Assessing Canada’s Defence Policy



by Elinor Sloan

Frontline Defence
October 2, 2017

Canada’s defence policy, released in June 2017, includes a sound assessment of the international security environment, commitments to properly size and equip the Canadian Forces for likely missions, and a detailed costing arrangement. But Strong, Secure, Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy is also marked by a significant shortcoming that could be its undoing: a failure to sufficiently address weaknesses in the military procurement system.

The policy states squarely that “major power competition has returned to the international system” and that Canada needs capabilities to help deter near-peer conflict. It highlights state-to-state competition, including threats posed by rogue states like North Korea, even as the challenges of failed states and terrorism continue unabated. And it raises crossover linkages between state and non-state actors, in the form of hybrid warfare and external troop involvement in intrastate conflicts.

The new policy also commits to a wide range of investments that would produce the most powerful Canadian military force since the 1950s. Some are welcome but largely expected, such as a full fleet of Canadian surface combatants, future fighter aircraft, and upgraded light armoured vehicles. Others represent critical capabilities that past governments have largely ignored and are thus a pleasant surprise, like ground-based air defence systems, armed unmanned aerial vehicles, next-generation long-range patrol aircraft, and a submarine life-extension program. The policy also promises to increase the size of the Canadian Forces by 3,500 personnel (including 600 Special Forces) for a total of 71,000.

In the wake of the policy’s release, the most vocal criticisms have been twofold. First, can we afford the program? Annual defence spending is set to progressively increase from about $19 billion in fiscal year 2016-2017 to 32.7 billion in fiscal 2026-2027, and then to fall back to around $27 billion per year in fiscal 2031-2032 and for five years thereafter. Over 20 years, the delta between what Canada would spend, if today’s budget stayed steady, as compared to the newly committed program is about $62 billion. This is indeed a huge sum. However, according to high-ranking officials involved, the program has been extensively and painstakingly costed, year by year, line by line, across 52 projects. Moreover, the costing was done both internally within DND and externally by several well-known accounting firms.

A second criticism is that Canadian governments make a habit of announcing grandiose defence plans without following through. What makes this time any different?

Despite this widespread perception, promises of substantial new defence spending have, in fact, only happened twice in the past 30 years. On both occasions, dramatic and unforeseen global changes derailed the programs. The end of the Cold War and the most severe economic recession since the Great Depression stopped in their tracks the promises of the 1987 Defence White Paper and the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy, respectively. The 1994 Defence White Paper made it clear the government of the day would cut defence spending, while the 2005 Defence Policy Statement contained strong words but not a marked funding increase. Barring an unforeseen geopolitical or geo-economic shift, it is possible that programs identified within the 2017 Defence Policy have a fighting chance.

Lest this sound like too rosy a story, there is at least one significant weakness in the government’s policy: the failure to go far enough in tackling shortcomings in the military procurement system. The document highlights a number of initiatives designed to smooth the progression of projects through national defence, including growing the defence procurement workforce, seeking a higher dollar value contracting authority, and improving internal co-ordination. But these “within DND” solutions do not address the tri-departmental defence procurement structure (defence, public services and industry) that has so often proven to be the source of huge bureaucratic delays in advancing major capital acquisitions.

The requirement is for a marked organizational structure change in Canada’s military procurement system. Absent this, the strongest words and fullest coiffeurs will not be enough to implement Strong, Secure, Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy.

Elinor Sloan is a Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science and a former defence analyst with the Department of National Defence, and currently a CGAI Fellow.

Image credit: REUTERS/Chris Wattie


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