by David Perry
November 3, 2017
At the halfway mark of its first mandate, Justin Trudeau’s government has delivered on three quarters of its major defence promises. The failure to re-engage with United Nations peace operations is notable, given the prominence to that pledge in the 2015 campaign. Otherwise, the Liberals have met or exceeded expectations regarding operational commitments, exceeded them on their long-term budget plans and done what they promised to on procurement and writing a new defence policy.
Of the two defence promises the Trudeau government has failed to meet—renewing Canada’s commitment to United Nations peacekeeping and implementing the 2011 Report on Transformation—the former remains an active promise, curiously unfulfilled, while the latter pledge has gone nowhere. Two years into its mandate, the government has moved forward to: maintain status-quo defence spending plans; not buy the F-35, but launch an open fighter competition; invest in the navy as a top priority; conduct an open review of defence policy; end the combat mission in Iraq and refocus the operation; and remain committed to reassurance measures in Eastern Europe.
The clearest examples of the fulfilled promises are those relating to the military operations this government inherited and long-term policy and spending plans for the military. During the 2015 campaign, the Liberals pledged continuity for our military reassurance measures for our Eastern European allies but change to operations in Iraq.
In the former case, the government has maintained a comparable pace of rotating ships and aircraft through Eastern Europe as part of the wider NATO efforts to bolster the alliance’s commitment to defending Europe. Since Trudeau became prime minister, Canada’s contribution has been significantly enhanced on the ground by deploying several hundred troops to take one of the four leadership positions in a battalion deployed in Latvia.
Similarly, troop deployments in the Middle East, largely based in Iraq, have also been expanded. The government controversially pledged to withdraw CF-18 fighters from the air campaign in Iraq and Syria, thereby ending Canada’s combat mission, making good on that pledge in the winter of 2016. At the same time, they added additional intelligence forces and increased the number of special operators working on the ground. In each case, the government held to its commitments, and actually expanded Canada’s operational military activities abroad.
Aside from operations, the most substantive of the government’s efforts to deliver on its platform were those related to publishing a new defence policy and a revamping of the long-term funding model that supports it. The government spent a year reviewing defence policy, engaging external experts and the public in the process. The resulting policy paper—Strong, Secure, Engaged—has generally been favourably received within the defence community.
This was made possible by the government’s decision to both increase the defence budget over the long term and change the rules governing defence funds to facilitate an additional $60 billion in defence spending over the next 20 years. As Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan stated candidly prior to releasing the policy, the government would have been forced to make difficult decisions about which defence activities would have had to stop for lack of funds. The funding infusion allows for continuity on most major areas of capability and investments in some significant new ones (in addition to a host of other changes). Despite a substantively more prominent focus on personnel issues, the new policy is in many ways remarkably similar to the policy that preceded it, boding well for its ability to endure over time.
One aspect of the new policy that is surprising is how comparatively little mention was given to UN peace operations. In Strong, Secure, Engaged, UN missions are discussed in some detail, but only as one of many options, rather than as a preferred option. This is surprising, given that the section on peace support missions was one of most detailed and specific of the Liberals’ defence commitments and one of the most frequently repeated on the campaign trail. Indeed, the clearest shortfall between the Liberals’ defence record relative to their campaign commitments has been their failure to renew Canada’s commitments to UN peace support operations.
The government did promise in 2016 to deploy up to 600 military and 150 police personnel for UN operations, and pledged hundreds of millions in possible financial support. So far, none of those personnel have deployed under UN auspices, despite persistent requests from Canadian allies for assistance and no shortage of missions to join. In fact, since the Trudeau government assumed office, Canada’s troop contributions to UN operations have actually declined by roughly 40 positions. In other words, despite Liberal campaign rhetoric, Canada is making fewer tangible commitments to UN operations under this government than under the last one.
The other campaign promise that has gone unfulfilled was the one to implement the Report on Transformation, a roadmap for making the Department of National Defence more efficient, published in 2011. Despite the report’s author, former lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, sitting in the Liberal caucus as well as being parliamentary secretary to the minister of Foreign Affairs, no action has been taken to implement the report he signed, nor has any been suggested. In part, this is because some of the activities suggested in the report were taken up by the Defence Renewal Team, although their results have fallen short of the original intent. More broadly, the cash infusion the Trudeau government provided has removed much of the imperative to find internal savings.
Finally, on the perennially bedevilling topic of defence procurement, the Liberals have largely stuck to their script and delivered. During the campaign, the Liberals pledged to make investing in the Royal Canadian Navy a priority. In government, they have rebranded and embraced the National Shipbuilding Strategy, the route forward to building three new fleets for the navy.
A few months after the election, they announced a major change to the process for acquiring a new fleet of warships with the intent of accelerating it. A year after forming government, they released a Request for Proposals to buy new ships. At the two-year mark, the competition for new warships has been extended by at least seven months, with the intention of having bids submitted by November 17, and the process has been revised along the way to maximize the chance of a successful procurement. While it’s too early to tell how the process will ultimately fare, just launching the competition was a major milestone and a necessary step forward in investing in a new navy.
The other major Liberal procurement priority has been replacing Canada’s fleet of CF-18 fighter jets. When campaigning, the Liberals made contradictory promises to, on the one hand, not buy the F-35, which the Harper government had planned to purchase, while on the other hand, run an open competition.
At the two-year mark, the government has promised a competition will be launched within its first mandate, and is engaging in the preparatory work to do so, but has yet to release bid documents. Roughly a year after assuming office, the government announced a controversial two-track plan to acquire jets, which would explore the option of acquiring 18 Boeing Super Hornets on an interim basis, while launching a competition before the next election. The interim acquisition was predicated on closing a pre-existing fighter capability gap the Trudeau government finds unpalatable. To do so, it proposed a sole-source contract with Boeing for a temporary fleet of new jets. That plan has been widely criticized, and now sits in limbo following Boeing’s trade complaint against Bombardier with the U.S. Commerce department.
On October 17, it was announced that Airbus would be taking a majority stake in the C Series, which may help resolve the dispute. As of now, the outcome and impact on the interim purchase and future competition are unclear.
In sum, the government has done a good job of doing what it said it would. Some of its choices have been contentious, but, peacekeeping aside, that’s been a reflection of their original campaign promises, not a failure to deliver on them.
David Perry is Senior Analyst and Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He is also an adjunct professor at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary and a columnist for the Canadian Naval Review. [email protected]