The Coming Decade of Whatever
© 2013 FrontLine Defence (Vol 10, No 4)

We gargoyles typically spend the dog days of summer musing about what parliamentary defence committees might do in the fall – there are any number of strategically important defence issues that could be addressed. However, with some disappointment, we arrived at the conclusion that not much of anything will be done. Parliament will reconvene in late October, committees will have to be reconstituted (many with new or rookie members), committee chairs elected, committee agendas decided, and committee budgets approved. Issues surrounding the lack of senatorial integrity and obtuse government habits will suck much of the oxygen out of the room, leaving little enthusiasm to tackle the lack of a defence policy, declining readiness and reduced professional development activity. National defence leaders will be expected to sit quietly in the corner and play with what the government has already given them, nothing more. Then suddenly it’s time for the Christmas break. And then it’s 2014, and time to begin campaigning for the 2015 election. Throughout, parliamentary defence committees will have done nothing. It’s all depressingly too predictable.

The most depressing thing of all is that not only parliamentary defence committees but parliament as a whole will fail to recognize the historically significant period of change in the field of Canadian national defence that is upon us.

The transition is notable because it is only the fourth of its kind in Canadian history. Similar circumstances occurred in 1919, after the First World War; then again in 1946, after the Second World War; once more in 1992 following the end of the Cold War; and now, something of a strategic change of pace after the Afghanistan campaign.

Each of those milestones marks an ebbing from a Canadian defence high water mark and the introduction of decades of a different character.

Canadian military forces were quickly demobilized beginning in 1919, and a million Canadian service personnel hit the streets just in time for the ‘Roaring 20s.’ The Canadian economy was then blindsided by the ‘Dirty 30s.’ By the 1940s, Canada was at war again. Late in the decade, Canada once again went through a mass demobilization of its armed forces, but by 1951, many were re-mobilized and deployed by the hundreds to fight on the Korean Peninsula and by the thousands to deter a Soviet attack in Europe. For the next 40 years of the Cold War, Canadian military forces operated abroad, and defence expenditures became significant and permanent features of all federal budgets.

With the end of the Cold War in 1991, enthusiasm for reaping a ‘peace dividend’ and a very serious fiscal situation in Canada, led government to initiate another, less massive, de-mobilization (although they never called it that). Defence budgets were cut; personnel reduced; recruitment stopped; equipment began to ‘rust-out’ and a ‘bow-wave’ of capital requirements started to build. Some junior ranks had to moonlight to make personal and family ends meet. An ethical calamity in Somalia brought the military into political disfavour, and lapses of integrity among some senior ranks confirmed that Canada’s armed forces had reached something of nadir. It was truly a decade of darkness.

But conflict abroad provided a new bed where seeds could grow high favour at home once again.

With transition from the frustration of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in the Balkans, to effective intervention by the NATO Implementation Force (IFOR) beginning in 1995, one can retroactively see a rebound in Canadian Armed Forces’ self-confidence, military effectiveness and public support.

IFOR and its successor, the NATO Stabilization Force (SFOR), along with American and NATO operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, provided valuable operational experience for a whole new generation of military leaders, including two of Canada’s most important Chiefs of Defence Staff since Charles Foulkes – Generals Rick Hillier and Walt Natynczyk. Along with Vice-Admiral Bruce Donaldson as Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff; Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie as Canadian Army Commander and Assistant Deputy Minister Materiel Dan Ross (a former Army Brigadier-General) in National Defence Headquarters, they led the Canadian Armed Forces into and through a decade of tough fighting in Afghanistan. With political cover and support provided by Defence Minister Peter MacKay, the Canadian Armed Forces was resurrected back into world-class fighting form, supported by bigger defence budgets and enduring public support. Alas, it didn’t last.

By 2011, political support was already drying up. Prime Minister Stephen Harper removed the entire Afghanistan issue from any further public discussion. General Hillier had already retired and General Natynczyk was well into his term as CDS. Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, who led the Army through the most difficult fighting years in Afghanistan was gone too – he was replaced by Lieutenant-General Peter Devlin, who was equally talented but more operationally experienced, yet had a new mandate to wind down combat deployments. The media abandoned the battlefield too. More hot air and ink were expended on aircraft, ships and trucks not being bought than on continuing operational exploits abroad.

Stepping back a bit to get a broader view, one sees that the current transition really began when Hillier left in 2008. It gathered steam when Leslie retired in 2011, but the scope and tenor of the current transition has only become apparent with the departures of Natynczyk, Ross, Donaldson and Devlin. Minister MacKay has been moved too.

There is also a certain retro air to the transition. Natynczyk may well be the last operationally experienced CDS for some time, unless Lieutenant-General Jon Vance moves up. Natynczyk’s successor, Royal Canadian Air Force General Tom Lawson has not seen a shot fired in anger at any point during his career. His appointment signals a return by government to a less energetic senior leadership cohort.

The last rotation of Canadian troops is already on the ground in Afghanistan. The defence budget continues to shrink. Major capital projects are stalled. A more politically comfortable slate of senior commanders is in place. A less-invested Minister of Defence has been appointed. Parliament and its defence committees will remain oblivious to opportunities during this end of an era. Worse still, they will not recognize their role in looking to the future. Consequently, as the next session of parliament opens, unless members of parliament and senators suddenly have some sort of epiphany that brings sincere interest and understanding to defence deliberations, the Canadian Armed Forces will continue to embark on an uncertain journey into the next decade of whatever….

Hudson, on The Hill
© FrontLine Defence 2013 issue 4