Let's Get Serious
© 2013 FrontLine Defence (Vol 10, No 6)

In an earlier muse, I suggested that parliamentarians would accomplish little in the early months of the new parliamentary session that began on 16 October 2013. Sigh. Such a prognostication was no more difficult than shooting fish in a barrel.

As I pen this, the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence has 15 sitting days before the Christmas break, which is scheduled to begin on 13 December 2013. The Committee has completed five meetings since the beginning of the session, two of which were held in-camera. Two more are planned, but they are devoted to pursuing further study of the care of ill and injured military personnel. This work will be irrelevant because the Committee is biased toward hearing only from soldiers with an axe to grind. They do not consult the large number of ill or injured soldiers who are getting more than adequate help from the Canadian Armed Forces or Veterans Affairs Canada. The Committee’s research habits are largely intellectually fraudulent. As for the Senate, 20 sitting days remain before Senators rise for the Christmas break, which begins 20 December 2013. The Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence has met twice since the beginning of the session and has planned one further meeting to follow-up on their report on the Reserves – another effort that will neither plow new ground nor meet any threshold of relevance in the real world.

So, parliamentary interest in national defence issues continues to mope along, with no real energy, no innovation and no real desire to do anything meaningful. This is not only a dreadful situation, there is something scary going on here too.

There is a close-hold, in-house, back room review of the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS) going on that, largely unknown to Canadians, will involve two significant debates. First it must figure out how to cut billions of dollars from the defence budget to feed the government’s deficit-balancing obsession. Second, determined and hopefully imaginative discussions will be required to address what the Canadian Armed Forces will do in the future and how they will be structured, equipped and prepared to do it.

There are three things to worry about here. First, that such important deliberations are happening in private is yet another indication that the government not only doesn’t ‘like’ average Canadians, they do not think the public can be trusted to generate new and helpful ideas about how their (the people’s) military forces ought to be built and run in the future.

Second, the chronic inability of parliamentary defence committees to address truly important strategic issues and produce comprehensive and balanced reports that might actually be of use to government is disheartening and aggravating. Committee members of all political stripes apparently cannot see further than the next election. They simply are not earning their wages.

Third, by not encouraging wide public consultation, government runs the risk, perhaps intentional, of allowing pathological ideology to enjoy more influence than it deserves. One shudders at the thought of that junior school known as the Prime Minister’s Office having their ethically-challenged fingers in this pie. Conversely, such in-house deliberations will likely result, as they have in the past, in no new, innovative ideas.

The record is clear in this regard. Most defence budget reduction exercises in the recent past have simply produced efforts to ‘shave the ice cube’ – forcing everyone to give something, without changing anything.

General Tom Lawson recently revealed that military personnel cuts might be required to meet budget reduction targets. Quel surprise! We’ve all seen this movie before. As time goes on, Stephen Harper looks more and more like Jean Chretien.

Beginning in 2014, parliamentary defence committees must take a more determined and mature approach to addressing future-oriented strategic defence issues. They should take a hard look at the CFDS (which is really an industrial shopping list, having neither a ‘Canada first’ ­orientation nor true ‘defence strategy’ content). The CFDS simply outlines activities to be undertaken by the Canadian Armed Forces. It does not provide strategic objectives. Yes, there is to be military patrol activity in the Arctic – but to do what, and to what standard? It’s time for these committees to critically examine true strategic options for the future role and missions of the Canadian Armed Forces (and consult Canadians in the process).

Deliberations on optional budget reductions must examine some sacred cows that have escaped scrutiny, largely because of ignorance, apathy or cowardice. They must go beyond shaving the ice cube. Consider these gutsy ideas when cutting the defence budget:
Significantly reduce or eliminate the NDHQ public affairs staff (they add no value to the defence product). Instead, grow the defence intelligence establishment (which does add value to the defence product) which is currently falling far short of the numbers required.

Keep professional military journals but eliminate most internal DND “magazines” (which are simply propaganda tools used to promote “approved messaging” to DND/CF members and to keep “communications” staff occupied).

Make the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) a serious ‘blue-water’ navy. Focus on advancing the acquisition of new frigates, joint supply ships and maritime helicopters. Jettison distracting RCN responsibilities within territorial littoral waters, and transfer them to the Canadian Coast Guard and Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Provincial authorities can play roles here too.

Eliminate the Skyhawks Parachute Team and the Snowbirds Demonstration Team or transfer the funding responsibility to Heritage Canada. Originally recruiting tools, they are now very popular tourism events with no military value-added. There is no business case for the military.
Aggressively address the costly overhead in the Reserves. Eliminate bloated Reserve headquarters at unit level and amalgamate sub-units into strong battalion/ regimental units. Don’t be afraid to remove regiments from the reserve order of battle. History and the ‘regimental spirit’ make for good esprit de corps, but they are not rational mandatory force development requirements.

Transfer the Search and Rescue function (which is not a core military function) out of the National Defence portfolio and have it taken up by civilian authorities at the federal and provincial levels. If the Canadian Coast Guard can operate as part of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, why can’t the National Search and Rescue Secretariat operate under Public Safety?
Close and sell off small military bases and privatize the management of defence land holdings. CFB Goose Bay and London should be closed down entirely, or turned over to provincial authorities. There is already a government plan to privatize the management of DND real estate holdings in the works – it should move forward quickly with no additional cost impact for the Canadian Armed Forces.

Have all English-French translations funded by Heritage Canada. Why must everything be printed twice? Military operations should not have to pay for politically correct language exercises.

Buy fewer F-35 fighter aircraft. For the cost of one fighter aircraft, we could have another good infantry battalion.
Gutsy? Or simply changes whose time has come?

Hudson, on The Hill
©FrontLine Defence 2013