A 21st Century Military Doesn’t Start at Home

Today, the Ministers of National Defence and of Public Works announced a new approach to Canadian defence procurement.  Given the track record of the recent (and not so recent) past, it is clear that Canada desperately needs to reform how it buys equipment for the Canadian Forces.  The efforts to “re-capitalize” the CF have thus far produced more controversy than new planes, ships, vehicles, and other kit.  Since the Department of National Defence has not worked so well in this area, it does make some sense to move it to Public Works although it is not clear that Public Works has a stellar record.  Subsequently, more oversight from a team of Ministers makes a great deal of sense.

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Militaries Don’t Start Wars, Politicians Do

Over the weekend, the Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders issued a call for caution in light of recent events in the East China Sea and in Iran: that militaries may push civilians into unwanted and lengthy conflicts.  Using lessons gleaned from the experiences of the First World War, Saunders rightly notes that militaries lacking oversight can provide civilians with so few options that war seems like the only choice.

The problem is that he then extends his analysis to Afghanistan, a war where the timetables were so very clearly driven by politics in Kabul, in Brussels, in Washington, and in Ottawa.  Since the First World War, so much has changed in civil-military relations that it is now very difficult for the militaries of advanced democracies to push their countries into war, despite the myths about the Kandahar decision that continue to resonate in Canada.

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Why the Conservatives Can Cut the Size of the Military and Get Away With It

The Chief of the Defence Staff, Tom Lawson, has now allowed that efforts to cut the military’s budget could include personnel cuts.  Given that personnel expenses are one of the biggest categories of spending, this makes a great deal of sense.  Cutting the budget without cutting numbers or big ticket items like planes and ships would mean very deep cuts into operations, training, and maintenance.  Canadians don’t use the phrase “hollowing out the force” like Americans do, but the principle is the same – if you do not spend on the practice of war, then the military will lose their edge in this at its very dangerous business.

The government has been most reluctant to consider personnel cuts, saying that it can save money without reducing troop numbers.  Of course, this fits into a larger pattern of denial, it is not necessary or advantageous in this case.  This recent article on personnel cuts suggests that there are political risks in moving away from the magic numbers to which Harper has committed.  I frankly do not see how this is the case.

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The State of Civil-Military Relations After Afghanistan

I presented this week at the Kingston Conference on International Security about the state of civil-military relations in Canada and NATO as Afghanistan winds down (for the outsiders, not so much for those left behind). Because the Afghan conflict was the most intense warfare faced by most of the countries involved and endured for far longer than we might have expected of modern democracies, it will certainly shape the place of these militaries in their societies. Canada is hardly alone in this, although Canadians tend to think so. The long and dangerous engagement had both positive and negative effects on the relationships between civilians and the Canadian Forces, and these dynamics played out in similar ways elsewhere.

Before starting, we must remember that civil-military relations involve both society and the government on the civilian side, and we must keep in mind that the relationship is always dynamic. People tend to get upset when they see tensions, but not every dispute or conflict in perceptions is equal to a crisis.

So, how was Afghanistan the best of times for Canadian civil-military relations? The Canadian public has a better sense of the Canadian Forces than previously. The public has seen that the CF can perform well on the same battlefield as better-funded and bigger militaries such as the American and British armed forces. There are more realistic expectations – that the CF is trained to fight and not just act as peacekeepers. I remember early on being asked by members of the media whether the CF was trained to fight, and the answer was clearly yes. Because misperceptions can be a significant source of tensions, the greater clarity that came with seeing the CF in action has significantly improved the CF’s relationship with the public.

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Hollow, Eh?

In a previous post, I talked about the budget challenges facing the Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence.  Last week, a story came out that made it clear that the folks who are really in denial are not the Canadian Forces but the Harper government.  Specifically, the Canadian Army wanted to cancel a program (really!) to buy new armoured vehicles.  The $2 billion saved would go to operations, maintenance, and training efforts that are currently facing cuts.  The government said no.

To be clear, civilians should reign supreme in these types of decisions – civilian control of the military means that the military advises but the civilians decide.  The problem here is that the decision is being guided even more than usual by politics and in a negative direction.  Yes, all decisions are political, with many considerations involved and competing ideas of what is best for the country.  In this case, the government wants to avoid being criticized for yet another bad procurement process.  Trying to avoid criticism is not likely to lead to the pursuit of the national interest.

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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.