Defer, Defer and Defer Some More: Canada’s National Security Strategy

What did I learn at the Conference of Defence Associations’ (CDA) two-day annual Ottawa conference?  Well, the first rule of Fight Club is not to talk about Fight Club, and the first rule of this conference was­­­ not to disparage the F-35 … unless you were prepared to be buttonholed by a Lockheed representative.  But the major lessons from the two days are this: (1) Canada has not made any choices, (2­­­­­­) Canada will be forced to make choices due to declining military budgets and increasing costs of new programs, and (3) Canada will try to delay and defer these choices for as long as possible.

The first day was mostly focused on what a national security strategy is, whether Canada has one, and what should one be.  The basic idea, as I have discussed at CIC before (here and here), is that one’s assessment of threats, capabilities, and commitments should drive how the Canadian Forces are designed, equipped, trained, and “doctrined.”  The CDA folks released a new Vimy paper that tries to provide Canada with a “strategic outlook”, which is especially handy since the Canadian government does not seem that interested in enunciating anything similar to this or to the United States’s Quadrennial Defense Review.  However, the paper does not really recommend any hard choices – which was definitely in line with the trend of the conference.

The second day had Canadian defence leaders speak – the new Chief of Staff Tom Lawson, and the Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay (via video since he was in Brussels for a NATO meeting).  While both seemed to deliver remarks almost entirely devoid of meaningful content (I tweeted that they were vanilla), Lawson’s speech actually had a bit of bite to it.  How so?  He identified the fiscal challenge at home as the Canadian Forces’s “centre of gravity”.  What does that mean?  Well, when military people talk about “centres of gravity”, they are talking about the vulnerability of the adversary that should be attacked or the vulnerability of oneself that needs to be defended.  For instance, in the Afghanistan campaign, stating that, “the people were the prize” reflected that there were two centres of gravity in the counter-insurgency campaign ­– the Afghan people, and the publics back home in the ISAF countries; that we could win if the Afghans sided with the Afghan government; and that the Taliban would win if the publics back home got sick of the war and demanded a withdrawal.

That the Canadian Chief of Defence Staff identified the fiscal situation as THE focus of the Canadian Forces is pretty striking.  Usually, we think that militaries should be focused on preparing for the next war, but this seemed like a call for the Canadian Forces to be prepared for very tough times ahead.  Lawson and others tried to make it clear that this would not be the 1990s all over again, which is all fine and good, but thus far it seems as if no choices are being made.  Lawson enunciated four priorities: current operations, equipping the future Canadian Forces, taking care of the people (the folks in the Canadian Forces and their families), and professional development.  The problem is that priorities imply choices – some stuff will get more attention and money and other stuff will get less.  But Lawson’s “priorities” were really a framework to discuss the entirety of his mandate – present operations, future planning, the people, and maintaining professionalism.  What will be left out?  What will get less attention in these days of declining resources?

The reality is that Canada will not be deploying land forces in situations of significant combat anytime soon.  It is far easier not to spend money on a deployment than to cut somewhere else to pay for such efforts.  This should be the starting point for planning – does Canada need to invest in significant upgrades of its land forces for the next ten years?  Might the land force face real cuts in its size to help cover the costs of the new ships and planes?  Can Canada afford to completely modernize its surface fleet at this time?  Or should it sink most of the money into planes – not just the F-35 but long-range search and rescue planes?  The latter actually got far more questions this week than the former.

Reading the tea leaves in the speeches, there were some hints.  The recent Jenkins report pushes for more Canadian production of the stuff the Canadian Forces buys.  MacKay mentioned this report in his short video.  How should one read this?  Well, one can be cynical, of course.  One way to make defence spending seem more attractive and less of a drag on the budget is to argue that making stuff ourselves rather than buying it from other countries can create jobs and prosperity at home.  Using defence spending as a jobs program increases the political positives.  This is an old lesson that has driven much of American defense spending over the years. congressional representatives and senators see planes and ships and such as providing jobs to their districts and states.  As a result, most modern systems are built in over four hundred congressional districts (out of four hundred and thirty-five) and over forty states. This makes it very hard to cancel programs.

What does this imply for Canada’s choices?  Build ships, not planes!  The shipbuilding program promises many jobs for Canadian shipyards (well, some of them).  The F-35 is mostly produced elsewhere with relatively modest benefits for Canadian industry.  One of the most surprising sponsors of the conference this week was Rafale, a French aerospace company that produces one of the competitors to the F-35.  Perhaps, if this company is smart, they will align with Bombardier and produce much of their plane in Quebec (this is not my idea, just something I heard at the conference).

But there is a larger problem here – is this era of budget cutting a good time to treat defence policy as industrial policy?  DND would already be buying domestically produced defence materials if they were cheaper and better.  So, favoring domestic production is likely to cost more than foreign production and exactly at a time where additional costs must be avoided.  Interesting contradiction.

Where does all this leave us?  Well, in a conference call with the media, MacKay mentioned that the revised “Canada First Defence Strategy” would come out after the budget.  This means that the budget will shape how Canada assesses and plans for the threats of tomorrow, and the design of the Canadian Forces that will face those threats.  This is backwards, of course, but perhaps some hard choices will finally be made rather than deferred.  Maybe.  It is clear that the toughest battles ahead for the Canadian Forces, the “centre of gravity” as identified by Lawson, will be in Ottawa, over who wins and who loses in the procurement decisions.

This article is published in partnership with the Canadian International Council and its international-affairs hub  OpenCanada.

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