roundtables, whereas an Ottawa roundtable would lead to tough choices about who should be included. So, as always, 
Rush provides the insight: if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

Finally, the punchline: 
we will only really know if this defence review is a real thing, not just a paper exercise to keep a campaign promise, if it advocates making hard choices and then the government makes hard choices. What would hard choices look like? Cutting personnel.  Closing some bases. Facing the naval tradeoff of subs vs. surface ships. Shrinking the army a bit. Buying some but not as many fighter planes of some kind. Why? Because the costs of stuff and of personnel are going to increase faster than the defence budget (sorry), so what will Canada do less of with less?

On the bright side, this rant might demonstrate that I am willing to criticize this government with as much enthusiasm as the previous one. OK, with almost as much enthusiasm.

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Chris Wattie

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