Defence Policy Realities in Canada
Mar 15, 2014

Many in and out of government opine the need for regular Foreign and Defence policy reviews which the author agrees with, in theory, but there are some very real Canadian  constraints on Canadian defence and security policy.

The Perennial Missions
Over the last 30 or more years many Canadian governments have undertaken comprehensive Foreign and Defence Reviews (the last in 2005), but from a defence perspective the three principal defence roles (of defending Canada, defending North America in cooperation with the United States, and contributing to international peace and security) have remained essentially unchanged after each policy review.

Is this surprising? Not at all, as the primary role of a government is to protect its peoples and territory and, in Canada’s case, given the continent we share makes a role in continental defence similarly a basic tenet. Beyond these two roles is where policy choices can be made.
For both historical and financial reasons, the role of contributing to international peace and security in support of our interests is the third component of the core Canadian Defence Policy.

A Word on Resources
While Canada has a large land mass and vast air and ocean approaches, it has a small population spread across our land mass from sea to sea to sea. The reality of a small population is a finite level of Gross Domestic Product which also means that there are insufficient financial resources to do everything that any government or its population might want it to do, so there is a perennial debate about where to spend those discretionary dollars.

Why not a more robust International Defence Posture? Could Canada decide to take on a greater or more robust international security and defence policy posture? Yes, but every time this issue has been looked at, Canada has opted not to – for three fundamental reasons. The first is that most Canadians including our governments do not see this as necessary (or they see it as “unCanadian”). The second is that the full range of other government capabilities and treaties to support such a role do not exist. Third, and most importantly, there is no desire to expend the resources to make it real and sustain it because to do so would mean less funding on other government programs such as social and health programs.

The necessary discussion then, is truly less on Defence Policy and more of a debate about political/military preferences and appetites against the reality of resource constraints.

The current version of such preferences and appetites is expressed in the Canada Frist Defence Strategy (CFDS) published in 2008. The question becomes does it need an update? The answer is yes for a variety of reasons.

A Revised or New CFDS?
The original CFDS of 2008 was written at a time of a growing budget and around the concept of Afghanistan-like interventions. Much has changed since then, including the even greater complexities that arise from situations quite different from Afghanistan. These are exampled by the extensive uncertainty resulting from the “Arab Spring” including how the west dealt with Libya, the unfolding hugely complex situations in the Ukraine and in Syria, and a myriad of pressure points in Africa and Asia – all quite different than the Afghanistan situation.

Although the future is notoriously difficult to predict, interventions centered around conventional land forces seem unlikely, in the near to medium term, to be the most effective solution. This is especially true in terms of reluctance by western countries to commit human treasure to open-ended conflicts that have no globally compelling consensus to do so.

What else has changed since 2008? Clearly the global financial system is still crawling its way out of the financial meltdown, and almost all western nations including Canada are focused upon returning to balanced or surplus budgets. DND alone will have something between $2B - $4B less budgetary flexibility of which at least $2B is a direct cut and with what most believe is also an under-resourced capital program.

CFDS, as written, is neither affordable nor viable in today’s fiscal reality, particularly in the absence of a major addition or reallocation of fiscal resources. That said, a major influx of new funds is almost certainly not an option in the near term.

Thus, although a full blown Defence Policy review is not required, an alignment of appetites and preferences to available resources is certainly required to assure best assignment of the financial resources available.

Issues in updating CFDS
Less with less. As noted in a recent paper by David Perry “Doing Less with Less” (published on ipolitics), a major reduction to the defence budget must mean less in some mix of breadth and depth of institutional overhead and/or operational capabilities. Less means less, but this truism has most often been ignored because of the military presumption that what is affordable is not enough. Can this lesson be learned?

Strategic alignment. For any CFDS update to be successful and provide the best output, it must be strategic and be driven by a common vision that is agreed to and pro-actively supported by Government and the complete leadership of the Canadian Armed Forces. These characteristics have often been missing. Can they be achieved today?

Shaving the Ice Cube. In previous cases where resources have been reduced, too often in the absence of a common vision and commitment, the answer has been arbitrary shaving of the existing capability ice cube. It will be essential to avoid this approach because it is generally an abysmal failure to resolve issues and unintentionally, negatively impact capabilities without analysis.

Defence Procurement. A final major issue is that in the absence of an efficient and effective procurement process, any new or revised CFDS will be doomed to failure. The jury has yet to judge whether the recent Defence Procurement Strategy will deliver.

Looking for Answers
A number of probing questions should be asked and answered before updating the CFDS. For instance: Has DND/CAF really looked hard enough at its institutional overhead? Can it really do this itself or should an approach similar to a recent UK initiative be considered?

How much asymmetry should be considered in the context of a G8 nation? Radical asymmetry is like niche capabilities, it is great if you get it right but condemns you to irrelevance if you get it wrong. What level of deployable and deployable leadership appetites are affordable and do they need to be symmetric?

How does one develop an agreed, coherent, supported and realistic joint operating model within the CAF? Should the joint enablers be assigned among the Environmental Force Generators? What are the potential forcing functions to make joint real and to enhance output?

Should Canada re-think capabilities like the role of its Reserve forces, the Standing Contingency Task Force? What level of Special Operations should be maintained? Who generates Special Operations Forces? What, if any strategic capabilities should Canada have?

This list is far from complete but gives a sense of type of the important questions that should be asked, and objectively answered.

I believe that the four key challenges to getting a revised CFDS right will be: realistic costing; resolving competing military appetites; political commitment; and most importantly, ensuring that political decision makers truly understand and accept the political/operational ramifications of what are very complex issues – not only within our own borders but also in consideration of our international and humanitarian ­obligations.
Vice Admiral (ret) Ron Buck served as Vice Chief of the Defence Staff (2001 -2006).
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