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Canada's new defence policy: Don't expect greater capacity, just a more efficient military

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OP-ED

by Steve Saideman

OpenCanada
June 8, 2017

The Defence Policy Review, or DPR as it is known to all except the Department of National Defence's Twitter account (#CanadaDefence? Really?), finally came out Wednesday, and it was not too shabby. I have quibbles and concerns, but, overall, it does an excellent job of explaining what is going on, what the threats are (sort of), and setting a path forward.  

I tweeted my entire reading of the document, so I will focus here on the bigger issues: What does the DPR do and what does it mean?

It is supposed to chart the course forward. While it exaggerates heaps of new-ness, the basic missions of the Canadian Armed Forces are the same as they ever were: defend Canada and do disaster relief at home, support NORAD, participate in NATO and various other multilateral efforts, and some peacekeeping. 

Oh, and one myth that apparently developed this week to bust: that the new money pledged Wednesday — $62.3 billion over the next 20 years — will be enough to allow the Canadian Armed Forces to operate independently. They can do so in Canada and nowhere else. Canada is too small and has too many limitations to operate alone. So, no, despite the injection of money, the CAF will always need to act alongside other countries once it steps outside of Canada. 

The DPR made clearer what equipment and personnel are needed to do this stuff and also put at the front of defence how to improve the lives of the folks doing the defence work — the personnel side. Which makes sense since 50 percent of the budget and 100 percent of the lives at risk are personnel.

To be clear, Canada does not face a great threat, despite the section that did a nice job of describing a dangerous world. Those dangers mostly lay elsewhere. There are only two immediate threats to Canada — cyber terrorism/crime/war and Donald Trump. The DPR deals with the former with new money and personnel (not re-shifting money from other areas because, well, bureaucratic politics; more on that below). And the Canadian military can't do anything about the latter. 

Still, Canada sees itself as a force for good in the world and an upholder of the international order, most clearly articulated Tuesday by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. So, it needs a modern military that gets asked to do all kinds of stuff. Right now, that stuff includes training in Iraq and Ukraine, deterring Russia in Latvia (the Canadian deployment is this week), various special operations that we don't know much about (no elected officials know except the prime minister and defence minister), taking turns patrolling the air space above Iceland and the Baltics (two NATO missions that are regular commitments), and someday maybe that peacekeeping mission. The money in this will not fund a much more capable military, just one that can keep doing the job it has been doing but with newer stuff and less broken stuff. Which means less risk for those sent into harm's way.

Speaking of money, the big news here is, of course, about the money. This DPR promises a heap of new money for the CAF. Given that complaints about underfunding were a key theme at the roundtables last summer, this is good news and largely unexpected. Why? Because there is no real lobby for more defence money. The Liberals spent last election competing to get NDP voters who don't want this, nor do Liberal voters. Conservatives? Not really, given their performance in power. So, here's where Trump might fit. The document laying out the review, unlike Freeland's speech, could have been written before Trump became president. But the threat of Trump, the U.S. as unreliable, may have helped grease the internal Liberal debates about spending more money. I have no evidence of this — just a guess. 

"The DPR stands on a very thin reed: that this 20-year plan will last beyond the next election."

On the other hand, the document makes clear that while defence spending is going up and there will be much progress on getting closer to the ballyhooed two percent NATO guideline, Canada will not get to two percent or even near it by 2024. The aim is 1.4 percent, which is a significant improvement but far short of what Trump expects today. Well, Trump is unrealistic, so there's that. 

Of course, this DPR stands on a very thin reed: that this 20-year plan will last beyond the next election. Alright, maybe it will last into a second Trudeau term, but this prime minister cannot tie the hands of the next. And defence spending is a very partisan issue that someone might call a cluster foxtrot.  (OK, that someone is Kim Nossal who wrote a book squarely putting the blame of the defence procurement mess on the two major parties.) The DPR may put the Conservatives in a tough spot in the next election or two: they may push for a balanced budget but they want to be strong on defence. This DPR will make it hard for them to fake doing both. And if/when Canada hits a recession and deficits spiral, you may see the Liberals cut defence as well since that is where the discretionary money is.

In terms of the details, I found the ideas on personnel to be great, including tax breaks for those deployed overseas and the serious inclusion of gender analysis. 

The particulars of the stuff to be bought? Not so great: 15 ships? I just don't expect that to happen as the costs spiral. The 88 fighter planes? Again, seems unrealistic. My big question is whether any stuff was left off of these shopping lists. One way to handle bureaucratic politics is to let everyone have what they want, but that might not be wise. 

My biggest regret about this DPR is that it looks like there were no hard choices made. Everybody gets what they want. They could have closed obsolete bases, but that would be politically costly. There is simply not enough new money to make all of this happen. I am not sure how much of the new money is really new. That is, defence inflation is high, so adding more money may just keep up with inflation rather than allow one to buy more stuff. I think this budget is not bad — that it keeps up with inflation and then some. But I remain skeptical that there is enough new money to do everything this document promises.

Last spring, in my conversations around Ottawa, there was heaps of skepticism that the DPR would be anything significant — that the review effort was token/theatre and that the DPR would be pre-cooked. I don't think so. I think the review built on the roundtables as much as it built on the wishlists of the branches of the CAF. There are lots of good ideas and intentions, but I am skeptical that they will be able to make much progress on fixing procurement, for example. 

Still, the process led to a pretty good explanation of what the CAF needs and what it plans to do over the next decade or so. If Canadians read this or pay attention to the discussion about it, they will be better informed and less ignorant. And, you know, lots of government exercises create ignorance and prevent learning, so this DPR is a real contribution. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. 

So, the words and pictures in the DPR are good, but we should continue to pay attention (and some should actually oversee) how this plays out. Overall, a good week for the Canadian Armed Forces and for the Department of National Defence.

Image credit: REUTERS/Chris Wattie

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