Canada First Defence Strategy
BY RAdm BRUCE JOHNSTON
© 2011 FrontLine Defence (Vol 8, No 4)

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The Canada First Defence Strategy is not so much a strategy as a capabilities plan. This is neither a bad thing, nor is it new. Going directly to the 1994 White Paper we see the words: “...the Forces must maintain and exercise the basic navy, army, and air force skills to ensure effective control over our territory, airspace, and maritime approaches. In and of itself, maintaining the capability to field a presence anywhere Canada maintains sovereign jurisdiction, sends a clear signal that Canadians will not have their sovereignty compromised.”


July 2011 – Brent Valentini, a Fire Ranger at the Fire Management Headquarters in Kenora, returns from a grueling 14 days of fighting wildfires in Northern Ontario as a Canadian Forces CC-130 Hercules aircraft is taking off with Deer Lake First Nation ­evacuees onboard.

Operation FORGE, led by Canada Command, is the Canadian Forces contribution to the whole of government effort to assist the Government of Ontario in the emergency evacuation of persons threatened by wildfires in northern Ontario. This support is provided mainly through airlift conducted by CC-130 Hercules aircraft from 14 Wing in Greenwood, Nova Scotia, 8 Wing in Trenton, Ontario, and 17 Wing in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Canadian Rangers from the 3rd Canadian Patrol Ranger Group are also assisting in some communities by coordinating the logistical plans, loading aircraft and communicating with the families of the community members. In addition to Canadian Rangers, the CF are also deploying ground coordination teams to assist with organizing community members onto military aircraft for evacuation.


From the CFDS, the first declared mission is that the Canadian Forces will have the capacity to: “Conduct daily domestic and continental operations, including in the Arctic and through NORAD.”

Though more concise, this statement essentially mirrors the capability requirement from 1994, however, neither document attempts in any way to rationalize the size of the Canadian Forces required to achieve these capability requirements. For other CFDS missions, first-hand experience has helped hone capabilities required to, as the requirements state: “support a major international event” (the 2010 Olympics), and to “support civilian authorities during a crisis in Canada” (Hurricane Igor in Newfoundland, flooding in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec), “lead and/or conduct a major international operation for an extended period” (Afghanistan), and to “deploy forces in response to crises elsewhere in the world for shorter periods” (Libya).

In short, for these four critical missions, we have ‘learned by doing’ and, as a nation, we can feel confident in the capability of the Canadian Forces to achieve and maintain these capabilities. And, while the requirement to “respond to a major terrorist attack” is thankfully untested, there is an abundance of information available to effectively determine required force levels using the military estimate process. It therefore remains the first and perhaps most important mission for which we have little or no information on required force levels.

Something Missing...
The missing element, from a Canadian Forces perspective, is ‘responsibility’ – the CF must maintain the capability to do ­surveillance, but has no responsibility to routinely conduct surveillance. Other government departments do, however, as noted in the 1994 White Paper: “Responsibility for many of the Government’s activities in the surveillance and control of Canadian territory, airspace, and maritime areas of jurisdiction lies with civilian agencies such as the Department of Transport.” And yet it has been clear that many of these other departments depend on the CF to assist in executing their responsibilities, either through standing agreements or cost recovery. The result is a patchwork of surveillance activities that cannot be measured or extrapolated to determine a national capability requirement.

The Arctic surveillance requirement further skews the discussion. Even in the most recent past there has been little if any surveillance activity in the Arctic, short of satellite imagery.

Reassuringly, the Harper Government seems intent on addressing that lack of activity, and has called for more capability. However, to be effective, it also must understand the importance of assigning responsibility. In 5–10 years, we will have new Arctic Offshore Patrol vessels, icebreakers, UAVs, however, it must be asked: “Where will the responsibility lie?” An extension of the Canada First Defence Strategy that would include strategic surveillance objectives and responsibilities would therefore seem warranted.

Strategy can be tricky!
On arriving as Commander MARPAC in 1994, I searched in vain for a strategic basis for the employment of our West Coast Navy. I had just spent three years as the ACOPS to SACLANT in Norfolk, Virginia. Co-located with the Atlantic Fleet headquarters, I had the full benefit of strategy discussions with my USN counterparts. My message to the MARPAC staff therefore was: “The United States Navy has a strategy, why can’t I have one?”

We went to work and devised an employment strategy that, writ large, would fit nicely with what I saw as the ‘demands’ of the ’94 White Paper and, by extrapolation, to the demands of today’s CFDS. Naval employment would fall into four categories:

  • Force Generation – Fundamental to the maintenance of capability
  • Security Services – Essential to the maintenance of national security
  • Theater Operations – International exercises designed for crisis response
  • Contingency Operations – Crisis response

Theater Operations are important to the process of getting to know your potential partners in future security operations. Coming from SACLANT, and working within the robust regional security organization of NATO, I found the situation in the Pacific to be shockingly deficient.
On the Atlantic side, my counterpart in MARLANT was a NATO commander in his own right. Canada was represented by numerous senior-level staff officers within the SACLANT headquarters, and had full insight into potential security operations. CINCPAC is the ‘regional security instrument’ for the Pacific coast. Canada had no presence in CINCPAC’s headquarters, and little or no influence in the contingency planning process. Over the next two years, we were able to establish a Navy Captain’s billet in Pacific Fleet headquarters, but that was a small victory at best.

Of course, Asia Pacific is a very complex region. An equivalent U.S. commander would likely have a former ambassador on staff to provide regional advice. Within a year I was able to orchestrate the posting of Chris Brown, an experienced foreign service officer recently from Vietnam, to the MARPAC staff. He was an invaluable resource, however, our partnership lasted only a year as the policy staff in NDHQ became nervous that the diplomatic center of Canada was shifting from Ottawa to Esquimalt. Chris was punted back to External Affairs. The postscript however was that Jim Boutilier was then appointed to the MARPAC staff and, for those of you who know Jim, he has been a constant and valuable adviser for a number of Commanders over the years.

On the home front, the focus was on ‘Security Services’. The most obvious of these were sovereignty patrols, often with Fisheries or RCMP officers embarked. The latter evolved from a joint Coastal Watch program with RCMP officers integrated into the operations center. Aurora patrols were shifted from the Cold War all-sensor patrols, 800 miles off the coast, to coverage of coastal waters and major shipping routes. Inter-Agency coordination meetings began with U.S. Coast Guard districts 13 and 17, and included Land Force Western Area (then commanded by MGen Clive Addy), ‘E’ Division of the RCMP and U.S. reps from the Drug Enforcement Agency, the FBI and others. These provided a valuable framework for enhanced information exchange at the staff levels.

We sought other improvements to enhance our surveillance ‘picture’ or output. Vessel Traffic Management radars were an important source of contact information, and a project to bring that data into the headquarters was initiated. Surprisingly, the Auroras could transmit Link 11 to U.S. headquarters but not to Comox, so a project to correct that was also initiated.

“Assumed” Responsibility
Looking back at this period of 1994-1996, we in MARPAC essentially ‘assumed’ responsibility for surveillance in our region, and did everything in our power to exercise that responsibility. I have to admit, however, that it went largely un-noticed. If I had initiated 10 sovereignty patrols one year and none the next, no one would have asked why. One incident in particular clearly demonstrated the frustration of the period (which continues today): the RCMP had requested an Aurora aircraft for photo surveillance during an operation they were involved in. When informed the operation would be subject to cost recovery (in accordance with government guidelines) the request was not so politely withdrawn. As observed earlier, “Strategy can be tricky!”


July 2011 – Evacuees from Cat Lake, Ontario, disembark a CC-130 Hercules to the safety of Kapuskasing. The Government of Canada responded swiftly to an urgent request from the Province as a result of wild fires threatening the community of Cat Lake. The fires had already cut the community from electricity.

Has Anything Changed?
The situation is actually much improved from 15 years ago. We have a government which understands the necessity for putting sufficiently robust military forces in place for Canada to play its rightful role in international security operations. We have a government that recognizes that Canadian sovereignty cannot be taken for granted, particularly in our Arctic domain. We have a government that has initiated significant new initiatives to provide the military assets best suited to Arctic operations. This government has also put in place a command structure for the Canadian Forces that, under the auspices of Canada Command, is well suited to the assumption of daily responsibility for the conduct of daily surveillance operations in support of sovereignty.

All this has been achieved while the dominant operational reality for the CF has been the war in Afghanistan. This has been an all-consuming challenge, both for the military and for Canadians everywhere. Operations in Afghanistan have also provided an enduring experience for our veterans in the use of new and evolving technologies in support of surveillance. It is a much different Canadian Forces today than that described in the ’94 White Paper. The CF is more sophisticated, more agile, and is well suited to the demanding challenges of the sovereignty mission that awaits.

The Future
With Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan now concluded, and with a reset of the Canada First Defence Strategy due this Fall, we need to take an aggressive approach to the first mission of the CFDS. A strategic surveillance strategy needs to be in place to orchestrate daily domestic operations for years to come. We need to know how much, how often, and where.

In articulating the three ‘roles’ of the Canadian Forces, the CFDS notes (for the Defence of Canada role) that, “…excellence at home requires the Forces not only to identify threats – such as over-fishing, organized crime, drug- and people-smuggling, and environmental degradation – but also to possess the capacity to address them quickly and effectively.”

These words imply responsibility, however it is by no means clear at what level.

Similarly, the CFDS implies that the essence of our participation in the Defence of North America role lies with the NORAD agreement. However, very recently we have seen the Prime Minister and the President reach broad agreement that North American ‘perimeter security’ is vitally important to both Canadians and Americans. Both were careful to note that this can be accomplished without infringement on each other’s national sovereignty.

Is it time to put Canada First? Clearly, I believe it is. We also need to understand that the employment of our military assets will change somewhat from the past. I noted in a previous commentary that “…the Navy has never used its assets for routine and persistent surveillance of our territorial waters.” Many have argued that the Navy’s priorities should lay in blue water missions and exercises. This is exactly my point. Historically, the Navy was too busy to do routine surveillance. Without the strategic commitment of our naval and air assets to the maintenance of Canadian sovereignty on an ongoing basis, we will be at risk. ­Recognizing that military priorities on a given day will determine force levels ­available to be applied to that commitment will be ­fundamental to the realization of such a mandate.

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Bruce Johnston, a retired Rear-Admiral, is a Senior Associate at Hill and Knowlton.
© FrontLine Defence 2011

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