Election 2015: Devising new defence platforms (Part 1)

By Steve Saideman

I read what passes for a Liberal defence platform with a great deal of frustration because it mostly criticized the Conservatives (which have earned such criticism) with few suggestions of what the Liberals would actually do if they had the chance to run the government. 

Journalists David Pugliese, Lee Berthiaume, and Ian MacLeod have a nice piece in the Ottawa Citizen that takes the Liberal Defence critic’s platform and other promises to come up with a list of what the Liberals would do on defence:

  • Amend C-51.
  • “Create an all-party national security oversight committee to oversee the 17 government departments and agencies with national security responsibilities.”
  • Reopen the regional Vet Affairs offices that the Conservatives closed.

Except for the middle one, of which I am most curious (since it relates to an on-going project I am doing with Phil Lagassé and Dave Auerswald), there is nothing here that in fact relates to the Department of National Defence or the Canadian Armed Forces.

Here is my idea: To write up defence platforms for each party, ones that match each party’s values and history (as far as I can tell as a relative newcomer to Canadian politics).

The challenge for me is to figure out what is politically permissible and legally possible because existing contracts make it hard to, for instance, kill the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy.  So, take all of this with a big grain of salt.  This week, I start with the Liberals.  Next week, I will present the New Democratic Party (which will be the easiest).  After that, I will post a Conservative defence platform, which will be the hardest since they have to run away from explain their existing record and how it will be improved.

The (imagined) Liberal defence platform:

The Conservative Party likes to consider itself as the mature party of Canada, but it has consistently dodged the hard decisions and has tried to avoid responsibility by denying and disguising their mistakes. The Conservatives have focused attention on symbolic stances, such as keeping 100,000 personnel in uniform, despite the fact that personnel represent about half of the defence budget, which has meant significant challenges to the CAF’s readiness.

We would start by immediately developing a white paper that establishes Canadian priorities — what are the most important threats facing Canada, which are the most important capabilities required to meet that threat and to meet Canada’s commitment to the world.

This white paper would start by acknowledging that Canada is in a relatively secure position as we are surrounded by water, ice and our ally.  Canada shares responsibility for the security of North America with the United States, which means that we need to keep capabilities that allow us to do our share.  This does mean a new fighter plane (more on that below).

The next step would be to recognize a basic Canadian value and a core Liberal value: supporting our allies via the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  Canada has participated in every single significant NATO effort from the defence of West Europe during the Cold War to the interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya, to the war in Afghanistan and now the reassurance missions in Eastern Europe.  A Liberal government would continue to participate in such efforts and invest in the CAF so that our Forces can make a difference in future allied efforts.

Peacekeeping has been an important contribution that Canada has made, and our party will place a greater priority in such efforts in the future.  The aim will be to provide key resources and leadership where Canada can make a difference.  Given limits on the size of the CAF and on our budgets, Canada cannot be everywhere, so we will have to be judicious in making decisions about which places can most benefit from a Canadian contribution.

Given these priorities, what does this mean for the Canadian Armed Forces?

First, we acknowledge that defence procurement is challenging.  Our party’s record is mixed on this, as we have been responsible for some very successful defence programs and some not so successful programs.  We will study how other democracies buy weapons systems and learn what practices work best.  Prioritizing industrial benefits (jobs in Canada) is an easy stance to take, but the wrong one if we can buy less expensive equipment elsewhere.

Second, we need to rationally assess the tradeoffs and focus on those defence systems that provide the maximum impact for each defence dollar.  This means, unfortunately, our government would end the submarine program as it currently exists.  A great deal of money spent by both Liberals and Conservatives has meant that we have a submarine force that has, in its best year, averaged having one sub at see for two-thirds of the year.  While we concur that submarines provide key capabilities, our ability to deploy has been and will be too limited to realize the potential benefits.  This will be a hard decision, but the responsible one.

Third, a Liberal government would cut the personnel of the CAF by 10 percent.  This would recognize a basic reality: that as new generations of military equipment are increasingly expensive, we will be buying few.  The next set of fighter planes will be smaller than the existing number of CF-18s so we will need fewer pilots.  The Royal Canadian Navy will not be replacing all of the ships that are aging, so we will have fewer ships, which means fewer sailors.  The Army will need to cut back, as it is no longer engaged in war.

Fourth, these savings will not be taken away from the CAF but used to replace the Conservative cuts in training and maintenance.  Indeed, we will not cut the defence budget to reach a balanced budget: we intend to increase the budget.  The aim here of the specific cuts mentioned above is to avoid a “hollow force” that looks good but has become rusty.  The best way to avoid needless casualties and to maintain the CAF as one of the world’s most effective armed forces is not to stick to symbolic numbers but to train and maintain.  The cuts in numbers of ships, which recognize the reality we face today, in planes and in personnel will allow the CAF to focus on maintaining a sharp edge for whenever they are called.

Fifth, the Conservative government has deferred the F-35 decision again and again, trying to avoid responsibility.  Once our government has access to all of the studies that have been conducted, we will make a responsible decision, finding a plane that better suits Canada’s needs than the F-35.  As the RCAF always has acted in concert with our allies, a key priority in making this decision will be interoperability but not at the expense of having a plane that is not as suitable for defending our northern air space.

Sixth, while the Conservatives obsess about the War of 1812, the Liberal Party would invest in the challenges of the 21st century: developing cyber capabilities to defend Canada from cyber-attacks.

Seventh, we must take care of those who defend us.  We will invest more resources in taking care of Forces today, our military families, and our veterans.  We will put more sources into treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental health challenges not just to cut down on suicides but because it is the right thing to do.

Last, we need far greater transparency.  The current government has muzzled government officials and tried to keep the media away from the military.  For the public to understand what is at stake in any and all military missions, they need to get the ground truths from those in harm’s way.

In sum, the Liberal Party promises to make the hard decisions that will allow the Canadian Armed Forces to be ready for the challenges ahead.

*  This has been greatly informed by a conversation with Jean-Christophe Boucher of McEwan University.

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

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One thought on “Election 2015: Devising new defence platforms (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Election 2015: Devising new defence platforms (Part 2) | Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

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