Canada First Defence Strategy
Jan 15, 2008

For some time, we have been anticipating Canada’s new defence policy. This government came into power with an intention to provide an interest-based approach to defence policy. A “Canada First” policy therefore implies a more specific focus on our interests, not just broad statements of our values, excellent as they are. This proposed defence policy should therefore provide a great deal of clarity as to what these interests might be.

While it is somewhat more straight-forward to conduct planning based on interests, connecting the policy with defence procurement in a coherent fashion is challenging, and coordinating the many stakeholder interests creates a lengthy cycle of incremental activity. No doubt, this cycle has probably been exacerbated by the ongoing mission in Afghanistan. Thus the interest of defending Canada is juxtaposed against overseas operations, a tension that begs a policy debate.

Government implements defence policy in three generic ways. The first is to enun­ciate the policy in terms of what is desired – but declaratory policy is only a guide. The second is to determine the overall the size of the military, but this ignores quality and often leads to tension with the third policy implementation tool, the budget. Many would agree that the most telling impact on real defence policy is via successive budgets. Are the resources provided sufficient? How quickly can a large organization like DND implement significant change, especially when governments will not let them close things down?
Corporal Melony Malo, an Aerospace Control Operator, at her post at the Precision Approach Radar terminal during Exercise Maple Flag 39. Exercise Maple Flag, which emphasizes air operations involving large package coalition air forces, provides aircrews with realistic training in a modern simulated air combat environment. (CF Photo: WO Serge Peters)

The Canada First strategy rings easily and implies that protecting Canadians will be the highest priority for the Canadian Forces (CF). The key question is how much will DND be able to truly align itself to the Canada First strategy? The capital procurement decisions of government provide us with perhaps one clue. Since the personnel, operations, and maintenance cost are relatively fixed, much can be deduced from the capital acquisition strategy. How large is the capital equipment allocation, and how do the choices in the plan match the policy need in the long term? The answers to these questions provide a look into the future. Where is DND actually spending most of its money?

Clearly some things are changing. The CF is slowly recovering from the 19 successive budget cuts levied on DND during the “decade of darkness,” from 1989 to 1998, but the impact of this downsizing lingers. Real increases have only been realized in the past three years, and it takes many years to rebuild a seriously diminished military capability. The decisions to acquire new aircraft, new tanks and new ships are significant. But this form of structural analysis has limits as military equipment, thankfully, serves more than one purpose. This is especially true of air and maritime assets which easily shift missions quickly. Nevertheless, the growing list of equipment acquisitions would indicate that much recent effort appears to support expeditionary operations, notably in Afghanistan.

Another element in this debate will be how well the government can convince Canadians that operations in Afghanistan are not the real priority. To what degree is DND able to meld these seemingly diverging interests? What are the real costs to support overseas operations? These costs are not just the incremental costs to deploy. The essential need to provide proper equip­ment and munitions to our soldiers in theatre, replace vehicles that are wearing out more quickly, the urgency to replace our Hercules fleet, and the critical need to provide special assets all speak to real priorities. Are these operations clearly part of defending Canadians against international terrorism? Polls indicate that Canadians are supportive of our troops and want the government of Afghanistan to succeed, but do not necessarily accept that this mission is part of defending Canada.

The next way we could assess a Canada First defence strategy might be to attempt an assessment of how serious the government truly is about defending Canadians from all potential threats. For this government, the arctic has loomed large in its consideration, but experts point out that threats to Canadian sovereignty in the arctic are not military. A more cost effective non-military response would do. On the other hand, creating military units designed to respond to domestic emergency is an initiative that promises to protect Canadians. Another significant point is that with Canada’s huge maritime regions, the need for ocean surveillance is vast, yet our primary surveillance fleet, the Aurora, is being reduced. This is but one of the legacy issues created by the decade of neglect, but it remains an area of concern that links directly to our sovereignty. Will Canada’s next UAV be acquired to protect arctic sovereignty or to help operations in Afghanistan?

Another area to examine is sovereignty of our airspace. For 50 years we have maintained this through NORAD, a bi-national command with the US, the only such arrangement in existence. Other US defence arrangements are bi-lateral where the US size advantage influences the relationship. We are the envy of the world with NORAD, but it is losing its relevance. With the 2005 decision not to protect Canadians from missiles, we have begun to undermine NORAD’s relevance. For the first time in seven decades, Canada has refused to protect North American citizens from a threat that the U.S. believes to be real. This has consequences for Canada in a post 9/11 environment, when access to space capabilities has never been more important. Furthermore, NORAD can protect the vast majority of Canadians faster (due to base location) with US fighter aircraft than it can with Canadian aircraft.

The Canada First initiative may not be a radical change. Past policies have shifted the emphasis, but most Canadian defence policies have tried to find a ­balance between domestic protection and overseas engagement. A rigorous examination of how defence dollars are allocated and how Canadians are defended would probably show that priority has tended to go to our overseas commitments. Articulating a Canada First policy when we are engaged in military combat operations half way around the world raises more questions than answers – it should trigger a meaning­ful debate, and this would be an excellent outcome.
LGen (ret) Ken Pennie, Chief of the Air Staff from 2003 to 2005, is now a senior research fellow with the Centre for Security and Defence Studies at Norman Patterson School of International Affairs, a consultant, and is teaching business strategy at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University.
© Frontline Defence 2008