Japanese Aircraft Carrier’s: Asking Questions

by Stephen M. Saideman

From the National Interest.

The news of the month, Asia-Pacific-wise, is that Japan has admitted that its escort destroyers (and other names for its helicopter carriers) are going to be converted into aircraft carriers via some modifications and with purchasing the version of the F-35 that can take off from a short deck.  Why?

That is, why is Japan doing this?  I raise that simple question.  Folks think the answers are obvious:

a) China is bad and spending heaps on a larger navy

b) Trump is unreliable so Japan needs carriers more now than before.

And my response to these answers is this: how do carriers solve these problems?  Maybe they do, maybe they don’t.  But my study of Japanese civil-military relations suggests that damn few civilians are asking any questions at all.

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Blackmail or Bad Math?

Lockheed Martin must be getting nervous about Ottawa’s decision to entertain alternatives to their F-35 fighter jet.  The company has indicated that $10.5 billion of potential work for Canadian companies could disappear if Canada doesn’t buy the plane.  Oh my gosh let’s run out and confirm that we want the F-35 right now, or they might kill the hostage!

Or not.  Let’s do some simple math: $10.5 billion over 40 years is about $250 million a year.  Which is not peanuts, but in defence spending terms, it is not that big of a deal.

However, there are clearly heaps of budgetary consequences if the government does choose to buy the F-35.  This Lockheed Martin calculation ignores the ‘opportunity costs’ of the purchase – that is, the money that could be spent elsewhere if the F-35 turns out to be more expensive than the alternatives.  Indeed, the government could not buy any plane and just spend $250 million a year for the next 40 years on industrial policy, and it might just be better for the Canadian economy.

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Smart Defence Means What?

Faced with numerous financial and fiscal crises among its membership, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is pushing “Smart Defence.”  Smart Defence is just the new name for a not so new effort – to get NATO members to better coordinate their defence procurement and planning so as to reduce redundancies. The basic idea is that each member will specialize in a given military capability. Indeed, the NATO folks recognize that austerity will likely mean specialization, whether it is coordinated or not, as defence budgets shrink.

So, the push is to have planned specialization where there is “strategic sharing by those who are close in terms of geography, culture, or common equipment.”  Given what I have learned in the course of co-authoring a book on NATO and Afghanistan (with a chapter on Libya), I am rather skeptical about this entire enterprise unless we redefine what we mean by “close.” In both Afghanistan and Libya, what different NATO members brought to the battle varied significantly, including whether they showed up at all. Only once we figure out the sources of such variation, can we figure out which countries are suitable partners in planning a coordinated “smart defence” specialization strategy.

In Afghanistan, each democracy participating in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (and even those that were part of the ad hoc U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom) maintained control over the forces they sent. Different countries imposed different restrictions on what the contingents could do. There were caveats on where their soldiers could serve – more than a few countries refused to send their troops to the more violent areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Some prevented their troops from engaging in any offensive operations at all.

There were a number of other ways countries influenced how their forces acted on the ground. Some countries sent limited capabilities. The Germans had only six helicopters to provide transport for all of Regional Command North. Other countries required their soldiers to call home before any operation could commence. The Dutch were notorious for this, but Canadians forget that their troops faced a similar requirement in 2002.  Some countries told their commanders that if they suffered casualties, they should not expect to be promoted, leading to very risk-averse behaviour on the ground.

The point is that when the soldiers of one country went into battle, they couldn’t count on their allies to show up and be helpful. This uncertainty bedeviled operations, and created political problems where the burden-sharing, especially in terms of the casualties borne by each country, was most uneven.

NATO faced the same challenges during the Libyan effort. Only half of the alliance participated at all. Of those, some opted to only take part in the naval embargo, which was the least risky operation. Indeed, given on-going NATO naval cooperation in the Mediterranean and counter-terrorism and counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, opting out of the embargo required more work than opting in, in terms of changing policies.  Some countries were willing to participate in the No Fly Zone, which was largely rendered risk-free by U.S., British, and French air strikes in the opening days of the campaign. Only eight NATO members were willing to drop bombs on Libya, and only some of those allowed for enough flexibility to go after moving targets or targets of opportunity (dynamic targeting as opposed to pre-planned missions). To put it most simply, NATO’s attendance record in the skies over Libya was spotty.

What accounts for such variation? It’s tempting to say that it is all about public opinion, but our research shows that caveats and other restrictions did not co-vary with the willingness to accept risks and give discretion to the troops in the field. Nor is it the degree of threat posed by events in the targeted country. In our book (coming out towards the end of this year),1 we find that the most important factor is the political system: whether the country is governed by a coalition government or not, and if so, which parties are in the coalition, and if not, what are the personalities of the key decision-maker (the president, the prime minister).

Simply put, coalitions mean bargaining, and bargaining means compromise. To get the less enthusiastic parties to go along, the more enthusiastic parties have to agree to restrictions on the mission – size, area of responsibility, capabilities to be deployed (tanks or not tanks), and so on.  Without compromise, not only does the mission not happen, the government may collapse, as the Dutch government did in 2010 over Afghanistan. The broader the coalition, the more intense the bargaining and the greater the likelihood of significant restrictions. In the case of Libya, the R2P aspect of the operation made it easier for left-wing parties to support the effort.

In presidential systems, and when prime ministers depend on a single party to stay in power, it all depends on the individual who makes the decisions. France’s stance in Afghanistan changed almost overnight from being quite restrictive to engaging in combat in some of the more dangerous districts when Sarkozy replaced Chirac, despite the fact that both leaders were on the right side of the political spectrum.

Getting back to Smart Defence, since budget cuts are inevitable, the key question is with whom to cooperate. If governments are meant to share with those that are “close,” I would suggest  defining “close” not by geography or culture, but by institutions.

Those countries that either have presidential systems or are generally ruled by single parties can work together. Instead of thinking of an Anglosphere as many aver, we need to think of a presidential-sphere. France can be and often is among the more forward-leaning countries, but we would hardly say that it is a member of the Anglosphere. As long as their leaders get along, countries can be counted on to show up during combat (most of the time).

Countries with coalition governments tend to be restrictive when it comes to military action, so they can and should plan on working together. They are similarly reliable (or unreliable), so the risk averse should work with each other.

Of course, the big problem is that defence procurement decisions are binding for a generation or two, with planes frequently being older than the pilots flying them these days. Today’s most suitable partner (Denmark!) may not be so suitable in five, ten, or twenty years when it has a less cooperative coalition government.

And the best news of all for those worried about specialization and its consequences are that many countries may simply refuse to choose, leading to less of everything. For instance, see this piece for a discussion of the possible Canadian choices and why the government may choose not to decide. Of course, as some great Canadian political theorists have argued, when choosing not to decide, you still have made a choice.

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

by Steve Saideman


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.